Ham Radios: Salt-Cured Interoperability

July 22nd, 2010

Today, technology – cell phones, e-mail, social media, etc. – provides abundant opportunities for people to communicate instantly with one another. General information sharing, planning, and coordination occur seamlessly on a daily basis. These modes of daily correspondence might appear sufficient to sustain communication between individuals during and after an emergency. Given all the high-tech options, use of low-tech interoperable technologies, like amateur (ham) radio, for emergency response might appear unnecessary, outdated, and wasteful – like an attempt at reviving the typewriter or the Model-T. However, because technologies like ham radios provide invaluable benefits for emergency preparedness and response, emergency managers should preserve and cultivate these capacities.

Ham radios provide a safety net during network outage or overload

Modern, high-tech communication devices can only operate when the proper, fixed power and electrical infrastructure exists around them. Disasters can wipe out this essential infrastructure, rendering these devices useless. In addition, a substantial increase in communications traffic during an emergency can jam the lines that remain standing.

Under these circumstances, amateur radios become a vital tool for emergency managers. These radios rely on their own batteries or generators instead of power lines and service towers, which are crucial to more advanced gadgets’ operations. Amateur radios are unaffected by damage to radio infrastructure and can continue to provide communication services to first responders and others requiring radio use in an emergency. Also, this medium serves as a viable substitute in the event of a network overload, thus providing an essential layer of redundancy. In short, ham radios allow emergency responders and the public to have a form of interoperable communications in times of greatest need.

Ham radios fill gaps during recent disasters

In some of the worst disasters of this past decade, amateur radio operators – known as “hams” – have provided a crucial form of assistance to emergency response efforts. During the Indonesian Tsunami in December 2004, tremors and waves severed all typical lines correspondence. Spikes in cell phone traffic left lines jammed in the midst and wake of the incident. To overcome these obstacles, emergency personnel relied on the assistance of hams. For instance, a team of seven hams on Andaman, a low-lying, remote island 1,500 kilometers off the coast of India, developed an emergency network that helped find missing persons. Hams relayed information back to the mainland government and fielded worldwide inquires about the status of missing persons from friends and relatives. The hams transmitted thousands of messages to and from the island, filling a crucial gap.

Hams added similar value during the relief effort following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. These operators played an active role in helping to save lives while communication systems across Mississippi and Louisiana were inoperative. One of the most compelling of the rescue efforts occurred in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, when amateur radio operators helped rescue 15 people who were trapped on the roof of a house after seeking refuge from rising floodwaters. Faced with a clogged 911 system, one of the trapped individuals used his cell phone to call a relative, who called another relative who, in turn, contacted the local chapter of the American Red Cross. The call recipient decided to use the chapter amateur radio station to send out a call for help via the SATERN Network. This message traveled via hams in Oregon and Utah until it reached emergency personnel in Louisiana. Upon receipt of the message, responders arrived and successfully rescued all 15 people, helping them safely get to a shelter.

While particularly crucial in large-scale events, a partnership between volunteer radio operators and emergency responders also provides benefits during smaller-scale, more locally-oriented incidents. Earlier this year, hams in Sussex County, Delaware teamed up with local Emergency Operations Center (EOC) officials in response to blizzards that covered the state with deep snowfall. Operators from Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services set up and controlled ham radios at the EOC, while Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) personnel drove throughout the county recording observations. The ARES affiliates then relayed their findings back to the EOC and helped to authenticate National Weather Service reports. In addition to this mission, the EOC also deployed an amateur radio operator to a shelter established during the storms in order to facilitate communication between the EOC and the shelter.

These cases help disprove the misconception that amateur radio is merely a nostalgic pastime. Ham radio use provides practical and concrete benefits to emergency managers in situations where conventional lines of communication can and do fail. The development and sustainment of a partnership between emergency managers and ham radio operators is essential to ensuring an effective and efficient response to all hazards, a lesson that resonates in Andaman, New Orleans, and Sussex County.

For information on amateur radio, click here.

Andrew Baer, CHHS Research Assistant (summer 2010), contributed to this post.

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