VDF building partnerships, capabilities with amateur radio community

Virginia Defense Force members worked with volunteer amateur radio operators Jan. 18, 2020, during the Operation Grid Failure exercise to learn more about their procedures for supporting the Virginia Emergency Operations Centers in Richmond, Virginia.

RICHMOND, Va. — Members of the Virginia Defense Force took part in the “Operation Grid Failure” statewide amateur radio emergency communications exercise Jan. 18, 2020, to continue building partnerships and capabilities with the amateur radio community.

“Taking part in the Operation Grid Failure exercise was a great opportunity for the VDF to display its operational readiness across multiple transmission paths and interoperability with the amateur radio emergency communications community,” said Brig. Gen. (Va.) Justin P. Carlitti, Jr., commander of the VDF. “We plan to build on our strong partnerships so we can improve our skills and procedures and provide important interoperable communications capabilities to support the Virginia National Guard and citizens of the commonwealth during times of need.”

Carlitti explained that each time the VDF is able to conduct exercises with amateur radio organizations, they are able to improve their ability to communicate across long distances. He added that the exercises provide opportunities for experimentation with different antenna configurations, different modes operation, and to learn from amateur radio operators with many years of experience.

In Richmond, VDF personnel trained on amateur radio systems and built partnerships with amateur radio operators who support the Virginia Department of Emergency Management at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center. In Lynchburg, Fairfax and Virginia Beach, VDF members used the equipment in mobile communications platform trailers and portable radio systems to make contact with the operators across the state.

Amateur radio can be an invaluable emergency communications resource in severe weather situations when tradition systems are unavailable, Carlitti said. The exercise provided an opportunity for the VDF to continue to build on the existing partnership with VDEM and expand their relationships with amateur radio organizations.

One of the priority tasks for the exercise was using special software to send data over high frequency and very high frequency radio signals, said Lt. Col. (Va.) Robin Phillips, the VDF G6 communications officer. VDF personnel successful sent email messages via radio transmissions in addition to establishing voice communications across the state.

Phillips was on location in Richmond where VDF personnel were able to observe, participate and learn how volunteer amateur radio operators receive messages and relay to the VDEM EOC for follow up.

While taking part in the exercise helped the VDF continue to build partnerships with the amateur radio community, some individuals have chosen to bring their experience with them and join.

Spc. (Va.) David Melton had prior military experience with six years in the Virginia Air National Guard, and after meeting with VDF recruiters at a conference, decided he wanted to get back in uniform.

“I think the VDF is a great organization to join,” Melton said. “You get to put the uniform on again, you get a lot of camaraderie and great training, and you are serving your state in a time of need. All of that really appealed to me.” 

Melton already has an amateur radio license and station at home that he uses every day as well as a background in computer systems and electronics from his time in the Air Force.

“All of that really comes together and this is a great fit for me,” he said.

The VDF recently was granted by the Federal Communications Commission its own federally-recognized call sign as an amateur radio organization, particularly with its focus on enabling emergency communications in times of degraded commercial service or infrastructure.  Carlitti said the VDF soon should be able to administer the FCC testing for amateur radio licenses.

According to the National Association of Amateur Radio web site, there are three types of license classes for amateur radio operations: Technician, General and Amateur Extra. The Technician class license is the entry-level license of choice for most new radio operators, the General class license grants some operating privileges on all amateur radio bands and all operating modes, and the Amateur Extra class license conveys all available U.S. Amateur Radio operating privileges on all bands and all modes.

The ARRL site explains that amateur radio, also known as ham radio, can be used to talk across town, around the world, or even into space, all without the Internet or cell phones and can “be a lifeline during times of need.” Amateur radio operates on designated “radio bands” as authorized by the FCC as a companion to other bands of radio spectrum allocated for government, military and commercial radio uses employed by aircraft, ship, fire and police communications.

Melton holds the Amateur General license, and the VDF currently has about 10 percent of its members holding one of the three licenses. The highest percentage of members with licenses are assigned to the Communications Battalion, but the VDF is encouraging all its members to pursue this achievement. Members who have a license can were a tab on their uniform indicating the type of amateur license they hold. Membership in the VDF helps license holders to improve their skills and help them prepare for the higher level license.

To earn the Technician license requires passing one examination totaling 35 questions on radio theory, regulations and operating practices. After earning the Technician license, an operator can earn the General class license rafter passing passing a 35 question examination. Earning the Amateur Extra license requires passing a thorough 50 question examination.

The VDF MCP is a 7 1/2 feet by 16 feet trailer equipped with multiple radio systems for voice and data communications, and it also features a map board and work space so it can function as a mobile command post. Using an MCP, members of the VDF are able to communicate across a variety of radio spectrums with emergency response and public safety organizations as well as amateur radio operators.

The VDF is authorized by Title 44 of the Code of the Virginia as the all-volunteer reserve of the Virginia National Guard, and it serves as a force multiplier integrated into all Guard domestic operations. The VDF reports to the Adjutant General of Virginia as part of the Virginia Department of Military Affairs along with the Virginia Army National Guard and Virginia Air National Guard. Members of the VDF volunteer their time for training and are only paid when called to state active duty by an authorization from the Governor of Virginia.

During domestic operations, the Virginia National Guard receives missions through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to assist the Virginia State Police and other state and local emergency service organizations as part of the state emergency response team.