Radio Hams are Not First Responders

It happened again. A disaster hits — this time a series of storms in the southeast— and the amateur radio community rises to the occasion to supply emergency communications. See
Tornadoes and Thunderstorms Keep Radio Amateurs Busy in Midwest, Southeast.

I’ve noticed that there is a tendency for some members of the amateur radio community to characterize this activity as a being a “first responder”. (Most recently: Amateur Radio Newsline, 6 May 2011)  This may make for a more exciting story about how amateur radio operators assist during a disaster, but I think it is just sloppy terminology. Here’s one definition of a first responder from dictionary.com:

first responder
–noun
a person who is certified to provide medical care in emergencies before more highly trained medical personnel arrive on the scene.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration (NHTSA) has a 342-page standard that describes the training required to be a First Responder.  Similarly, the wikipedia entry for Certified First Responder describes the skills necessary to be considered a First Responder. Most hams won’t even come close to meeting this level of training, unless they happen to have it for reasons other than ham radio.

Why does this matter? By telling radio hams they are “first responders”, it puts entirely the wrong emphasis on the Emergency Communications (EmComm) role. The EmComm role is, well, uh, providing emergency communications… in support of First Responders (Fire, Police, EMS)  and agencies that support First Responders (Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc.). Where hams can really make a difference is making sure effective communications are established when disaster occurs. The “I am a first responder” mindset can lead to some behavior that makes some radio amateurs look silly. The folks over at hamsexy.com have made a hobby out of ridiculing the so-called whackers that try to make ham radio into a lights-n-siren kind of operation. An even more serious issue is having radio hams engaging in dangerous activity without proper training.

Now, should radio hams get training on skills such as CPR and First Aid? Absolutely. Actually, everyone should have that training…you might find yourself in the situation of saving someone’s life. But don’t confuse that with being a trained First Responder.

That’s my opinion, what do you think?

- 73, Bob K0NR

P.S. I fully appreciate the role that ham radio volunteers play in providing emergency communications during disasters. It is real, important work.

4 thoughts on “Radio Hams are Not First Responders

  1. Right on, Bob! Very few ever step up to the plate and discuss this topic openly, and usually not as gracefully, either, but you really pulled it off and hit the nail on the head on this one.

  2. So what you’re saying that not being among an elite class of first responder, ie. certified or trained, means you’re not a first responder at all. I disagree. If you respond and you’re among the first, you’re a first responder. If you’re physically able to do it, and you’re driving down the road and you see a car flipped in the ditch smoking and someone trying unsuccessfully to crawl free. Do you help? If so, you’re a first responder regardless of your training.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Yes, I am saying that being the first on scene doesn’t make you a First Responder. Just like putting out a fire doesn’t make you a fire fighter, arresting someone doesn’t make you a police officer and putting a bandage on someone doesn’t make you an EMT.