Disrespect of amateur radio on Sept. 11
As I’ve noted previously, I am a history buff. If history teaches anything, it is that we must learn from our mistakes, or we are destined to repeat them. I know this firsthand.
Do you recall the tragedy that was the Iranian revolution of 1979? I remember Nov. 4, 1979. That day, Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage. It was the day I knew my world was going to get a lot more interesting. I was a flight line maintenance officer with an air rescue unit and was one of the first aircraft maintenance officers on two advanced special-forces helicopters — the only two in the Air Force inventory.
One rescue attempt ended up as a tragedy itself. “Eagle Claw” was plagued by failures. The chief failure was what I call the “chaos of command.” From mission planning to mission departure, the “on-the-fly” approach to the mission contributed to the ground disaster that was Desert One. This is not to take anything away from the men of the Air Force, Navy and Marines who participated. They were faced with a task I believe they were not prepared to do, and they did the best job they could.
But what many do not realize is that there was to be a second attempt that included our special ops helos. I saw this event firsthand. Did we learn from Eagle Claw? No. We faced the same command chaos. “Honey Badger” (the code name for the rescue effort) never went. The American government traded Iranian assets for the release of the hostages, and the mission was canceled.
In the postmortem of Honey Badger, did we learn from the command chaos? Yes. Did we take the appropriate action? Supposedly. Did we have problems in future actions? Yes.
Chaos of command
I was reminded of Eagle Claw and Honey Badger as I researched the actions of the amateur radio operators during the events of Sept. 11. During my interviews with Charles Hargrove (N2NOV), the ARRL NYC district emergency coordinator who supported the New York World Trade Center efforts, and Tom Gregory (N4NW), the ARRL Virginia section emergency coordinator supporting the Pentagon, I flashed back to 1979.
Both men, and the volunteers who worked with them, faced many obstacles in bringing badly needed communications capability to the rescue efforts at the WTC and the Pentagon. Among them was the same obstacle we faced during the Iranian hostage situation: the chaos of command.
Was this to be expected given the nature of the attacks? Of course. Who could prepare for something like Sept. 11? But, in listening to them describe the reaction of the “command” authorities to the ARRL volunteers, it appears to me the Office of Emergency Management in New York and the Washington police authority have little respect for amateur radio emergency service volunteers.
Hunting the OEM
In New York, the problem was the OEM. When ARRL volunteers were ready to respond to support the OEM, they had to find it first. (The OEM was forced out of its location at 7 WTC.) On two occasions, Hargrove had to hunt it down. When Hargrove located it, he was able to determine that it needed phone lines. He was able to work the with the telephone company and obtain the lines. Logic dictates that, had the OEM understood the need for the amateur radio capability to begin with, time would have been saved. Communications could have been improved, and who knows what could have been accomplished had that communications been available sooner?
Security issues at the Pentagon
While Hargrove was facing command and control issues in New York, Gregory found security at the Pentagon to be a real obstacle. He noted that, initially, security was confused. At first, he was able to obtain ID badges for his people from military security. Within a few days, though, as more volunteers arrived to relieve the first ones, Gregory was faced with getting ID cards for his volunteers from civilian law enforcement — which had placed a limit on the number of cards issued. The ARRL volunteers eventually had to go through the American Red Cross and Salvation Army to obtain the cards. Both organizations themselves were also restricted to the number they could get. This put both organizations in a bind.
Lessons from Sept. 11
Are these new problems for ARRL volunteers? To the degree that they happened I would say yes. But, the fact they happened, at all tells me that New York and Washington officials need to analyze how important amateur radio is to them during disasters and need to involve ARRL in preparations. But, will they? History tells me they won’t. My gut feel is they better. And not just in Washington and New York, but in every city in America. The war is raging, and we cannot be so foolhardy as to believe it will not be brought to our shores another time. Again, amateur radio volunteers will have to fight an uphill battle. It’s maddening.