New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service


9/11/01 - "THIS IS NOT A TEST"

The Roll Radio Amateurs played on September 11, 2001

Amateur Radio operators mobilized within minutes of the first attack on the World Trade Center, then responded magnificently in the Washington, DC, area and Pennsylvania.

On September 11, 2001, and in the days and weeks since, Amateur Radio operators have demonstrated their readiness, perhaps as never before. While Amateur Radio Emergency Service and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service training might not have readied them to fully comprehend the terrible events of that day, Amateur Radio operators were among the first to volunteer their stations, their skills and themselves.

"The SET is cancelled; this is the real thing!" said ARRL New York City-Long Island Section Emergency Coordinator Tom Carrubba KA2D, who only weeks earlier had been outlining plans for his section's Simulated Emergency Test in October. The events of September 11 changed all of that, and without the luxury of the sort of advanced warning that might occur in a weather-related disaster. Amateur Radio was up against its greatest challenge ever.

"We found ourselves faced with a disaster that no one in their wildest dreams could have ever imagined," Carrubba said. "And this one was right in our own backyard."

"This is Not a Test!"

Providing emergency communication tops the list of reasons that validate Amateur Radio in the eyes of the FCC. Given the ubiquity of the cellular telephone these days, some have predicted this particular mission would evaporate.

When the terrorists struck in New York City and Washington September 11, however, commercial telecommunications systems-wired and wireless-were severely compromised. New York City broadcasters using the World Trade Center antenna went dark.

As soon as the nature of the threats was recognized, federal, state and local officials declared states of emergency. Along with other federal agencies, the FCC shut down. No one knew what to expect. RACES teams found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly activated, not just in the immediately affected areas of New York City and Washington, DC, but across the US. ARES groups went on alert everywhere.

Montgomery County, Maryland, Deputy RACES Officer John Creel, WB3GXW, said nothing in his experience had prepared him for "the feeling that went through my mind when I picked up the microphone and said the words, 'This is not a test!'"

Americans were just learning of the events unfolding at the World Trade Center when the Pentagon attack occurred and a fourth aircraft crashed in rural western Pennsylvania. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, telephone lines were jammed, and cell systems overwhelmed. Chaos reigned.

Amateur Radio played a role in helping to restore order. "Never have I felt more strongly about what a great privilege it is to be part of the extraordinary global community of Amateur Radio," declared ARRL President Jim Haynie, W5JBP, as amateurs sprang into action to do their part.

New York City-Area Amateurs Respond to "The Real Thing"

Terrorists had crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center. The famed Twin Towers then collapsed, setting off a chain of events that involved all of New York City's rescue services. With air travel suddenly suspended, countless passengers found themselves stranded with nowhere to go.

The first to respond were New York City firefighters, police and other rescue workers. Many of them were lost as the buildings fell. Most are still unaccounted for. As this is written, the total number of people missing stands at more than 6400.

As it turned out, New York City's Office of Emergency Management had been located on the 21st and 22nd floors of the World Trade Center. Many local officials had been evacuated to the mayor's "bunker" nearby. It also became unusable in the hours after the attack.

ARRL Hudson Division Vice Director Steve Mendelsohn, W2ML, works for ABC News and was in Manhattan during the World Trade Center attacks. He called the scene there "surreal," with police checkpoints set up along highways and military jets criss-crossing the skies above the city.

Former ARRL Headquarters staff member Warren Stankiewicz, NF1J, was in Manhattan from the West Coast on business when the attacks occurred. "The damage is unbelievable," he reported the evening of the attacks. "Grand Central was a panic, and the trains were packed beyond belief. I talked to one woman who had walked four miles with borrowed shoes to get to the train."

But, as Mendelsohn was to later observe, "A city thought of by many as cynical pulls together as few others have in times of crisis."

With a state of emergency in effect, Amateur Radio's resources soon mobilized. Ivan Rodriguez, KC2CHE, of Brooklyn, told ARRL that the New York City ARES net came alive within five minutes of the first plane attack. "It's the first thing I thought about," he said. "We may be needed."

Answering the Call

As lower Manhattan quickly took on the look of a war zone, New York City ARRL District Emergency Coordinator and RACES Radio Officer Charles Hargrove, N2NOV-who served as the ARES/RACES incident commander- put out a call to the ARES and RACES leadership. Hargrove and his staff found themselves thrust into the midst of the activation.

New York City-Long Island Section Manager George Tranos, N2GA, huddled with Carrubba at the SEC's Long Island home as the activation got under way. ARES and RACES concentrated their efforts to provide support for the New York City OEM and for American Red Cross relief and recovery efforts. The logistics were unbelievable.

Hundreds of Amateur Radio operators from the Greater New York City area answered the call for assistance. Some of the first deployed were from Long Island. In the hours after the attack telephones, cell phones, pagers and other wireless devices were rendered unusable. For as much as a 50-mile radius there was difficulty getting a dial tone, and Internet service was spotty.

Hams communicated via the area's main repeaters, most of which were unaffected by the disaster. Nets were established, and the trained cadre of volunteers, experienced and ready, were organized and dispatched under Hargrove's and Carrubba's joint leadership.

The common ARES/RACES emergency net established on Manhattan's WB2ZSE 147.000 MHz repeater promptly became the primary conduit for emergency traffic. "It made things seamless, and everyone knew what was going on," Carrubba explained. "You don't have to monitor several radios."

Amateurs also shadowed some New York City officials, handled medical traffic, stood by at hospitals and prepared to assist the American Red Cross Headquarters.

Other ARES units stood by at local emergency operations centers. The American Red Cross Emergency Communications Service in Queens-one of the many area clubs and organizations that contributed the use of repeaters and spread word that volunteers were needed-activated an emergency net on its WB2QBP repeater. A New York State RACES net was operational on 7.248 and 3.993 MHz handling emergency and government-related traffic.

The Red Cross Role

The Red Cross opened a command center in its Brooklyn headquarters, which became a staging area for the Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles-or ERVs-as well as for volunteer personnel and supplies. A dozen Red Cross shelters soon were up and running around the clock, with Amateur Radio providing operators, equipment and expertise. In the early hours and days of the response, finding victims trapped in the rubble was foremost on everyone's mind.

Hams were assigned to Red Cross headquarters, the various shelters and other subsidiary Red Cross sites around the area, including the five New York City boroughs-Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx- plus New York's Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties and across the Hudson River in New Jersey. ARES-staffed nets provided the needed communications support, coordinating shelter health-and welfare traffic and logistics.

Carrubba said the high call volume continued to tax the telephone system in lower Manhattan. Telephone service was available, but it often took 15 or 20 tries to get a call through, so ham radio was bridging the gap. "American Red Cross communications are overloaded, and traffic from the shelters is coming into the New York City net at a rapid pace," he said on Day Two of the response. "The Amateur Radio ops are doing a great job under very difficult and strange conditions, but this is what they have trained for; they are getting it done well."

SM Tranos made announcements and helped coordinate the efforts of the ARES staff. Key players in addition to Tranos, Carrubba and Hargrove, included Manhattan ARES Emergency Coordinator John Kiernan, KE2UN, and the Red Cross's Jay Ferron, N4GAA.

Other ham radio volunteers were dispatched to staff, establish and maintain communications among the World Trade Center disaster site, Red Cross on Amsterdam Avenue in New York, Red Cross Queens Chapter, the multiple Red Cross shelters in Manhattan and Shea Stadium-home of the New York Mets- where a staging and relief area for the thousands of emergency workers had been set up.

At least in the early going, ham volunteers being transported from the Brooklyn Red Cross facility had to be self-sufficient. Dual-band (VHF/UHF) mobile radios, power supplies, mag-mount antennas, coax, power cables, boots, dust masks and even respirators, latex gloves, bottled water and snacks were among the requirements for those stationed near "Ground Zero," as it came to be called, where conditions were frequently described as hellish and protective equipment and clothing were a necessity. Shift after shift of volunteers trekked to and from assignments burdened with bulging backpacks. "This requires a big commitment," Tranos advised. The shifts were 12-plus hours, and often it required considerable time to get credentials and transport in and out of restricted areas, especially at Ground Zero.

Amateur Radio operators volunteered from as far away as Canada, Maine, Texas and California. Several visiting hams from outside the area rolled up their sleeves, including Robert Gissing, VE3ZLV, who assisted the Red Cross in Brooklyn. Suresh, VU2LOT, an Indian ham who was already in Northern New Jersey offered his services. Professional firefighter Wayne Souza, KA1LH, from Fall River, Massachusetts, had hoped to volunteer with his New York City brethren but was told his unit was not needed. Souza decided instead to get involved in the ham radio effort. "It was one way that I could still help," he said. ARES initially turned away most long-distance offers of help because there were no provisions to house the volunteers, entry into New York City was difficult, and parking next-to-impossible.

Even so, many wouldn't take no for an answer and said "I'm coming," despite the requirements and risks involved. SEC Hargrove said the outpouring of people who wanted to help was tremendous. "It's been hard to keep people away," he said. "That's the kind of disaster it was." The Red Cross's Ferron agreed. "The Amateur Radio community has come out very big and very strong," he observed. Tranos put it more succinctly. "I'm very proud of my section," he said.

Across the River

New Jersey amateurs also mustered their resources as the emergency unfolded. Hospitals had been designated and shelters set up across the Hudson River to handle any overflow from New York City.

ARRL Northern New Jersey SEC Steve Ostrove, K2SO, said that dozens of amateurs from his section helped with emergency communications following the attacks. Amateur Radio operators were stationed at four Red Cross shelters in New Jersey, helping to back up the spotty telephone communication. Among other things, the shelters provided a haven for those unable to return home because of restricted traffic into Manhattan. Northern New Jersey operators also supplemented and relieved the New York City ARES team.

A Red Cross emergency net ran on the NO2EL 145.37 MHz repeater, and an ARES net was activated on the WS2Q repeater, with liaison to New York City's ARES/RACES net on 147.000 MHz. The nets were able to coordinate volunteer efforts and blood donations. Several Red Cross chapters in New Jersey were linked by Amateur Radio.

According to Rich Krajewski, WB2CRD, the Jersey City Amateur Radio Club was called on to assist the Red Cross after their repeater atop the World Trade Center was lost in the building's collapse. Club member Stan Daniels, KB2FY, and John Hunter, KE2ZZ-who drove from South Jersey to help-were the backbone of an effort that set up a 2-meter station that allowed communication with local emergency officials and a Red Cross net. Hams also added 2-meter capability to Red Cross emergency vehicles to help them keep in touch as they delivering cots, meals and supplies to shelters in Hudson County.

About a dozen members of the David Sarnoff Radio Club voluntarily activated N2ARC on the 146.46 MHz repeater September 11 to help the American Red Cross Central New Jersey Chapter in Princeton Junction.

Doing The Iron Man Act

A regular cadre of volunteers-two dozen or more per shift-settled into a routine. Hundreds of prospective volunteers signed up via the World Trade Center Disaster Relief Communications registration Web site, developed at the suggestion of Suffolk County DEC Bill Scheibel, N2NFI, by Joe Tomasone, AB2M. "It allows us to make the best use of the volunteers," Carrubba said. The system worked superbly.

Ham volunteers provided their own protective gear and arranged transportation to and from dispatch locations, often carpooling and sharing resources. Yaesu, ICOM, MFJ and other suppliers came forward with loans of transceivers and accessories.

Amateur Radio volunteers were rotated in and out of areas and duties in an effort to equalize the stress. The mood remained largely positive as the response extended past Day 10, Carrubba reported. Still, volunteers were getting tired, and some needed to return to their normal lives and jobs. Shifts scheduled to run 12 hours typically were much longer. "The first 30 or 40 hours everybody does 'the iron man act,' I call it, because they're running on adrenaline," Carrubba said. After that, he said, everyone realized they need some rest and unwound a little bit. "The people that are going back are fresh."

One early volunteer, ARRL member John Stuart, K1OE, of Rowayton, Connecticut, found himself inspired by the experience. After signing up and reporting, Stuart found himself part of a group of hams from eastern Long Island.

"We each became the 'communications person' for shelters throughout lower Manhattan, reporting needs of the shelter to Red Cross headquarters through a net and also reporting, on hourly intervals, the personnel status of the shelter," he said. All told, Stuart spent about 20 hours in New York. "It was a great experience," he said. "I met a lot of wonderful people, the shelters are providing an important function, and the hams are the communications backbone of the operation."

ARRL President Haynie took an opportunity September 21 to visit with some of the New York-area hams at the heart of the communication effort. "On behalf of the 680,000 ham operators in the US, thank you for doing such a fine job," he said.

ARRL Hudson Division Director Frank Fallon, N2FF, accompanied Haynie on his visit. "From the very first day I have been proud of the way ARRL members in the Hudson Division responded in overwhelming numbers," Fallon said. "So many responded that many, unfortunately, were turned away." Ultimately some 500 amateurs would answer the call for volunteers. "It really has been our finest hour! It has made us all very proud to be Amateur Radio operators," Fallon said.

John MacInnes, a Red Cross communications officer based in Tucson, Arizona, approached Haynie with high praise for the Amateur Radio community and for ARRL. "We wouldn't be where we are today without the ham radio operators," he said. He told Haynie that he should be very proud of his organization and asked him to relay his message of thanks throughout the amateur community.

The New York City ARES/RACES operation in support of the American Red Cross stood down the week of September 23rd.

(Truncated) Reprinted from the November 2001 QST, copyright 2001 ARRL