The Role of Amateur Radio In Disaster Communications


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When disaster strikes, terrestrial communications go down and cellular networks are immediately overloaded or destroyed, there are a corps of amateur radio operators around the world ready to help. Amateur Radio technologies are constantly evolving, and have in its history found a high degree of importance in emergency communications. The technologies and operations procedures are highly developed and many operators have trained and participated in handling emergency communications traffic – acting as a liaison between the public and official sources. “Ham” operators as they are referred to in slang terms are professionals in their ability to communicate locally and around the world. To get their FCC licenses they have to pass stringent testing to gain their station permits. Operators take pride in their knowledge, practices and equipment. Most experiment in differing genres within the art.

Amateurs as individuals and groups both locally, nationally and worldwide have always put emergency communications at the forefront of the technological hobby. When emergencies start or disasters occur, the rag chewing (normal conversation) stops. All amateurs both by habit and regulation respect the importance of emergency communications and focus on the situation at hand. There is a true camaraderie that overrides any differences of opinion. Perhaps it’s because Amateur Radio privileges are hard-earned and thus not given freely. In the days of internet, family radio and citizens band operators, many regard hams as a cut above the rest as civilian communicators.

There are many amateur radio groups locally, nationally and worldwide on a casual to official basis who specialize in emergency communications – more than can possibly be mentioned in this article. Emergency communications envelops more than severe storm observation – but any emergency where communications is vital. The groups meet, train and practice their techniques in quieter times to be at the ready as situations call. We can only mention some of these groups, but as a writer, I highly encourage all groups to make themselves known in the media at large.

ARES stands for Amateur Radio Emergency Service. It is an American Radio Relay League and Radio Amateurs Of Canada sanctioned cadre of highly trained amateur radio operator volunteers. In the immediate aftermath of the Katrina Hurricane Disaster, AREA radio amateur operators provided primary communications for the activities of the American Red Cross. When Hancock, Mississippi lost all contact with the outside world – including the loss of 911 service, the hams pitched in with the innate ability to operate off the grid in providing a link between the general public and emergency services. Amature Radio operators were also enormously busy in providing emergency communications during the 2003 North American blackout. The hams worked directly with each other both by point-to-point communications known as simplex as well by use of a repeater placed on top of the Chrysler Building in New York. Joining ARES requires both an amateur radio operator’s license and a willingness to serve. In Canada, ARES is coordinated by the RAC – Radio Amateurs of Canada. Like many structured organizations, ARES maintains different levels – Emergency Coordinators (EC), oversees organizing local groups as well serving a leadership role in emergency operations. Assistant Emergency Coordinators (AEC) are assigned specific geographical areas to serve. They also act as a contact point during Skywarn operations. Next in line is the District Emergency Coordinator (DEC) whose duty encompasses operations of surrounding county and cities within a given area. And rounding up of the layers is the Section Manager who oversees operations in more densely populated areas and states. In the U.S., there are seventy one geographic administrative areas while in Canada, there are eight.

RACES stands for Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. RACES was enacted in 1952 and is a standby communications entity which operates during times of war, superseding standard amateur radio practices. It is coordinated by both the US Army’s Office of Civil Defense and the American Radio Relay League. In times of wartime civil peril, only previously authorized operators are allowed to transmit on frequency bandwidths assigned to the amateur radio service – all others are ordered into immediate radio silence for the duration of an event. In practice most amateur radio operators are to be assigned as control operators in times of emergency. Times in which RACES rules go into effect include natural, technological accidents, nuclear attacks, terrorist incidents and bomb threats.

Military Auxiliary Radio Service, otherwise known as MARS is sponsored by the US Department of Defense and is separately operated by the Army, Navy and Air Force. It also incorporates radio operators who are on active duty, reserve and National Guard Units, including Navy and Marine Corps as well the National Oceananic and Atmospheric Administration ships and Coast Guard cutters and shore stations. MARS specializes in worldwide emergency communications. There are over 5,000 dedicated and skilled ham radio operators who make up the specialized corps whose motto is to “Proudly Serving Those Who Serve” in its voluntary force. MARS main mission is to provide auxiliary communications for the military, federal, civil and disaster officials during times of emergency. On a day-to-day basis they are involved in handling communications traffic between service personnel – active duty, reserve, guard, or retired as well specific federal employees outside the United States.

MARS involvement was in evidence after terrorists attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center on 9.11.2001, providing emergency communications traffic in the aftermath. On January 12th, 2010, after a massive 7.0 earthquake, MARS again was on the ground providing emergency communications amid the aftershocks during the interruption of normal communications and working out of tents. The MARS operators traveled in teams along with medical and humanitarian organizations. All the people providing emergency services at these incidents and others are true heroes.

Skywarn is a program operated by the United States National Weather Service with the primary objective of supplying eyewitness accounts of severe weather activity. The information is used to determine the nature of developing severe weather activity as well intensity in issuing warnings and watches. The spotters are trained by local National Weather Service offices. Many of the Skywarn volunteers are highly trained amateur radio operators utilizing voice and digital communications.

ARRL/RAC Field Day is an important amateur radio tradition occurring in the fourth full weekend in June of each year. While some may consider it a contest, its underpinnings are highly serious in nature. Field day is conducted ’off the grid’ and runs good weather and bad. Equipment is powered by generators, solar and wind turbine as well battery operation and other specialized means. There are many special technologies used and modes of operation, including voice, data and Morse code. All bands are used excluding 60, 30, 17 and 12 meter bands. Transmit levels are also equated into the mix. Hams contact hams all over the United States and Canada recording data on reception, intelligibility, power output, time of day, call identification – amateurs work as a team in contacting as many stations as possible around North America. Many clubs will invite both the media and general public to observe during the event.

When weather, natural, man-made or war/terrorism emergencies strike, amateur radio operators fill the void left by busy governmental, humanitarian, safety and law enforcement agencies. They are highly trained volunteers whose hobby has a very serious side in serving humanity in areas of their expertise. If you are interested in knowing more about amateur radio, then visit ARRL at www.arrl.org. A good book to read on the subject of Emergency Communications include ARRL’s Storm Spotting & Amateur Radio and Guide To Emergency Survival Communications by Dave Ingram.

About The Author: Andrew Boggs, BA has worked extensively in print and broadcast news both locally and nationally covering stories as a stringer for United Press International and Associated Press. He has also contributed as a stringer for ABC, CBS, NBC and Mutual Radio news. Currently he writes for Digital Journal and Bleacher Report as well webmaster for www.MALL727.net. He also holds both FCC commercial and amateur radio licenses.

5 comments

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I had no idea that the network was that well put together. The resource is in the people willing to invest their time and money to relay critical information in a timely manner. SF

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5 VU2CRD { 06.23.12 at 2:40 am }

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