Saturday, February 18, 2017

ARES: All dressed up with no place to go?

Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 -- I'm taking a big gamble that may invoke the wrath of the ARRL pug-uglies, equipped with the wouff-hong and sharpened rettysnitches, who want to discipline me for my blasphemous statements I'm about to make.

In short, the usefulness of the ARRL's ARES program has outlived its usefulness. This conclusion isn't new, as most people in ARRL leadership already know it. Its like the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" ... everyone believes licensed Amateurs are critically useful in emergencies by default because of their communications abilities. Just keep telling yourself, "hams in Emcomm are useful," over and over.

The truth is there was indeed a time when that statement was fact -- that was in the days before everyone carried a cell phone and we had multiple ways of communicating long distances when the conventional methods failed -- and fail they did from time to time. But if you look at the state of communications among the list of "served agencies" usually identified by ARES, they generally have excellent and reliable communications.

Another problem that no one in ARRL leadership (national or state) wants to really talk about publicly is that as Amateur Radio has grown, there are a greater number of whackers who have been licensed. As a former Section Manager, one of the biggest problems I had was dealing with Emcomm whackers. You learn to see the clues when they talk to you about the ARES program. For example, if they start getting excited about getting appointments, training or certificates, there's excellent odds he or she is a whacker (probably "he" as I've never met a female emcomm whacker). If they have multiple HTs on their belt; if they spit out their "resume" of who they allegedly "know" in state emcomm.

Most effective volunteers don't brag about who they know, what they've done, or the equipment they own. They just want to use their skills to serve their communities if needed.

As technology has advanced, so have the communication abilities of first-responders. The truth is that unless a hurricane or other disaster wipes out every communication method, Amateur Radio just is not needed.

Another aspect of whackers is the "I'm a licensed amateur and I'm here to save you" attitude. I can't count the number of first-responders who were put-off by whacker-type ARES volunteers. The worst whackers get into leadership positions, and ultimately piss off served agencies and drive away the valuable volunteers.

I had a District Emergency Coordinator who volunteered to take on the job (there was a history of significant conflict between a local emcomm official and the county EC; as a result, ARES struggled. As SM, I worked closely with the SEC and his assistant, both of whom were super guys and identifying whackers was always a topic of discussion. How to deal with them once they were appointed was a pain in the ass, because invariably some would fly under your radar.

Anyway, this DEC immediately started firing off emails on the state ARES listserv, making demands of the ARES volunteers in the district. His first email informed the hams in his district that "unless I appoint you, you're no longer wanted as a volunteer." It went downhill from there. He made it clear that the district's volunteers had been a shiftless, lazy and useless group, and he was there to lead them to glory -- but only if they met his requirements. I had complaints from this guy from Day 1, as you might expect.

I tried to talk with him informally, suggesting that he soften the tone of his emails, and that he exhibit some understanding that he needs to encourage the volunteers, not bitch them out.

His appointment lasted about 9 weeks; I wrote him two more emails, the last one was very direct. By that time he had driven away several long-term ham emcomm volunteers and a long-running ARES net was disbanding after he said it was "unsanctioned and improper" without his blessing. I wasn't threatening in my last email, but made it clear he had to quit being so abrasive. He responded with an email whose length would have put the Unabomber's manifesto to shame, ending with his resignation. Of course, I didn't know what I was talking about, I just wanted him to coddle volunteers, he claimed.

His next mission was to try to start a competing emergency amateur radio group, which went nowhere.

Need another whacker story? I got a million of them.

Another DEC who initially started out well eventually showed his true colors. He was lots of talk, but he sold himself well, even if he appeared a little whackerish, we were willing to give him a chance (he was taking over a DEC position that had been vacant for quite a while).

Reports we were getting from volunteers were all over the place. Some loved him, some hated him. But our whacker detectors went full-scale when we heard that he had walked away from a hospital group who wanted to have volunteers to help with communications if all else failed. The group had purchased radio equipment and was prepared to install it in the hospitals; all they wanted were hams to help. They also wanted to license some of their employees (or those who wanted to be licensed).

Mr. DEC did not approve of the hospital group purchasing equipment, having it installed or encouraging any employees to get licensed. He told them good luck and walked away from them. He said that if he couldn't have a leadership role in their radio program, he wanted no part of it. To recap, an ARES DEC left a served agency in a lurch who was ASKING for ARES assistance and volunteers -- and he was proud that he did so.

This came to a head at a state conference that included the state emcomm agency. The SEC and I wanted Mr. DEC to go back to the group and offer to help them. Some of the district's volunteers wanted to help, even if Mr. DEC didn't approve. At the conference, Mr. DEC became so irate with the main volunteer who wanted to help the hospitals, he rescinded his EC appointment.

Mr. X-EC came to us, just beside himself over Mr. DEC's short-sightedness. We agreed. We told Mr. X-EC we would take care of it. In a quick review of what was going on in that district (it was where the conference we were attending was located) Mr. DEC had surrounded himself with whacker supporters who blew smoke about all the "work" they were doing. It was mostly bunk. We (the SEC and I) caught up with Mr. DEC and rescinded his ARRL ARES appointments. He was none too happy; he stormed off, and his posse resigned. The big issue we had to work with now was getting the hospital group some willing volunteers. Mr. X-EC volunteered to deal with the hospitals, but did not want to return as EC. He had enough volunteerism going on at that point. He was our unofficial EC for the next few years, he was so involved he provided us better intel than anyone else.

ARES EFFECTIVENESS. For those of you who have never been part of ARES, in most states it is organized from the grassroots up. Local volunteers step up and lead their local ARES group. Most groups are led by folks who take the post only to help keep the organization active. The only time there was competition for the county EC level appointment was when competing whackers applied. After making some really stupid EC appointments, I learned that the best thing to do was to see who the local hams recommended. We had contacts in the state emergency management office, and more often than not, the local EM director knew the hams he thought would be effective. One of our unofficial requirements for the EC appointment was that the county EM director had to approve. If the EC can't get along with the EM director, ARES pretty much doesn't have a seat at the emergency operations table. That assumes of course that the EM director believes the volunteers in his county thought the hams had value as volunteers.

We had many counties where a (usually!) well-meaning EC pissed the wrong person off, and in those cases, the "ARES" acronym is an unwelcome one. No group of local first-responders want any part of those ARES whackers. That happened in my county. The then-EC pissed off the EMS director and EMA director, demanding their cooperation in an inventory of their communications capabilities. They complained to elected heads of government, and basically anything with "ARES" on it was banned from a role in emergency work. The ARES group in my county basically dropped the name, but we continued to volunteer for the next dozen years.

Due to the FCC's narrowbanding mandate, the entire communications infrastructure was upgraded and expanding. Since that was completed a dozen years ago, there's been no need to ask hams to respond to assist with communications. Our only responses have been to help the American Red Cross shelters-to-EM director link. And there's been precious little of that.

Due to the localized nature of ARES, who each group serves and how they do that is in local control. On the state level, we encouraged working with the EM director, but that depended largely on the relationship (if any) between the director and local hams. The effectiveness of each ARES group varied of course, and that's understood. The nature of ARES is that on the state level, our leadership was more to help the groups in the field any way we could. We didn't issue edicts; telling them they have meet XYZ training requirements was a battle we would never win. We made recommendations for training standards, but left managing that to the local EC. We mostly encouraged volunteers to train to meet local requirements. Most EM directors weren't sticklers for training. Any ham radio volunteers weren't going to be sitting in an EOC; they would out in the field somewhere.

The debate over training continues to rage, however. If we had made the training mandatory, we would have lost 60 percent of our volunteers. ARES programs have done the mandatory training edicts in other states, and they lost more than half of the volunteers. Generally, they say a trained volunteer is more useful than an untrained one. That's true to an extent, but when you lose so many volunteers, you diminish the individual group in way that's not so obvious.

Joe Ham, Ima Qrmer and and S.W. Arr are longtime ham radio friends. They're members of the same club, and hangout on the same nets. Joe is told about the local ARES group and asked to volunteer. Ira and S.W. aren't that enthusiastic about being part of any group that would have them as members, but since Joe is going in, why to join too? It'll be fun and we'll have our friendship there.

After a couple years of involvement, a new, overenthusiastic EC takes over leadership, and he demands everyone take all of the FEMA classes, weather spotter training, CPR, blah, blah blah training -- and makes it a requirement to continued ARES participation.

Joe Ham is put off by the new EC's rules and decides to withdraw. Ima and SW are not going to hang around if their friend-in-common leaves. Without their buddy, they depart. All three also complain loudly about the new EC, poisoning ARES' popularity with the ham community.

The best case of whackerism I faced in my years as an ARRL Section Manager was very early in my tenure, my new SEC appointed a new DEC. This particular DEC was 110 percent whacker material, and showed it the first week. I wanted to give him a chance, me being new and all. His downfall was when he went to war against the local ham club, which prided itself on volunteerism in the community, years of it. The DEC insisted the club do is volunteer work under the ARES umbrella (which they never had done before). He went to a club meeting and attempted to badger them into it; you can imagine his reception. He came to me asking me to intervene; I agreed to investigate but promised nothing. My investigation opened my eyes as to the damage this guy had done; there was a hamfest the next weekend, so the SEC and I met with this DEC. We tried to talk with him; he got pissed and immediately resigned his appointments. I'm lucky like that I guess.

Oh, the story continues. One of his former appointments was of PIO (public information officer). During a bad snow the following winter, he started issuing press releases to regional media detailing the "work" he and his friends were doing to help the counties in the district. Basically they all had 4 wheel drives, and they drove to each county and screwed around under the guise of looking for stranded motorists who needed assistance. They helped no one, of course, but got a dandy road trip out of it. He put it on official ARRL letterhead and signed as an ARRL PIO. After all the shit this guy gave me, I sent him a letter asking him to cease and desist issuing press releases on ARRL letterhead, reminding him that he resigned his appointments, including PIO.

He told me he would have me "fired" as Section Manager. He wrote blistering letters to the ARRL executive board as well as every division director complaining about me. He taunted me in emails, telling me how much he looked forward to my being fired as SM. I got a em email copy of the letter the League sent in response that restated the policy regarding field appointments -- those are at the discretion of the Section Manager.

Needless to say, he was unhappy, and continued to bitch about ARES to every living soul he could corner.

Three  years later, I'm at a hamfest and run into this guy. He was nearly apologetic for the shit slinging he directed at me, and he noticed the DEC appointment in his district was open again and would I consider appointing him to that position?

How do I say this .... No. No! Hell no!

He told me that he had to better than having NO ONE in that appointment. I didn't say so, but yes, I preferred no one to him.

MOVING FORWARD? I hate to say this, but too many ARES volunteers want the badge, the title, and to be able to brag of their importance in times of emergency. Thank heavens some of them walk the walk.

During my terms as Section Manager, I spent most of my time on ARES. Its the ARRL's most important program because it helps establish our "value" to national security and to keep our valuable frequency spectrum.

If I ever serve as SM again, I will not push ARES; it will exist, but only if the volunteers wish to call themselves ARES. I would never give it the attention I did. I would likely focus more on recruiting new hams and finding new ways to make ham radio relevant.

I have this fantasy as well to win a term as a director ... if elected I would shake the shit out of the Ivory Towers at ARRL and work to make the board meetings accessible and understandable. The minutes today are a patchwork of statements without explanation -- and deliberately written that way.

That reminds me ... .at the board's last meeting they apparently discussed changing the rules in order to greater penalize directors who make speak out against the board or a member. I would probably win the award for the ARRL director with the shortest tenure, hi hi.

I pushed the ARES program relentlessly, and I'm sure I encouraged ARES groups to form in areas that had no mission or purpose for ARES. Doing it over, I would have only encouarge ARES where the volunteers existed and in areas where a need was defined.

Live and learn.