Can You Hear Me? Communications, When All Else Fails

State: OK Type: Neither Year: 2015

Oklahoma City-County Health Department (OCCHD) is located in central Oklahoma and serves a population of over 700,000 residents. Since the tragic events of 9/11, OCCHD has filled a vital role in the community as a first responder for public health related events, including biological, chemical, radiological, and other natural and man-made disasters. As a first responder organization, reliable communications is vital to our success. Incident Command must, without exception, be able to communicate with staff in the field, Emergency Management, EMS and other first responder agencies. As is evident in virtually every emergency response, particularly in the early hours, the primary issue impacting the effectiveness and efficiency of the responders is communications, more specifically "issues" related to communications. Communications, rather issues surrounding reliable communications, therefore, is the subject of this practice. The goal of this practice is simply to improve the likelihood that reliable communications is available to the first responders, with the specific objectives of expanding and enhancing the cadre of operators within an agency. While there are many different modes of communications available to first responders, this practice addresses only one, Amateur Radio, concentrating on recruiting, training, licensure, and operational readiness for a cadre of reliable operators that can be utilized during an event or incident. Amateur Radio has been in use by public health and other first responder agencies for several years, but in virtually every case developing a reliable force of operators has proven difficult. This practice presents a proven method of doing just that. The practice presented in this application can be broken down into four unique components, recruiting, training, licensure, and operational readiness. All stages are necessary and work together to improve the likelihood of success. Recruiting for this pilot project was done through many different avenues and is described in detail later in the application.   During the past year, several training opportunities were offered to entice those interested in enhancing their agency's communications options and to educate them on the capabilities, techniques and procedures for becoming licensed in the Amateur Radio Service. Training opportunities included the facilitation of three Webinars covering the basics of Amateur Radio, radio theory, licensure and operating practices. Instructors included staff from the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, Southwest Utah Public Health Department, Monroe County (NY) Department of Health, Cobb County (GA) Amateur Radio Emergency Service, and NACCHO. Licensure in the Amateur Radio Service, which to some may seem a bit daunting, is relatively painless if an individual spends a few hours preparing for the FCC exam, and is within the reach of anyone. While much of the training facilitated as a part of this practice was directed toward licensure, the primary sessions covering licensure exam subject matter were the Webinars and the Ham-Cram session during the Summit. Many of the same instructors mentioned above facilitated the FCC exam session which occurred the day following the Ham-Cram session.  Licensure is only the beginning. Once licensed, an individual then needs to learn the fine art of operating. To expose those interested, the instructors utilized several different media sources to entice, inform and excite them. Several articles and announcements were published leading up to the Summit in NACCHO newsletters, in QST Magazine, in CQ Magazine, and online. A live Pod Cast was taped in the Exhibit Hall during the Summit and is posted online. And, several operating consoles were set up in the exhibit hall to give real time hands-on opportunities to anyone who wanted to experience the excitement of Amateur Radio for themselves. Several on-air contacts were made during the live operating sessions. Unfortunately, a license does not a communicator make. The success of the practice described in this application is dependent upon sustainability -- both during the capability-development stages and thereafter. Sustainability during the capability-development stages was accomplished through periodic and continuous activities beginning four months prior to the Summit and culminating at the Summit. Sustainability thereafter is accomplished through a subsequent, but related, project currently under development. The overarching goal for this project was to establish and test a viable model that could be used by local health departments of any size or locality for the training and licensure of Amateur Radio operators to expand and enhance their respective communications capabilities. This goal was met as will be shown in the "Evaluation" section of this application. The primary objectives of this practice included developing and facilitating suitable recruiting, training, licensure and operating modules for interested individuals and agencies. Secondary objectives included identifying sustainability and collaboration opportunities. All objectives were met.  
As stated earlier in this application, poor tactical communications has consistently been cited as the number one issue in after-action reports following virtually every emergency response over the past several decades. While tactical communications is not a new topic and while innovative procedures have been offered in the past to build communications capabilities, this practice, even though it has similar goals, is unique in its approach. What makes this practice unique is the four-stage multifaceted approach to recruiting, training, licensure and operating relative to tactical communications and the participation of multiple agencies and individuals, multiple venues and multiple media outlets for facilitation of the practice. The target population for this practice is the entire jurisdiction of a public health agency, which in our case is the 700,000 residents of Oklahoma County. By providing reliable communications to our agency's responders, we assure a better outcome for all residents. The practice described herein, while not specific to public health, has certainly proven to be a critical component of any public health emergency response to a natural or man-made disaster. All such responses must include reliable communications or a positive outcome is uncertain. Each of the four components of the practice is evidence-based. Recruiting is accomplished through direct contact with potential communicators and agencies through announcements and articles in Public Health trade journals, i.e. NACCHO Connect and NACCHO's News from Washington, through communications trade journals, i.e. QST and CQ Magazines, and through the use of social media including Twitter and Facebook. The training components used throughout this practice are tried-and-true and include online Webinars featuring certified training tools and experienced communicators. Licensure is accomplished through the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) authorized Volunteer Examiner Program developed in the 1980s. Examiners are certified and utilize examination materials approved by FCC-certified exam coordinators. And, operating practices and protocols are compliant with FCC Part 97 rules and regulations
The goal and objectives of this practice are the expansion and enhancement of a public health agency's tactical communications capabilities. Many different processes has been attempted though the years to accomplish similar goals but most have been too limited to meet the needs of the agencies, too costly, or too fragmented to be replicated in other organizations. The practice described herein is designed to take a participant from nothing to full licensure and operating experience. It is a model that can be replicated in any community and within any organization. While this pilot utilizes the Preparedness Summit as a primary venue, any setting can be used as the focal point for the process.           The practice described herein contains several elements related to the four components described previously -- recruiting, training, licensure and operating. Below you will find a detailed explanation of each component. Recruiting: Recruiting was accomplished through multiple venues and medias formats including NACCHO publications (NACCHO Connect, NACCHO Preparedness Newsletter and NACCHO News), NACCHO's website, communications trade journals (QST Magazine and CQ Magazine), and communications-related websites (American Radio Relay League (ARRL),, and others). Widespread exposure occurred as a result of the use of the FCC-assigned call sign, N4P. Additionally, recruiting was accomplished in concert with the facilitation of the three Webinars and through word-of-mouth by participants of the Webinars.  Training: Several opportunities for training were incorporated into this project, including the facilitation of three Webinars in January and February using certified training materials and instructors. The Webinars covered basic electronics, radio theory, FCC regulations and Amateur Radio operating practices. Participants of the Webinars were encouraged to continue their learning through resources offered or suggested during the online presentations. A concentrated FCC exam preparation session (Ham-Cram) was also offered during the Summit. To view the PowerPoint presentations (in PDF format) of the three Webinars, please click the below links: Webinar 1: Introduction to Amateur Radio and Preparing for the Examination Webinar 2: Amateur Radio Safety, FCC Rules, Antennas, Station Setup and Operations Webinar 3: Frequencies, Operating Practices, Public Service Communications   Licensure: On the day following the Ham-Cram session, FCC exams were offered at the Summit for anyone who was interested in becoming licensed as an Amateur Radio operator or upgrading their existing license.   Operating: A license does not an effective operator make. In other words, even though this practice incorporated the necessary training and examinations to produce a licensed cadre of communicators, the effectiveness of those communicators is not guaranteed by the process. Once licensed, it is imperative that the new operators seek out opportunities to practice their newly acquired skills. To kick-start that process, we offered live demonstrations of Amateur Radio equipment in the Exhibit Hall throughout the conference, including hands-on opportunities for anyone interested in using several modes (voice and data) and on several bands (HF, VHF and UHF). A Special Event (ARRL-sponsored operating event) was also facilitated during the Summit with participation by the Exhibit Hall based stations, mobile equipment and remote operation via an iPhone in the hotel lobby. The Special Event, using the FCC-assigned callsign N4P, was successful in completing many contacts with Amateur Radio stations across the country.  Criteria for selecting participants is a willingness to learn. Training, licensure and operating experience will be provided as a function of the practice components.  Timeframe for this pilot practice was four months, but it can be extended or reduced, as needed. The Webinars occurred in January and February with all other components occurring during the Preparedness Summit in April.   Costs of the practice are minimal with most of the resources required being staff time for preparing and presenting training, administering FCC exams and providing hands-on operating opportunities for participants. Depending on an agency's existing capabilities, some costs may be incurred to facilitate Webinar sessions.
While the scope of this pilot practice was limited to a small number of participants, it was sufficient to test the hypothesis that the practice would result in expansion and enhancement of the cadre of tactical communicators within an organization. It is important to note, however, that the number of participants in similar projects going forward is limited only by the interests of the facilitators of the practice. As you know, Webinars, the primary training component of this practice, can support hundreds of participants, if not thousands. The training materials and instructors will not change unless interest requires a significant expansion of the number of sessions offered. Our experience during this project was exciting with 30-40 participants attending the three Webinars. If an organization prefers to keep their project "local" they can do so as dictated by their outreach and recruitment efforts. If a regional or national level project is envisioned by the organizers, this model is scalable to fill the needs. The Ham-Cram session had approximately 40 individuals in attendance, with a high level of participation among the group. The session lasted about 90 minutes. The Learning Session that occurred on the day prior to the Ham-Cram session was designed to complement the training and provide additional information and resources to participants interested in implementing or expanding the communications capabilities in their respective organizations. Attendance at the Learning Session was approximately 80 individuals. The Amateur Radio live demonstrations in the Exhibit Hall, while difficult to quantify, generated considerable interest among Exhibit Hall attendees. Conference attendees were able to view licensed operators making actual contacts with other operators around the nation and were able to "try there hand" at making contacts, if they were so inclined. The Special Event, using callsign N4P, accounted for many actual contacts around the country including those made in voice and data modes and utilizing HF, VHF, and UHF bands. Several contacts were made with a relatively new mode of communications for Amateur Radio, involving remote operation of an Amateur Radio station located in Oklahoma via an iPhone from the hotel lobby at the Summit. The real test of the success of this practice is the attainment of the aforementioned goal of expanding and enhancing the cadre of communicators within an organization. From an evaluation standpoint, numbers speak volumes and ultimately lead to "evidence-based" discussions. Of the examinees that attended the FCC examination session, six passed their respective exam and were awarded their Amateur Radio license or upgraded to a higher class license. Consequently, the organizations from which those six individuals came expanded their cadre of communicators as a direct result of this project. Considering the limited scope of this project, we believe that that's a respectable number. Since this pilot project was designed with NACCHO members as the primary audience, NACCHO membership (the organization for this pilot) expanded their communicator ranks by six individuals. What's really remarkable about that number is that the expansion was of "licensed" operators not just "trained" individuals. There is a significant difference.  
Sustainability of this practice is made simple by the replicability of the components described herein. Any organization in any community and in any organization can use the techniques described throughout this document to accomplish similar goals. The training is easily replicated from any locale via the Internet. Many organizations already have web conferencing or web meeting capabilities and can facilitate Webinars. The training materials are readily available for no cost. Venues to facilitate the Ham-Cram session, FCC exam sessions and operating events are numerous, and in many cases are already scheduled by local Amateur Radio clubs. And, continued training and operating opportunities can be found on the Internet for most locations. A related, but unique, form of sustainability bares mentioning here. The facilitators of this practice are in the process of creating a national organization of Amateur Radio Operators in Public Health. The organization hopes to offer online training opportunities, on-air meetings (nets), and in-person sessions and meetings at public health and preparedness conferences. The organization is in its early stages of development and will likely be submitted for Model Practice consideration in the future. 
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