During times of disaster, homeland security resources at all levels of government are often stretched to capacity. The whole-of-government approach involving local, county, state and federal agencies is sometimes not enough, especially in the realm of communications. That is where a dedicated group of private hobbyists, known as amateur radio operators, or “hams” as they call themselves, come into play. This community of tinkerers, experimentalists and lovers of all things radio, operate their own licensed radio stations on which they communicate with other enthusiasts around the globe.
Having family members in the ham community, I can attest firsthand to the allure this hobby has over people. As a young boy, I saw my Dad feverishly tapping out Morse code to amateurs around the world. I watched in amazement as he communicated from his basement “shop” with my brother stationed in the Philippines during the Viet Nam war.
“Hams” use a variety of methods to communicate including, voice, computer and Morse code. They are adept at bouncing their signals off the upper levels of the atmosphere, satellites or even the moon for long distance communications. Their “rigs” include simple handheld radios up to a room full of gear.
Today’s hams carry on a hobby almost as old as radio itself. With the passage of the Radio Act in 1912, the first amateur radio licenses were issued. Since then, hams have played a role in facilitating communications during disasters. Their ad hoc networking, decentralized operational locations and flexible operating environment frees them from the procedural constraints which often encumber government-run communications networks. This makes hams an ideal adjunct to emergency preparedness response and recovery operations.
The value of amateur radio operators in homeland security was recognized even before WWII, when the Civil Defense Agency incorporated hams in its Civil Defense Communications System in 1941. During the war years, hams were only permitted to operate within the War Emergency Radio Service, an invaluable communications asset on the home front. A 1943 article in Popular Mechanics notes their use in case of an attack or disaster on the mainland.
Today, hams continue to provide vital emergency communications during disasters. According to a 2010 article in Emergency Management, the American Radio Relay League, a nationwide organization of amateur radio operators, has signed memorandums of understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service and others to provide communications support in times of need. The National Emergency Communications Plan, revised in 2014 by the US Department of Homeland Security, includes amateur radio to “support and sustain communications in a disaster or emergency.”
Hams proved their worth during a 2007 storm in Oregon, where communications were severed with three counties. Hams were used to make vital requests for emergency services to the state’s Emergency Management Office. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ham radio operators are credited with saving many lives, including those of fifteen people stranded on a New Orleans rooftop. According to NBC News, it was a ham’s call for rescue that saved the day.
The catastrophic tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri in May of 2010, necessitated the activation of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) organization to provide crucial communications to an area in which all electricity and communications had been knocked out. The volunteers of ARES performed brilliantly, providing continuous, around-the-clock communications for several days.
In this world of highly sophisticated government and commercial communications networks, amateur radio operators still provide a valuable service to their fellow citizens, driven not by fame or fortune, but by a volunteer ethic.
“Seventy-threes” to all you hams out there. That’s ‘best regards’ for all you non-hams out there.