Chapter Four: Operation During Disasters
The National Traffic System is dedicated to communications during disasters on behalf of ARES, as well as the daily handling of third-party traffic. When a disaster situation arises, NTS is capable of expanding its cyclic operation into complete or partial disaster operation depending entirely on the extent of the disaster situation and the extent of its effect. The normal cycles may be expanded as required by the situation, so that more traffic can be handled and so that it can be handled more rapidly. In the extreme case, the cycles can operate continuously, with required representation present in all nets continuously, with stations designed for this function replacing each other as others are dispatched to the higher or lower nets with which they make liaison.
In a situation like this, who alerts or activates NTS nets in a disaster and who determines which net or nets should be activated? ARRL Emergency Coordinators in disaster areas determine the communications needs and make decisions regarding the disposition of local communications facilities, in accordance with the need and in coordination with agencies to be served. The Section Emergency Coordinator, after conferring with the affected DECs and ECs, makes his recommendations to the Section Traffic Manager and/or NTS managers at section and/or region levels. The decision and resulting action to alert the NTS region management may be performed by any combination of these officials, depending upon the urgency of the situation.
While the EC is, in effect, the manager of ARES nets operating at local levels, and therefore makes decisions regarding their activation, managers of NTS nets at local, section, region and area levels are directly responsible for activation of their nets in a disaster situation, at the behest and on the recommendation of ARES or NTS officials at lower levels. The following "check lists" apply to officials at the levels indicated:
Figure 5, NTS alerting plan.
4.1 Section Traffic Manager, Section Net Manager Functions
- You may be contacted during a disaster situation by the SEC, to activate your section nets, whether NTS or not, either to provide section-wide contact or, in the case of NTS nets, to provide liaison with the "outside." Have some means of activating your net(s) at any time. Make it understood in your net that in the event of a disaster, net stations should monitor the net frequency. Some net stations, at locations badly needed, can be activated by telephone if phone lines are available.
- Make contact with your NTS region net managers in the event that communications connected with the disaster transcend section boundaries, recommending extraordinary activation of the region net. You should have some prearranged method of contact for this purpose.
- Designate net stations to conduct liaison with the NTS region net, either through another section net or direct. This is your responsibility, not that of the region net manager.
4.2 Region Net Manager Functions
- Any one of the section officials in your region or another NTS region may contact you should a disaster situation develop. Try to predict such contact on the basis of circumstances and be available to receive their recommendation.
- Make contact with your NTS area net manager in the event that communications connected with the disaster transcend region boundaries, recommending extraordinary activation of the area NTS net. Have some prearranged method of contact for this purpose.
- It is your responsibility to see that the region is represented in any extraordinary session of the area net, in addition, of course, to all regular sessions.
4.3 Area Net Manager Functions
There are only two area net manager appointees for each area, but their function during and after disasters is of paramount importance.
- Maintain a high sensitivity to disasters in your area which extend or may extend beyond region boundaries. When one does, take the initiative to alert the region net manager involved to determine if extraordinary NTS operation is indicated.
- In the event high precedence inter-area traffic is involved, contact the two TCC directors in your area to assist in making arrangements to clear the traffic to other areas.
- Contact other NTS area net managers to confer on possibilities of their having extra net sessions if deemed required to handle the traffic reaching them through NTS inter-area handling. Under some circumstances, direct representation or "hot lines" may be indicated.
- Maintain close contact with all region net managers in your area and make decisions regarding overall NTS operation in consultation with them.
4.4 Transcontinental Corps Director Functions
These NTS officials will be involved only where traffic of a precedence higher than routine is to be handled between NTS areas, or when extreme overloads are anticipated.
- Be ready to alert your TCC crew and set up special out-of-net schedules as required.
- You may be called upon by the area net manager to set up "hot line" circuits between key cities involved in heavy traffic flow. Bear in mind which of your TCC stations are located in or near enough to large cities to man such circuits.
4.5 Area Staff Chair Functions
The three Area Staff Chairs administratively oversee the NTS Officials and their operations, and will advise their TCC Directors, Area and Region Net Managers when appropriate. Their advice may be based on information forwarded by ARRL Headquarters.
- Maintain a high sensitivity to disasters and other emergencies that may develop.
- Contact the other Area Staff Chairs via the International Assistance and Traffic Net and other prearranged schedules.
4.6 General Policy
NTS operators should be self-alerting to disaster conditions that might require their services, and should report into an appropriately assigned net or other function without being specifically called upon. That is, the assignment should have been worked out with your net manager in advance. Each NTS operator should ask himself or herself: "What is my disaster assignment? If I hear of a disaster condition, what should I do?" If he/she cannot answer the question, he/she should seek an answer through his/her Net Manager. It may be as simple as "report into the X Net on X frequency." If the operator concerned is highly specialized, it might be "report to your TCC director in the X net on X frequency for a special assignment." Such an assignment might be an extra TCC function, or it might be as a functionary in a "hot line" point-to-point circuit needing special abilities or equipment.
Flexibility is needed, but a definite assignment pertaining to disaster operation is something that all NTS operators should have. If you don't have a specific assignment, push the matter with your net manager. NTS should be the front line of available Amateur Radio disaster communication.
4.7 Health and Welfare Traffic
One of the biggest problems in a disaster is the handling of so-called "health and welfare" traffic or "disaster welfare inquiries." The ARRL-recommended precedence for this type of traffic is W or "Welfare," and refers to either an inquiry as to the health and welfare of an individual in the disaster area or an advisory from the disaster area that indicates all is well. The influx of W traffic into the disaster area may be large, and NTS may be called upon to assist with this overload.
The NTS policy with respect to the handling of W traffic is to handle as much of it as possible, but to adhere to its precedence. Higher-precedence traffic must be handled first, W traffic only when the circuit is free. Routine (R) traffic is not normally handled by an NTS net operating under disaster conditions, because usually they more than have their hands full with higher precedence, but should a disaster circuit be temporarily available, there is no reason why it cannot be handled until the circuit again becomes occupied with higher-precedence traffic.
In a widespread disaster situation, it is seldom possible to handle all the Welfare traffic with efficiency and dispatch. Sometimes, in fact, such traffic piles up alarmingly, to the extent that much of it is never delivered. There are a number of ways in which this can be controlled, but few of them are consistent with public relations objectives.
The best way to handle such situations is to maintain close contact with the Red Cross or the Salvation Army as appropriate, since most inquiries are handled through these organizations. Civil preparedness organizations also can often set up procedures for handling such traffic. In the past, special digital circuits have been established with great success. Until or unless means for handling such traffic are established, it is usually wisest not to accept it from the general public, or to do so only with an explicit understanding that chances of delivery are not guaranteed.