It has been said that Amateur Radio is "outdated", and "a method of communications past its prime". It has been said that Amateur Radio and especially CW are "dead" and "obsolete". What is truly surprising and troubling is that these opinions are held by a large number of Amateur Radio operators! If you don't believe me, then go read the garbage that pops up on eHam and you can see for yourself.
I've always held that those opinions are balderdash, hooey and worse. Amateur Radio is a unique, fail safe backup communications network for this country as well as the entire world. And it pays to get involved in emergency communications and third party traffic (message) handling. Knowing how to originate a formal priority message for help can save lives, maybe even your own.
The following is a post that appeared on QRP-L today, written by Bruce Prior N7RR. I have Bruce's permission to repost it here. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how things are done from the Amateur Radio side of things. We do as much as we can; sometimes the rest is out of our hands.
A Miscommunication Story - Bruce Prior N7RR
Late in the afternoon of Saturday, August 5, 2006, my wife Margaret and I were hiking up the connector trail to the Snowy Lakes from the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in Okanogan National Forest north of Rainy Pass on Washington State Route 20. We met two women with their backpacking gear descending from Upper Snowy Lake. One of the women, Jill Youde of Anacortes, spotting the handitalkie hanging from my backpack strap, asked if I could get a message out by radio. I said I could, if it were necessary. Jill said that she and another friend had heard a cry for help from a ridge west of Methow [pronounced MET-HOW] Pass that afternoon. I asked for more details and then I asked whether they had a GPS receiver. When Jill said she didn't, I lent her mine and asked her to return to the site where they had heard the man's voice and whistling to record the exact location. We agreed to meet at Methow Pass. I hiked there with my full backpack, which included my Amateur Radio gear and most of Margaret's and my food. Margaret stayed in a meadow near the Snowy Lakes trail junction to set up our tent and wait for my return. Margaret is also a radio amateur, K7MWP, and we continued to communicate on the 146.400 MHz FM voice channel until I returned from Methow Pass at dusk.
Meanwhile, Jill and her friend returned to Methow Pass from the place where they had heard the calls for help without being able to make further contact. The friend helped out by lobbing two ends of my wire radio antenna over tree branches while Jill and I composed an alert message.
I turned on my 3-watt backpack radio, a model KX1 transceiver which I had built from a kit manufactured by Elecraft of Aptos, CA. Here is the text of a message that I sent via Morse code on the Amateur Radio shortwave frequency of 3647 kHz Saturday evening:
NR 2 PRIORITY N7RR 80 METHOW PASS WA AUG 5
SKAGIT COUNTY SHERIFF
MOUNT VERNON WA
AT ABOUT 1515 AUG 5
JILL YOUDE OF SKAGIT MOUNTAIN
RESCUE HEARD A MALE VOICE
YELLING HELP REPEATEDLY X JILL
WAS ON A RIDGE APPROXIMATELY
ONE KILOMETER WEST OF METHOW
PASS X JILL RECKONS THAT
THE VOICE WAS APPROXIMATELY THREE
KILOMETERS WEST OF CUTTHROAT PASS
X JILL RECOMMENDS HELICOPTER SURVEILANCE [sic]
STARTING FROM UPPER SNOWY LAKE
WHICH IS AN EXCELLENT LANDING
SITE X JILL WILL STAY
AT SNOWY LAKES UNTIL CONTACTED
BY AUTHORITIES X CONTACT N7RR
VIA 146.400 MHZ X URGENTLY
Gil Welcker W7LG of Port Angeles, WA acknowledged his reception of the complete message just before the 8:00 p.m. PDT beginning of the Idaho Montana Net on that 3647 kHz frequency. I later learned by telephone that Gill had copied the message perfectly, except that he inserted "NUMBER" between "TELEPHONE" and "UNKNOWN" and he added "TH" after "5" on the first line of the actual message text. He even copied my misspelling of "surveillance" accurately! Gil is a retired commercial radio operator, and he was copying on a typewriter while listening to my very weak signal with earphones.
I now suspect that had I included the geocoordinate location determined by my GPS receiver, law enforcement authorities might have taken the message more seriously. Here are the GPS data collected by Jill on her second visit to the site:
10 U 0666281
10 U 0666188
GPS Elevation: 6929 feet
Gil Welcker tried to telephone the Skagit County Sheriff, but he was stymied by a telephone computer voice system that led nowhere. So, he called the Clallum County 9-1-1 communication center, where a person listened carefully to the entire message word-for-word as Gil had typed it. The message may have been recorded at that stage. Gil was told that jurisdiction had been transferred to the Okanogan County Sheriff. In fact, the cry for help came from the Swamp Creek drainage basin, which is in Skagit County. By the time the message was communicated to a Search and Rescue Deputy Sheriff in Okanogan County, it was badly distorted. That Deputy later told me that his understanding was that a woman had been calling for help via a garbled radio message. It is now evident that the message only became garbled in the process of being transferred through three county law enforcement communication centers. Aircraft were also unavailable on Sunday. The Okanogan County Deputy Sheriff who was assigned the case discounted the veracity of the message which he finally received, since he did not believe that a ham radio operator could have transmitted a message from deep within the Cascade Range to Port Angeles, a city on the Strait of Juan de Fuca across from Vancouver Island. He was unaware that radio amateurs can communicate via the ionosphere on shortwave frequencies, not requiring line-of-sight locations between the transmitter and receiver. Neither he nor any other law enforcement official re-contacted Gil Welcker. Nobody contacted me on the 146.400 MHz frequency which I continued to monitor. Therefore on Sunday, August 6, no search was launched.
About noon on Sunday, when it became evident that no helicopters were searching the area, where weather conditions were completely clear, Jill Youde departed Upper Snowy Lake with five other women backpackers. That evening, after she reached State Route 20, she contacted authorities. Only on Monday morning did the Okanogan County Sheriff Department launch a search via a helicopter supplied by the Chelan County Sheriff Department, which ferried ground searchers and conducted its own aerial reconnaissance.
I met with the Okanogan Search and Rescue Deputy Sheriff and the ground crew at the helicopter landing zone near Rainy Pass after they had finished their active searching for the day. The Deputy Sheriff decided to re-transfer responsibility for investigating the incident to the Skagit County Sheriff Department, since the search area was completely within Skagit County, although very near the boundary with Okanogan County.
On Monday evening I met with Patrol Deputy Tobin Meyer of the Skagit County Sheriff Department at the East Detachment office and gave him all of the details I knew. I recommended that military aircraft be used for thermal imaging of the Swamp Creek drainage after dark that night. Deputy Meyer followed as many leads as he could, but since no person had been reported missing in the area, he was unable to obtain cooperation from military officials and by Wednesday evening his department was forced to suspend any plans for further ground or air searching.
What happened to that man who was calling for help on Saturday afternoon? As a result of gross mishandling of a formal Amateur Radio priority message by incompatible county-based law enforcement communication systems, and because the military declined to task their aircraft for the mission, we may never know.
73, Bruce Prior N7RR
Blogger's Note: Never, ever underestimate the value of Amateur Radio - we truly are there "When All Else Fails". Bruce was ready and got the Amateur Radio side of things accomplished with Morse Code and QRP. Outmoded and outdated? Perhaps, but it was enough to get the ball rolling on this day.
73 de Larry W2LJ