Back in the 1970s, I did quite a lot of work associated with that voluntary first-aid organisation called the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. In those days, St. John's did not have the funds to equip their ambulances with two-way radio. Rather, they preferred to spend their limited resources - accrued by the time-honoured expedient of rattling charity collection boxes vigorously under people's noses on street corners and in shopping centres - on more important things like medical supplies and first aid training.
When the need arose, the Brigade would sometimes engage with a local group of volunteers to provide communication between their command and control post, the ambulances and their fixed first aid posts. These licenced radio amateurs, widely known at the time as Ham Radio enthusiasts, would make themselves available for practice exercises and the occasional planned 'live' event.
I have often thought that explaining the tenants of amateur radio, especially to a modern audience, is really quite difficult. The idea that individuals are supposed to be responsible for their own behaviour in a medium that could have quite literally worldwide implications seems anathema to governing bodies in a modern world which seemed to insist on policing even the most microscopic elements of everyday life.
The published purpose of the Radio Amateur licence was to perform "experiments and self-training", harking back to the heyday of the hobby in the early twentieth century when a few talented individuals made discoveries which opened up the world to near-instantaneous communication. It was expected that one should be able to construct one's own two-way radio equipment and operate it in the approved fashion. So, it was quite legal to make radio transmissions, provided that one had acquired the appropriate a Home Office licence. In those days, it was necessary to pass a formal examination, including a two-part multiple choice paper, as well as a test in Morse Code: you know, the dots-and-dashes, Ess-Oh-Ess and all that.
I was at the time a student at one of the larger red-brick universities in the North of England. In between my studies and my sporadic social life, and quite probably to the detriment of both, I became an active Radio Ham. Encouraged by my few friends and acquaintances, I studied for and passed the examinations, and rapidly acquired both licence and callsign. The latter was quite a lengthy sequence of letters and numbers, since it had to be a unique identification world-wide, but I soon became adept at rattling off my new callsign into a microphone.
With my wet-behind-the-ears enthusiasm, I purchased several pieces of second-hand radio equipment with money form my student grant - funds which might have been better used for books, or even food. I also started attending regularly a local radio club, which took place in a community centre building a short bicycle ride from the university, and took part in a variety of social and technical events. It was through a contact at the Club that I was first invited to become a member of the Radio Amateurs' Emergency Network, also known as Raynet.
Raynet was, and indeed still is, a volunteer organisation dedicated to the supply of radio communication in the event of local or national disaster. When that airliner came down at Lockerbie, for example, Raynet members accompanied groups in the harrowing search for parts of aircraft or bodies. As part of the training, however, Raynet members were permitted to undertake practice events - not real emergencies, but planned activities in the public eye - usually in conjunction with volunteer first-aid organisations like the St. John's Ambulance Brigade.
My first 'live' Raynet exercise was supporting the Brigade in providing first-aid coverage of a bicycle race around the streets of the city. This particular part of town was notorious for being built entirely on the slope; steep hills, cobbled streets, sharp bends winding between the buildings were amongst the hazards facing the racers. There was a high probability of competitors falling off and suffering grazes and bruising, or perhaps more serious injury: broken bones or gravel forced under their skin by their fall.
The other hazard anticipated for this sort of event was explained to me by old George, an overweight and avuncular senior first aider that I had somehow fallen into conversation with. I suspected that George had been patching up accident victims for several thousand years, or perhaps just since the Second World War. In any case, he told me that the heat and crowded streets would over-tire the weak and elderly, with a real risk of collapses and even heart attacks amongst the spectators.
An acquaintance of mine, a student doctor at the university's teaching hospital, described such volunteers in rather disparaging terms.
"First Aiders," he suggested pompously, "Can usually be relied upon only to mark the approximate site of an injury with a bandage."
I have no medical training, but I have worked with such first-aid groups off-and-on over the years, and my erstwhile friend's remarks are a little overstated. In my view, it is certainly useful to have people around who would not faint at the sight of blood - it always makes me rather queasy, I have to say - and were equipped to quickly get the sick and injured to professional medical attention.
As had been planned carefully beforehand, the Raynet group set up a control centre in the local St. John's headquarters. This was located in an unprepossessing suburb, and it had taken me nearly twenty minutes to cycle there with a heavy rucksack of radio equipment on my back. The other members of our squad had already arrived by the time I got there. Dave, the leader of the Raynet squad, was a weather-beaten man of middle age, wiry-thin and very fit from regular walking expeditions to the more inaccessible parts of the UK.
Dave would be manning the control station, together with a couple of those fresh-faced school-age kids known as SWLs - standing for Short Wave Listeners - to whom, with the advantage of several years of age and an operator's licence, I felt so superior. The juniors would act as runners, and assist in liaising with the Brigade top brass, who were easily recognised by their heavily braided uniforms and self-important attitudes.
When I got there, Dave was supervising the assembly of the base station in one corner of the main hall at the HQ. The headquarters was housed in a single story building with rather weathered brickwork with a flat roof which featured a curious upper floor, a protrusion from the roof presumably built to house a water tank. A month or two before, a small group from the local Raynet group, including myself, had spent some time drilling holes into the brickwork to mount a mast for an antenna. From the aerial, a thick cable ran into the building under the eaves, the remaining length of which had been stored, neatly coiled, in a corner of the hall. The team had also erected a second temporary aerial mast in the grounds nearby to allow for a second radio channel on a different band.
I had been allocated to an ambulance crew who were to station themselves at a designated spot on the race course as first aid cover, and I was to provide two-way radio communication. My acquaintance George was the leader of the group and he casually pointed out the vehicle we were to use. I immediately set about installing the radio equipment I had brought with me in the selected ambulance.
The Brigade's ambulances, which were usually acquired second-hand from the public ambulance service, were an eclectic mixture of vehicles of a variety of vintages. About the only common denominator was the custom-built aluminium coachwork. It was therefore not possible to attach an external aerial using a 'mag-mount'; the magnetic base would simply slide off when the vehicle started moving.
Pre-warned, I was forced to attach a mounting bracket to the vehicle guttering with a couple of Allen screws. On this particular vehicle, the only available place was just above the passenger side door. This worked well enough, I suppose, although it made getting in and out of the ambulance through that door a little awkward.
My lightweight portable transceiver was attached to the antenna by a short length of cable, and fed through the rubber door-seals so that the door could still close easily. It was also possible to charge the set's battery by a second cable plugged into the convenient cigarette lighter socket, although why an ambulance would need a cigarette lighter at all was beyond me.
Once I had got the equipment installed, we set off for the designated station, with me in the middle seat in the Ambulance, squeezed between the professionally taciturn driver and Old George, with the transceiver sat precariously on my lap.
The remainder of the group of first-aiders were transported in the back of the ambulance, and a surprising number of individuals of all shapes and sizes were decanted from the rear of the vehicle when we arrived. Each was dressed in the distinctive uniform of the St. John's Brigade, including a para-military peaked hat. Most were carrying a large box with webbing handles filled with the sterile dressings, rolled bandages and sticking plasters which are the stock-in-trade of the jobbing paramedic.
As we set up our first aid station, I found a moment to look around at the surroundings, finally properly appreciated the difficulties of the situation. The races themselves would traverse the normal streets and concourses of the town, which was reputed to have been built, like Rome, on seven hills. Although, as a regular cyclist myself, it certainly seemed like a lot more than was identified by the official description.