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What is Amateur Radio Emergency Service?

In the United States and Canada, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is a corps of trained amateur radio operator volunteers organized to assist in public service and emergency communications. It is organized and sponsored by the American Radio Relay League and the Radio Amateurs of Canada.

Historical operations

Amateur radio operators belonging to ARES (and its predecessor, the Amateur Radio Emergency Corps [AREC]) have responded to local and regional disasters since the 1930s, including the attacks of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina. Amateur radio provides a means of communication when all others fail; for example, after Katrina Hancock County, Mississippi had lost all contact with the outside world, except through ARES operators who served as 911 dispatchers and message relayers (ARRL article). ARES has deployed for a variety of other emergencies and disasters, including the 2003 North America blackout, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, and the Kelowna/Okanagan wildfire of 2003 in British Columbia, Canada.

Organizational structure

ARES groups are volunteer amateur radio operators who come together for the common purpose of providing emergency and/or auxiliary communications service to public safety and public service organizations. Most individual ARES units are autonomous and operate locally. Although the Amateur Radio Emergency Service is program (and trademark) of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the structure is more supportive than directive in nature, providing mostly for mutual aid in the event of large-scale emergencies. As long as local units are operating in the best interests of Amateur Radio in general and the ARRL in particular, intervention from the national organization is minimal.

ARES groups are generally organized by city or county and are made up of volunteers from the local area. The only requirements to join ARES are a willingness to serve and a valid amateur radio license.

Groups are organized locally by the person holding the position of Emergency Coordinator (EC). The EC maintains full responsibility for organizing the local groups and serving as their leader during operations. The EC is an ARRL or RAC member, and is generally the point of contact for those wishing to perform Emergency Communications in their local area. He/She may appoint one or several AECs (Assistant Emergency Coordinator) to oversee certain geographical areas, or he/she may appoint by function such as the SKYWARN severe weather spotting network, Net Managing, Training Direction, or Public Information, or maybe a mix of the above (i.e. whatever works locally). Some members may be appointed as Official Emergency Stations and are trained to serve specific duties such as being a net controller during emergencies.

The next higher level of coordination is the optional District Emergency Coordinator (DEC). This person coordinates the operation of several local county or city ARES groups and reports to the Section Emergency Coordinator in those sections where the span of control would be too large.

Leading the structure is the Section Emergency Coordinator, or SEC. This person is appointed by the elected Section Manager and is responsible for emergency communications in his/her section. In the U.S., a Section is one of 71 geographic administrative areas of the ARRL. It is either a state (or province in Canada), or in more densely populated areas of the U.S., a portion of a state.

ARES in the U.S. has Memorandums of Understanding with organizations including the American Red Cross, National Weather Service, Department of Homeland Security, Citizen Corps, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, National Communications System, National Association of Radio and Telecommunications Engineers Inc., Salvation Army, Society of Broadcast Engineers, Quarter Century Wireless Association Inc., and REACT International Inc.

Mutual assistance

Often these memorandums illustrate a common and united sense of purpose between ARES and another organization. However, Memorandums of Understanding with the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service, the Salvation Army and others lay out the general guidelines for organization and coordination between agencies in times of emergency.

ARES of the Radio Amateurs of Canada have MOUs with the Canadian Red Cross Society and PERCS, the British Columbia Provincial Emergency Radio Communication Service.

Frequently, members of local ARES groups in the U.S. are registered with local government Emergency Management agencies to permit operations under the RACES rules, if ever needed. This allows continuation of operation during times of declared emergency when normal amateur operations might be prohibited. Today, ARES has operators and officials at local, county, and state levels, and most potential RACES operations are generally integrated within ARES organizations.

Alternative groups

A few Amateur Radio emergency communications groups have decided, for one reason or another, not to affiliate with the ARRL or RAC. However, their essential purpose remains the same, and in times of need, they often work side-by-side with ARES groups. Radio clubs independent of the ARRL, RAC and ARES also participate in emergency communications activities in some areas.

Many ARES operators are also part of storm spotter networks, e.g., SKYWARN (a program organized by the U.S. National Weather Service) and CANWARN (coordinated by Environment Canada).

In many cases, the ARES Emergency Coordinator for a county coordinates all local Emergency Communication (EmComm) organization and training.

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