Frequently Asked Questions About HDSCS

From Administrators and Emergency Planners in Hospitals

The following information is excerpted from one of the handouts given to Administrators and Disaster Committee members of Orange County (CA) hospitals that affiliate with HDSCS.  This HDSCS site also has a separate page of FAQ from ham operators.

Q: Who are these ham radio operators?

KC6PPY photoA: Amateur Radio operators (sometimes called "hams") are persons from all walks of life who have been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after passing tests on radio theory, communications techniques, and FCC regulations.  They use a variety of on-the-air modes such as voice, Morse Code, television, satellites, and computers for communication around the county and around the world.  Their stations may be large ones in their homes or tiny hand-held ones on their belts.

There are over 600,000 licensed Amateur Radio operators in the USA.  They have thousands of frequencies available to them in nine long-range shortwave bands and six local-coverage VHF/UHF bands.  Amateur Radio frequencies are completely separate from both Citizens Band frequencies and the business frequencies used by hospital Maintenance and Security departments.

Amateur Radio is a hobby, but it is also an important public service.  Many Orange County hams are involved in organized emergency support communications groups serving city governments, county government, and private agencies such as the Red Cross. There are about two dozen such Amateur Radio organizations in Orange County, one of which is HDSCS.

Ham radio saves lives and protects property when normal communications methods fail, but hams are prohibited from using their radios to provide regular day-to-day business or commercial communications for any company or agency.

Q: What is HDSCS?

A: The Hospital Disaster Support Communications System is a special group within the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES®) of Orange County, California.  It is not directly funded by any agency.  Hams join HDSCS because supporting hospitals is their greatest public service interest.  HDSCS activates when failure or overload occurs in normal communications systems such as telephone and HEAR/ReddiNet.*  Amateur Radio support is voluntary and on a "best effort" basis.  HDSCS operators strive to be self-contained, providing all of their own equipment in most situations.  Most of them have "go kits" of radio gear and other essentials ready to use at all times.

Ham radio operators joining HDSCS learn about the county's medical communications systems, equipment requirements, earthquake preparation, maps, hospital expectations, dealing with stress, and so forth. Meetings are held at numerous hospitals during the year to acquaint members with hospital functions, communications needs, and various aspects of emergencies involving medical services.  On-the-air nets and drills keep the operators in a state of readiness.  Members are activated to hospitals via Call-up Lists and Core Team assignments.

Q: How can hams help hospitals?

A: Failure of hospital communications is serious, sometimes life-critical.  Here are some scenarios where backup communications can be vital:

Q: Our hospital has walkie-talkies.  Why do we need hams too?

A: In a disaster, you will need every communications resource you can get.  Think through some of the following issues and discuss them at your next Disaster Committee meeting:

  1. Is it efficient to "tie down" a patient care employee (such as a nurse) with the task of monitoring a walkie-talkie for incoming messages?
  2. How many walkie-talkies do you really need?
  3. Does every potential user know how to use them?
  4. Does the staff know how to communicate effectively when many persons attempt to use their walkie-talkies at the same time?
  5. Will the batteries last through a long communications failure?
  6. How will you communicate with your physicians, other hospitals, the Red Cross blood bank, and your suppliers? (The power level and frequency assignments of your walkie-talkies will not support such communications.)

Hams can supplement your existing emergency resources.  They are dedicated to communications tasks, so that these tasks do not detract your employees from their patient care activities.  Hams can communicate with other hospitals and can handle messages to and from outside doctors, suppliers, and other agencies such as Red Cross.  They can be a resource to help you obtain additional equipment such as portable generators.

Q: What are the costs of HDSCS services?

A: HDSCS does not charge any fees for communications support.   HDSCS members are all unpaid volunteers.  Amateur Radio operators are prohibited by federal regulations from accepting compensation for their on-air operations.

Some of our supported hospitals provide meeting rooms, newsletter copying/mailing, pagers and similar non-monetary support to the HDSCS organization.  This is not required, but is greatly appreciated.

Q: What equipment does our hospital need to buy for the ham operators?

A: All HDSCS members provide their own radio equipment and portable antennas, both for internal (unit-to-unit) and external (hospital-to-outside-world) communications.  So Orange County hospitals do not need to purchase, install, or store any radio sets (transmitters, receivers, etc.) for us to use.

For the most effective communications from your hospital to the outside, we ask that hospitals install a small rooftop VHF/UHF antenna with coaxial cable going directly to your emergency Command Post location.  This antenna is dedicated to Amateur Radio communications and should not be located next to other communications or paging antennas on the roof.  It mounts on a short mast --- no tall tower is needed.  Ownership of the antenna remains with the hospital.

Since HDSCS uses several Amateur Radio frequency bands, we prefer multi-band antennas such as the Comet CX-133 2m/125cm/70cm tribander or the Diamond D-130J discone.  If the coaxial cable run is over 30 feet, low-loss cable such as Belden 9913 should be used.

Q: How do we activate the hams when we need them?

A: In a mass casualty incident response, telephones may be functional early on.  If so, use the Call-up List you have been given.  Call until you get one HDSCS operator; he or she will activate the rest of the system.  Use the HDSCS pager activation system if you cannot reach an operator on your Call-up List.  You can call any time of day or night.  We also recommend that you activate us any time the "Watch Mode" is announced over the HEAR/ReddiNet* system.

If your main switchboard fails, wait no more than ten minutes before activating hams.  Use one of the following methods to call out:

In an earthquake or other natural disaster, the operators on your Core Team will attempt to respond to your hospital without being called, as they realize that phone lines may be severed or overloaded.

Q: What should we do to have HDSCS meet with our safety or disaster committee, or to have hams participate in our internal drills?

A: To arrange this, contact April Moell, your HDSCS Emergency Coordinator.  We are interested in working out a presentation to meet your needs and in testing disaster plans with you.

Q: Do I need to have any licensed ham operators as employees in my facility?

A: No.  One of the advantages of HDSCS support is that there is no requirement on your facility to have staff members obtain Amateur Radio licenses or to maintain an Amateur Radio station.  Your staff is free to perform patient care while Amateur Radio operators from the community come in to provide backup communications when needed.

Of course we always encourage any staff members who are interested in becoming part of the Amateur Radio hobby and service to do so, and we would like to know of any licensed Amateur Radio operators working in your facility.

Q: How does one become a licensed Amateur Radio operator?

A: The best source of general information about ham radio is the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which is the national association of Amateur Radio Operators.  This page of the ARRL Web site has general information and answers to frequently asked questions about Amateur Radio.  At that site, you can also search to find an Amateur Radio club in your local area for further assistance.

Q: How can I find out about Amateur Radio communications support for our sister hospital, which is not in Orange County?

A: Throughout the USA, there are only a small number of Amateur Radio groups like HDSCS, dedicated to support of hospitals.  In most other places, hospital communications would be provided by ham groups that also support city and county government as well as other agencies such as Red Cross.  You will have to do a little research to find out how ham operators are organized in your area.

The best source of information about Amateur Radio emergency communications activities at the local level is the Field Organization of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL).  There are 71 administrative sections in the ARRL Field Organization.  Many sections consist of entire states, but highly-populated states have more than one section.  Each section is headed by an elected Section Manager whose primary job is to recruit volunteer hams to serve in critical program areas such as emergency communications.  The ARRL Web site has the national list of Section Managers with phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

Here are some other ways to find out about local ham radio organizations:

In the Photo: The nursing background of Jean Creason KC6PPY makes her a valuable HDSCS member.

*HEAR and ReddiNet® are commercial VHF voice and Internet/satellite digital inter-hospital communications systems provided by Healthcare Association of Southern California and maintained by the Communications Department of the County of Orange.

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This page updated 1 September 2016