Volunteer Radio Groups

The main role of a volunteer radio group in an emergency is to establish a secondary communications infrastructure to;

In the event that primary communications systems used by Police, Fire and Ambulance are degraded or disabled by the emergency or disaster, the communications infrastructure provided by volunteer radio group can be tailored to assist, depending on the specific requirements of the emergency. It is important to understand that the volunteer radio group does not provide full backup of the primary communications systems. There would only be enough volunteer resources to provide communications for key centres, not to "replace" the existing primary system.

In an emergency, primary communications systems for agencies such as police and fire will be operating at peak capacity. The secondary communications infrastructure established by the radio group will relieve primary agencies from message traffic which is not related to their respective functions. For example, if phones are out at a shelter, it is not efficient to post a first responder at the shelter just to provide communications to get blankets, water etc.

The two main roles of members are:

  1. To transmit messages which have been given to them by responsible site managers or personnel.
  2. To work with or shadow field personnel to provide radio communications back to a central area.

In an emergency there may not be enough people to fill all the positions required, so the volunteer radio group member in the field may be asked by their Leader or their delegate if they would take on roles in addition to providing communications. For example, if communications is required for an evacuation centre and there is a shortage of Red Cross volunteers, the radio operator may be asked if they would assist with the Red Cross activities. These arrangements are made on a case by case basis.

Important Considerations for Volunteer Radio Groups

Critical Time First 24 To 48 Hours

In a disaster, commercial solutions will be expanded or temporary ones will be deployed within 24 to 48 hours, taking over many communications support roles. Amateur radio volunteers need to deploy quickly and effectively when called to maximize their contribution in the critical initial period of a disaster. Rapid deployment requires pre planning, training and equipment.


Building and maintaining relationships with the agencies served is as important for amateur radio as planning and training. Effective use of volunteer radio groups in an emergency will only occur if the agencies served know and trust the Amateur group and they understand their own limitations and the capabilities brought by the volunteers.

Clarity and Coverage

People expect crystal clear wireless communications from anywhere. Commercial systems such as cell phones and trunked radio usually provide better coverage than central repeaters or base stations and the quality with digital systems is good or the signal fails. Amateur radio must pay more attention to coverage area and signal quality, to ensure that the best signal possible is presented. If there are coverage gaps and signal quality is poor, Amateur radio must work on solutions or work-a rounds where possible.


Volunteer radio groups need to develop and deliver packaged communications solutions, which solve real problems and meet or exceed expectations. This includes understanding what equipment is available and how many people are trained to use it. If the best a group can offer is no promises then agencies know what to expect, understanding that it is less likely that a group will be called.

Claims that there are lots of amateurs with lots of equipment that do lots of different things, without actually verifying quantities and availability, can prove disastrous when called on to deliver in an emergency. Primary and support agencies need to know what they have available for resources and if they are disappointed by volunteer groups, they will look for alternate solutions in the future.

Volunteer Communications Options

There are several options available for volunteer radio communications including Amateur Radio, Commercial Radio, Family Radio Service and Citizens Band. These solutions are not based on rental fees and service provider agreements. Each option has its benefits and drawbacks. Amateur radio is generally viewed as the most useful solution due to the infrastructure that exists and the general proliferation of equipment in the community.

Amateur Radio

Amateur radio is a hobby dedicated to local and global communications, experimentation and helping others. Amateur radio operators, or Hams as they are often called, are licensed by the Federal Government and must pass a written test in order to operate their radios. As a solution for emergency communications, Amateur radio provides both equipment and people skilled in operating that equipment.

Amateur radio brings together people and radio equipment, across multiple radio bands and frequencies. The local radio club or a group of amateurs usually operate one or more repeaters in the area to extend the range of radio coverage. Individual radio operators typically can provide radios, antennas, cables and a lot of innovation and ingenuity.

The three mostly used radio bands are HF, VHF and UHF.

HF (High Frequency)

VHF and UHF (Very High Frequency, Ultra High Frequency)

More information on Amateur radio is available on the Internet at the following location:

"Beginners and New Hams" http://www.rac.ca/regulatory/begin.htm

ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service)

Many amateur radio groups working with emergency communications are part of a national organization called ARES. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), provides a National organizational structure for Amateur radio groups involved in emergency communications. In Canada, ARES is administered by the National amateur radio group, Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC).

The National Red Cross and Radio Amateurs of Canada signed a memorandum of understanding in 1994. The agreement aims to promote a greater partnership between local Red Cross branches and their local ARES group. There is a copy of the agreement at http://www.rac.ca/fieldorg/redcross.htm.

There may not be an ARES group in your area, but there still may be an organized amateur radio group dedicated to providing emergency communications. In an area there may be an ARES group, or a non ARES affiliated group, but not both, so you can work with whichever group exists in your area. Non ARES groups are just as skilled and dedicated as groups that are part of ARES.


REACT is a public service organization comprised of private radio operators serving travelers and their communities alike with radio communications. Member volunteers are dedicating to improving their communities by providing voluntary, two-way communications.

The original REACT groups used CB radio and while most still use it, they also use Family Radio Service and many are also amateur radio operators. If you cannot find an amateur radio group, check to see if there is a REACT group in your area.


Family Radio Service (FRS) radios use a set of 14 UHF channels set aside for non-licensed use with a maximum ERP of 500 mW. General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios use a set of 22 UHF channels of which 14 of them are shared with FRS and, in Canada, are set aside for non-licensed use with a maximum ERP of 2 W. Radios are available from most electronic stores and sell for about $50 to $100. FRS range is limited to about 2km in open areas and would be much less in enclosed areas such as buildings.

GMRS/FRS is an option for short range communications, but there is no control of who uses the system, so you could find a lack of free channels or interference from uncaring users.


Citizen Band radio or GRS (General Radio Service) as it is also known, has been around for a long time. The use of CB radio has dwindled from its peak in the 70's to 80's, but there are still a lot of users.

One of the problems suffered by CB radio, was the influx of "non-caring" users. Foul language and deliberate interference caused many to exit from the ranks. As a communications solution, it suffers from variability in communications distance. However like GMRS/FRS, CB radio is much better than nothing.

Finding Amateur Radio Contacts

There is probably at least one amateur radio club in your area and there may already be a group of amateurs who specialize in emergency communications. If you don't know about amateur radio in your community, try the suggestions listed below.

  1. Go to the Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC) web site at http://www.rac.ca.
  2. Talk to your local Municipal emergency planner or administrator.
  3. Talk to the local Red Cross Branch
  4. Try an Internet search with the name of your area (Town, City, Municipality or Region) and add the words amateur radio, or ARES. You may find information about a local amateur radio club.
  5. Many commercial radio technicians are also amateurs. Try looking in the yellow pages under "Radio communication". Call the radio shops listed, explain who you are and that you are trying to find a local ham radio operator. This person may know who to contact in your area.
  6. Try an add in the local newspaper. Explain who you are and what you are looking for.

Supporting Your Local Volunteer Radio Group

Developing and maintaining an effective volunteer radio group requires a strong partnership between the radio group and the agencies or organizations they serve. There are some simple things which can help make life a lot easier for everyone.

The volunteer radio groups must be accountable for their ongoing organization, planning, training etc. However your organization or agency can help that process. Have regular update meetings to find out how the volunteer radio group is doing and to explain what is happening in your organization. Be a mentor to the radio group leader if they lack some of the leadership skills. They must do the work, but having someone experienced to talk to is a great way to learn. Set dates for completion of tasks for both sides. These might be re-negotiated at the next meeting if required, but it makes people more accountable to get things done.

How To Help Your Volunteer Radio Group

ID Cards

Volunteer radio groups can create their own ID cards, but if they are not recognized by local authorities, there will be delays in an emergency. Providing a custom ID for your agency or organization, can provide unique identification of radio group members, on a background that is recognized by the members of your organization. For example, a standard City ID card can have the name of the volunteer radio group added along with the word VOLUNTEER.

Meeting Space

Most volunteer radio groups need a place to meet. This can be a training session, exercise or general meeting. In many areas, meeting space is at a premium and there is a cost associated with it. Agencies or organizations can provide meeting space as a means of helping the volunteer radio group. This has an added benefit of showing the volunteers that your agency or organization is truly interested and involved with the well being of the radio group.


Volunteer groups need to stay in touch. Phones and e-mail can provide some of that, but there is still a need to send out paper copies of some information, such as updated membership lists and newsletters (not everyone has e-mail). Providing the radio group with a set number of newsletter mailings per year, helps them function as an organization.

Radio Operating Space

In order to be integrated and effective, volunteer radio operators need to be part of the overall emergency operation. Key locations such as an EOC or major centres like the Red Cross, must have permanent radio installations which are collocated with all other agency operators. If the volunteer radio operator is out of site, they they are also out of the minds of everyone else.


Radio volunteers are taking their time to prepare for an event that may never happen. It is much like waiting for an opportunity to use your house fire insurance. Incorporating radio volunteers in larger exercises helps in many ways;

  1. Volunteer radio operators learn more about what is expected, where they might operate and how other agencies operate.
  2. 2) Other agencies see the volunteer radio operators and begin to understand that the radio group is part of the big picture.
  3. 3) Volunteers like to be part of something real. Exercises with real agencies is a lot more interesting.


Many volunteer radio groups are not incorporated and are not part of an organization that is, so there is no insurance for volunteers or their radio equipment. This makes the individual volunteer responsible to ensure they have adequate personal coverage for themselves and their equipment. Some provinces provide workers compensation for volunteers, but only if a state of emergency is declared.

It is important that the topic of insurance be discussed, so the volunteers and the agency they work with, both understand the situation. Some municipalities provide some coverage for volunteers equipment if it is lost or damaged during an emergency.

Amateur Radio Myths

Over the years, there has been a lot of confusion within the amateur radio community and within emergency response, regarding the role of Amateur Radio as a volunteer emergency resource. The confusion about the role of volunteer radio communications has created some volunteer groups who have distorted expectations and professional organizations who fear that volunteers will be more problem than good.

The Amateur Radio Myths web page identifies a few key areas of confusion, which will hopefully help volunteers and professionals better understand how volunteer radio communications operates in an emergency. Amateur Radio Myths