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Emergency Communications Driving Increase in Amateur Radio Operators

Hams standing by and ready to help during disasters or other events.

More Americans than ever have been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission as amateur radio operators, and those in the know say that emergency communications is driving their passion to be “hams.”

“There has been a tremendous amount of interest in emergency preparedness since 9/11 and Katrina, and this is true for the amateur radio community as well,” said Mike Corey, the emergency preparedness manager for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). “Emergency communications is a gateway into amateur radio, and many join our ranks through 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,” said ARRL Volunteer Examiner Coordinator Manager Maria Somma last year. She said 32,552 were granted in 2016, 32,077 in 2015, and 33,241 in 2014. Total active FCC-issued ham radio licenses hit an all-time high of 743,003 in November 2016.

The public’s growing interest in amateur radio for emergency communications is a legacy of 9/11, when Americans saw their cellular telephone networks become overwhelmed by excess traffic and system outages. When regular phone service fails, amateur radio operators fill the communications gap with their independent transceivers and battery power backups.

 “I think we have experienced an uptick in new licenses due to the emergency capabilities of ham radio,” said Jack Ciaccia, ARRL Colorado section manager. “Interest really peaks after a large-scale event where ham radio has been utilized.”

Amateur radio operators played a substantial role in restoring vital communications links in the wake of 9/11, hurricanes, tornadoes and other major disasters that have affected the United States. They assist in directing first responders to victims, providing real-time situational updates from the disaster scene to emergency management agencies, and offering victims a way to contact their families and friends when normal communications channels have failed.

 “Generally, amateur radio operators assist other organizations and agencies by adding communications capacity when normal means of communications are down or overloaded,” Corey said. “Amateurs work with local emergency management, first responders, hospitals, National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center and VOADs [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters] and the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Many also use amateur radio as part of their own family communications plan and use the skills they learn as amateurs to assist neighbors during emergencies and disasters.”

 Walt Palmer is a licensed ham radio operator, and also director of broadcast operations, engineering and programming at NewsRadio WGMD 92.7 FM in Rehoboth Beach, Del. “Through an arrangement with our local EOC, I have a 2-meter ham radio set and antenna at my desk, which can be patched into our FM transmitter during emergencies,” he said. “If regular communications fail, the EOC can put the mayor or one of their officials on the 2-meter band, and I can rebroadcast it via our FM channel to our entire coverage area.”

 Emergency managers have taken note the usefulness of amateur radio operators during manmade and natural disasters — and many have ongoing relationships with their local ham communities. This includes assigning amateur radio operators specific roles within each agency’s emergency response plan, and even setting space aside for hams in their EOCs.

 For many years, ARRL has created special Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) units to assist during times of crisis. Each ARES unit “consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment with their local ARES leadership for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes,” according to the ARRL website. ARES members are trained to work with local emergency management; to have their own food, sleeping equipment and other supplies to survive during emergency situations away from home; and to have pre-planned for their families’ 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,” said Corey. “However, in the case of large-scale disasters such as a large hurricane or earthquake, ARRL headquarters will assist local and state ARES teams with equipment, media support, regulatory guidance and coordination with national partners.”

 “Most of our ARES teams around the country partner with local and state 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 state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, in the Department of Public Safety.

 As a result of this new law, Colorado ARES teams 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 gear and antenna installations,” Ciaccia said. “In Boulder, they also maintain a cache of portable equipment that can be deployed as soon as manpower is available. This way, they never have to worry about obtaining anyone's personal gear for use in an emergency.”

 It is worth noting that hams also aid emergency managers in less dire situations. For instance, “throughout the United States, amateurs assist the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program in providing ground truth reports during severe weather events,” Corey said. All told, the growing number of amateur radio operators in the U.S. are self-funding, fully equipped communicators, many of whom want to support local emergency managers and first responders any way they can.

 “We have worked extremely hard over the years to become useful and professional with our assistance to our community OEMs and EOCs,” Ciaccia said. “The major capability that hams bring to emergency management is our varied modes and frequencies: We can usually make a communications path when others do not exist. Because of those two important and valuable commodities that are usually not available to public service entities, we are an important asset to local authorities in times of need.”