Radio Scouting: Hike Safely

The Hiker Responsibility Code says “Be prepared..to stay together” on the trail. BSA rules require adequate supervision. But how do we stay together and be safe on a troop hike with thirty or forty Scouts? We can hike in independent groups, each with two adults and a crew first aid kit. Or, we can stay in touch with radio communications.

Crew 27 in our area has a scheme for coordination on a hike. Each independent group has a radio. The last group, “sweep”, has adults and a radio. All groups check in every 15 minutes. If a group cannot communicate with sweep, they halt and wait for the groups behind them to get closer. A hike group can relay messages to and from a forward group.

T 14 at Henry Coe 2006 crop 1

What kind of radio? FRS/GMRS (Family Radio Service, General Mobile Radio Service) radios are affordable and don’t require a license. They work over a fairly short range, maybe a half-mile in the mountains or a forest for FRS channels (0.5 Watt transmit power) or farther for GMRS channels (1 or 2 Watts).

REI has a good guide to outdoor FRS radios.

If a patrol wants to hike with more separation, each group (including sweep) can have someone with an amateur radio license. An amateur radio HT (Handheld Transceiver, often called a “Walkie Talkie”), has more power (5 to 8 Watts) and a range of one or two miles, especially with an improved antenna. Some HT’s only cost a little more than FRS radios. The least expensive models change frequently, but good models tend to cost between $30 and $70. You pay more for ease of use, ruggedness, and a better antenna.

The test for the Technician amateur radio license is not that hard. It is a 35 question test and you need to get 26 correct answers (74%). All the questions are public, so you can practice as much as you want, free. The hamexam.org site is a good place to practice. It isn’t a trivial test—even though I have the highest level of FCC amateur license, I just missed two questions on a practice test.

Try a Technician test and see how close you are. There are study programs and amateurs who are willing to help (“Elmers”). I’m willing to help.

Radio scouting

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Radio Scouting: Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge (and Beyond)

E. Prep. merit badge requires the Scout to take part in an emergency mobilization and make a plan for emergency service. Why not let your local amateur radio ARES/RACES group help out?

Amateur radio operators work with their local communities to prepare for emergencies. They do this with drills, frequent radio practice, and public service (which is also mobilization practice). Many groups have a radio communications net every week. Scouts can also work with CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and other emergency volunteers.

Let’s look at the three parts of requirement 8 for the Emergency Preparedness merit badge.

8a. Prepare a written plan for mobilizing your troop when needed to do emergency service. If there is already a plan, explain it. Tell your part in making it work.

What kind of emergencies can happen in your town and how can Scouts help? The Palo Alto emergency volunteers just had training to supervise sandbag stations in preparation for potential flooding from the El Niño rains. Some of our residents are older and probably should not be shoveling sand and loading sandbags into cars. This is a perfect opportunity for Scouts to volunteer. They should already know how to work effectively in groups and dress for rain.

Make a plan to provide volunteers to fill sandbags and load them into cars. Find out how many sandbag stations there are, pick a crew size, then make a schedule for shifts. Plan how to contact your troop. After you go over it with your merit badge counselor, you might take it to the city office of emergency services, because it could be a big help.

As part of your plan, you should follow the BSA Service Project Planning Guidelines and the BSA Tool Use Guidelines.

8b. Take part in at least one troop mobilization. Before the exercise, describe your part to your counselor. Afterward, conduct an “after-action” lesson, discussing what you learned during the exercise that required changes or adjustments to the plan.

You can’t really do this requirement unless your troop (not a merit badge midway class) does emergency service. So talk to your SPL about what kind of emergency service your troop can do. Put at least one emergency service event on the troop calendar each year, participate, and this requirement will be easy.

To research ideas, you and your SPL can talk to the Emergency Coordinator (EC) for your local ARES/RACES organization. They’ll have a good grasp of local emergency planning and can give you more contacts.

8c. Prepare a personal emergency service pack for a mobilization call. Prepare a family emergency kit (suitcase or waterproof box) for use by your family in case an emergency evacuation is needed. Explain the needs and uses of the contents.

ARES/RACES volunteers call their personal emergency service packs a “Go Kit”. In our area, we have a “2-Hour Carry Kit” and a “12-Hour Go Kit”. You can use these Go Kit lists as a starting point: PDF Go Kit list, MS Word Go Kit list. The weather in your area will probably require different gear. In our area, we don’t have snow or sub-zero weather.

How do you find your local ARES/RACES group? Ask your local office of emergency services, usually part of the police or fire department. Or ask the fire chief, they should know. You can also search for “ARES RACES” plus the name of your county. There is often a county group that coordinates city groups, for example, this list of city ARES/RACES contacts is on the Santa Clara County ARES/RACES page. Other examples: Williamson County (TX) ARES, Marion County (IN) ARES, and so on. This list of links to ARES/RACES groups might also help, though some links are old and dead.

If you are an ARES/RACES member, consider becoming a merit badge counselor. This merit badge is required for the Eagle rank, so it is very popular. Last year, 46,069 Scouts earned this merit badge!

Emergency Preparedness merit badge patch  world Radio Scouting patchARES color logoRACES color logo

Note on abbreviations: Amateur radio emergency volunteer groups can be called “ARES” (Amateur Radio Emergency Service, an ARRL-sponsored group), “RACES” (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, a government-sponsored group), or “ACS” (Auxiliary Communications Service, the organizational department name used when deployed). In most cases, there is one group that changes hats for different events, and we call it “ARES/RACES”. For more detailed descriptions and even more acronyms, read the Santa Clara County ARES/RACES FAQ.

Radio Scouting: Patrol Camping

Patrols should camp out of earshot from each other and the adult leaders. But how do we provide adequate adult supervision in that situation? With radio communications, of course!

An ideal troop campout has patrols camping separately, probably 100 feet to 100 yards apart from each other. The SPL and ASPL(s) camp separately. The adults should also be at the same distance. But in that configuration, how do the adults provide “qualified supervision” as required in the Sweet Sixteen of BSA Safety? And how does the youth chain of command from Senior Patrol Leader (SPL) to Patrol Leader (PL) work?

This is the supervision requirement from the Sweet Sixteen:

Every BSA activity should be supervised by a conscientious adult who understands and knowingly accepts responsibility for the well-being and safety of the children and youth in his or her care. The supervisor should be sufficiently trained, experienced, and skilled in the activity to be confident of his/her ability to lead and to teach the necessary skills and to respond effectively in the event of an emergency. Field knowledge of all applicable BSA standards and a commitment to implement and follow BSA policies and procedures are essential parts of the supervisor’s qualifications.

The major part of that is training and experience, so the adult needs to be comfortable with their level of oversight while leaving room for a boy-led troop.

With FRS hand-held radios, the Patrol Leaders can communicate with the Senior Patrol Leader, and the adults can monitor the discussion. FRS radios are quite effective at 100 yards, even through trees.

Patrol Leaders can report back to the SPL, or can ask questions. The adult leaders can listen to the traffic. If quick intervention is needed, adults can break in on the discussion. If the SPL needs mentoring, the Scoutmaster can walk over, perhaps with an announcement on-frequency that they are visiting the campsites.

Radio communication should always be backed up with “management by wandering around”, as I learned at Hewlett-Packard. A casual stroll through the campsites with a few questions can uncover a lot of information.

What does this cost? Good quality FRS radios are available in the $20-40 range. A troop with four patrols would need six radios, one for each PL, one for the SPL, and one for the Scoutmaster.

If the youth leadership has amateur radio licenses, they could use hand-held radios with greater range. Amateur hand-helds (HT’s) start around $50.

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