More Americans than ever have been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission as amateur radio operators, and those in the know say emergency communications fuels their passion for being “hams.”
“There has been enormous interest in emergency preparedness since 9/11 and Katrina, and that is also true for the amateur radio community,” said Mike Corey, emergency preparedness manager for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). “Emergency communications is a gateway to amateur radio, and many join our ranks out of an interest in being better prepared themselves and as a way to serve their community.”
“This is the third year in a row that the total number of new licenses has exceeded 30,000,” Maria Somma, ARRL’s volunteer reviewer coordinator, said last year. She said 32,552 were granted in 2016, 32,077 in 2015, and 33,241 in 2014. The total number of active amateur radio licenses issued by the FCC hit an all-time high of 743,003 in November 2016.
The growing public interest in amateur radio for emergency communications is a legacy of 9/11, when Americans saw their cellphone networks overwhelmed by excessive traffic and system outages. When regular telephone service fails, amateur radio operators fill the communications void with their independent transceivers and backup batteries.
“I think we’ve seen an increase in new licenses because of amateur radio’s emergency capabilities,” said Jack Ciaccia, ARRL Colorado chapter manager. “Interest really peaks after a large-scale event where amateur radio was used.”
Amateur radio operators played an important role in restoring vital communication links in the aftermath of 9/11, hurricanes, tornadoes and other major disasters that affected the United States. They help direct first responders to victims, provide real-time situational updates from the scene of the disaster to emergency management agencies, and offer victims a way to contact family and friends when normal communication channels are failing.
“Generally, amateur radio operators assist other organizations and agencies by adding communications capabilities when normal means of communications are down or overloaded,” Corey said. “Hobbyists work with local emergency management, first responders, hospitals, the National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center and VOADs. [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters] and the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Many also use amateur radio as part of their own family communication plan and use the skills they learn as amateurs to help their neighbors during emergencies and disasters.
Walt Palmer is a Licensed Amateur Radio Operator, and also Director of Broadcast Operations, Engineering and Programming at NewsRadio WGMD 92.7 FM in Rehoboth Beach, Del. at my office, which can be hooked up to our FM transmitter in case of an emergency,” he said. “If regular communications fail, the COU can put the mayor or one of his officials on the 2 meter band, and I can rebroadcast it through our FM channel to our entire coverage area.”
Emergency officials have taken note of the usefulness of amateur radio operators during man-made and natural disasters – and many maintain ongoing relationships with their local amateur radio communities. This includes assigning specific roles to amateur radio operators in each agency’s emergency response plan, and even reserving space for radio amateurs in their EOCs.
For many years, the ARRL has established Special Amateur Radio Emergency Service Units (ARES) to assist in times of crisis. Each ARES unit “consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment with their local ARES Directorate for Public Service Disaster Communications,” according to the ARRL’s website. ARES members are trained to work with local emergency management; having your own food, sleeping gear and other supplies to survive in emergencies away from home; and for having pre-planned for their family’s well-being during the ARES team member’s absence.
“In most cases, the amateur radio response to an emergency or disaster is handled by local ARES teams,” Corey said. “However, in the event of large-scale disasters such as a hurricane or major earthquake, ARRL Headquarters will assist local and national ARES teams with equipment, media support, regulatory advice and coordination with national partners.”
“Most of our ARES teams across the country partner with local and national emergency management,” he added. “In most cases, this relationship also allows for closer work with other local response groups such as public safety, hospitals and local VOADs.”
This is certainly the case in Colorado. In 2016, the state legislature officially designated qualified hams as members of Colorado’s new Auxiliary Emergency Communications Unit, under the authority of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division. State, within the Ministry of Public Security.
As a result of this new law, Colorado ARES crews are now part of their state’s emergency management team, with their own roles with their state’s emergency management plans and facilities.
“In many EOCs, including the Colorado EOC, ARES has its own space with its own permanently installed radio equipment and antenna installations,” Ciaccia said. “In Boulder, they also maintain a cache of portable equipment that can be deployed as soon as manpower becomes available. This way they never have to worry about getting anyone’s personal gear for use in an emergency.
It should be noted that hams also help emergency officials in less serious situations. For example, “across the United States, amateurs are helping the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program provide ground truth reports during severe weather events,” Corey said. All told, the growing number of amateur radio operators in the United States are self-funded, fully equipped communicators, many of whom wish to support local emergency managers and first responders in any way possible.
“We have worked extremely hard over the years to become helpful and professional through our support to OEMs and EOCs in our community,” Ciaccia said. “The primary capability that radio amateurs bring to emergency management is our varied modes and frequencies: we can usually create a path of communication when others do not exist. Because of these two important and valuable products that are not usually available to public service entities, we are a great asset to local authorities when needed. »