Urgent Matters

Singing the praises of unsung heroes


Hams worked with the American Red Cross to bring vital communications to dozens of shelters in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with David Sumner, the CEO of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which represents the amateur-radio community. Sumner was to be the keynote speaker at the Radio Club of America's annual awards banquet in New York City a couple of days later. Since it had been a while since I last spoke with him — far too long, really — I thought this would be a good time to catch up.

He told me that amateur radio was alive and well. This surprised me, though I don't really know why. I suppose it's because a lot of things that were popular in my youth — hula hoops, for instance — have fallen by the wayside in this era of technological one-upmanship that makes the Cold War arms proliferation look like a potato-sack race.

Sumner completely understood my reaction. "The perception is that we're stuck in the Sixties," he said. "But the number of licenses continues to grow. In fact, this is the sixth straight year of growth."

He attributed the increased popularity in part to the do-it-yourself movement that is sweeping the country — if you doubt this, then spend some time surfing your cable or satellite system's program guide. According to Sumner, DIY clubs are popping up from coast to coast. He told me of one in Washington, D.C., that operates in a church basement.

Members can access a wide variety of equipment and tools — the type of gear that is problematic to store if one dwells in a condo or apartment, as many D.C. denizens do — that can be used to build an even wider variety of things. A few members started to build ham radios just for kicks, and this led to the formation of an amateur radio club, Sumner said. He further predicted that more of these DIY clubs likely will be spawned as the reurbanization of America continues.

Periodically, we have written stories about the vital role that amateur-radio operators play in the aftermath of a major disaster, when commercial and public-safety communications infrastructure often is rendered inoperable. I recall that the hams were the only source of information for several days following the December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000 people and displaced 1.7 million more.

Sumner told me about the role that hams played in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Though public-safety communications systems fared very well in the 10-state region impacted by the disaster, that didn't stop the amateur-radio operators from getting involved. They worked with the American Red Cross to establish communications at dozens of shelters that popped up across the affected area. For many victims, the hams were the only way that they could get word to family and friends that they had survived.

So, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank them for their service. Amateur-radio operators tend to do their thing in anonymity. But when it hits the fan, they are front and center, right where you need them. America is better for it.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Discuss this Blog Entry 12

Mr. Ed (not verified)
on Nov 29, 2012

HAMs each tend to have a deep history of technology and part of it is often public service oriented. In many cases it is this rich technical background that works when; NOTHING ELSE WORKS.


Usually HAMs perform their public service in organized groups with radios, computers, the Internet links, satellite links and yes cell phones; but always with two important assets; HAMs are communication staff who have the ability to implement communication options A, B or C and the ability to repair a few of them.
73 de N9VTU

BOB AF2Q (not verified)
on Dec 3, 2012

The sad part is the average person thinks they can do with their computers that you can.
I was told my management I have to stay and do as they say when the super storm hit.
I am looked down on even though I have ben in the papers,pulled a lady out of a burning wreck then told I may not be able to operate my ham station in my own apartment.
I keep checking and I do see more people getting a TECH license but that's as far as it goes.
Repeaters here are used at drive time and I have 16 HT's and 6 mobile rigs for VHF and UHF
I have my own SAR team and I still can't do a thing here with ham radio because all the old farts think I should like in a bubble

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Thanks to the Hams for their services during disasters. Amateur Radio is alive and well.


W. Rick Duel PE W9XB (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

There is a side of amateur radio you may not have considered. Our nations infrastructure of public safety radio depends upon talented radio technicians and engineers. With out the technicial expertise of two-way radio technicians public safety radio would grind to a halt.

Where do the radio techs come from? No university or trade school I know of teaches radio. IT personnel and computer people are a dime a dozen. Every school teaches computers, no school teaches radio. It wasn't until my professional electives for my under graduate degree from IIT that I actually learned any thing close to radio. If you really want to learn radio you need a graduate degree in electrical engineering.

My 43 years in amateur radio has taught me that the best training ground for radio techs is amateur radio. Of the twenty-five "electrical mechanics" on my employers pay roll I can only classify about four or five as true radio men.

Many years ago "mom and pop" radio shops were plentiful. Cellular has all but killed two-way radio except for municipal, public safety, and a few large radio customers. The erosion of the customer data base killed all but the largest radio shops. Those that survived scaled back their personnel. You can not make a living these days by being a two-way radio salesman.

So where are the new radio men going to come from? College, no. Universities, no. Trade schools, no. Military, maybe a few. The only real source is those who take an interest in radio and by independent study obtain their amateur radio license. Amateur radio is the training ground and proving ground for those radio techs who maintain our public safety two-way radio systems.

Just advertise for a radio man. See how many true radio men apply and how many IT apply. Having interviewed prospective employees I can tell you the ratio to radio men to computer geeks is about 100 to 1 in favor of the computer geeks, if you can find a radio man in the first place.

Paul Garvey (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Yes, amateur radio is alive and well, and increasingly present in a growing percentage of county, state and national disasters.

Foundationally, we're technologists. Yet increasingly the real value has been in matching our contributions to the needs of our served agencies. And that most often readily happens at the operational and professional levels.

Served agencies don't care about the how when it comes to communications. They care about the what, when, where and with whom. Over time the amateur radio community has recognized this fundamental difference between an amateur radio hobbyist and a communications professional. They recognize that emergency communications is not an experiment, it's a service, with expected SLAs provided by a professional communications team trained in ICS, NIMS and emergency response. Some now seamlessly transition their skills as NWCG and All-Hazards qualified Communications Unit support members for Federal Incident Management Teams.

The efforts of the technical hobbyists have produced a wide range of local, national and global communications capabilities available the emergency services community. Voice, video and data capabilities have evolved to provide direct and indirect emergency response communications support, all independent of local PS and commercial infrastructure. And all supported by a national pool of thousands of volunteers.

Increasingly local and state agencies have accounted for amateur radio capabilities within their AOPs. Federal agencies are also formally recognizing the value of amateur radio as a key overlay communications medium, with federal grants equipping State and County EOCs with amateur radio equipment managed and maintained by amateur radio communications teams.

Yes, amateur radio is alive and well. And we’re ready to respond where and when needed.

Paul Garvey – K0BLM
Fairmount Fire
COML – NWCG and All-Hazards

Bob Simmons WB6EYV (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Prior comment is exactly right... main justification for ham radio in the eyes of government is to foster a pool of technical talent ( at almost no government cost ) with expertise in radio technology. Emergency communications is secondary, and becoming less relevant as time passes and alterative technologies "mature".

A new opportunity is presently in the news...not a natural disaster emergency but a social emergency... Syria has cut off all internet access... it would be amazing right now if ham radio operators in Syria were providing alternative internet access. I know that isn't nearly as simple as it sounds, but you can bet ham radio would be front and center in ALL the news if that did happen.

VE7XN (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

I think the thing about ham radio that makes it so useful and resilient in these situations is that it does not depend on any external infrastructure.

A volunteer operator can be deployed to a shelter or reception centre and be up and running in minutes with a car battery, VHF radio, and mag-mount antenna for local comms or NVIS and HF for regional comms. It doesn't matter if the cell or POTS network is down, they don't need it.

Of course buying commercial bandwidth for backhaul or even edge PTT is easy and shifts liability, but when then storm surge keeps coming and cable vaults are flooding your service level agreement with the telcom company becomes little more than toilet paper.

on Nov 30, 2012

sorry for the duplicate message. I didn't think it was going to post.

-Dave Kleber, KB3FXI

on Nov 30, 2012

Folks here might also be interested to know that many Amateur (Ham) Radio operators and groups have the capability of sending and receiving text messages, authentic ICS/HICS forms and larger messages and spreadsheet/databases over radio with no reliance on any infrastructure or commercial power.

I head up a working group that uses the NBEMS software for testing and training in digital radio communications. We run several nets (on the air training sessions) a week and have reliable communications up to about 200-300 miles with basic HF transceivers and home made wire antennas.

The NBEMS software is free (www.w1hkj.com) and does not require any expensive or complex hardware... and all anyone needs to copy the digital traffic is a radio receiver and a computer with a working microphone (internal or plug in).

NBEMS was recently used for successful shelter and backup communications operations for ARC and some county EOC's during and after Hurricane Sandy.

If anyone is interested in learning more, please drop me an email at kb3fxi at yahoo dot com or phone at 412-447-1767

-Dave Kleber, KB3FXI

Here's a video I produced to promote the use of NBEMS for emergency communications: http://youtu.be/GQwdCWDA6D0

JKohama (not verified)
on Jan 4, 2013

I agree. I am a ham radio operator since 1988. Because if ham radio I have responded to KAL 801 crash in Guam, WTC 2001, numerous typhoons, APEC and RIMPAC in Hawaii with the Hawaii DMAT and the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) thoughout the years. I am also a radio tech for the local PD. All of this would not be possible if not for ham radio. I am also the trustee for KH6COM, the Maui County Emergency Amateur Radio Club, which is comprised of CERT and professional emergency responders. Being on an island even a small incident can affect outlying communities and our members are always will to help out. Ham radio is sometimes an untapped resource for communications. Jayson T Kohama WH6BXK

Greg B (not verified)
on Jan 9, 2013

Amateur radio continues to be an important aspect of the backbone of emergency communications; not only here in the US but worldwide. This can be attributed to a multitude of reasons. Training, pride, the extension of one’s professional interests to name a few. Perhaps one aspect that is often forgotten or overlooked is the shear redundancy of systems. In professional systems – public safety and public carrier alike – deployments must be cost-effective. We place coverage requirements on contracts for new systems but we still must work within the constraints of available public funds (in the case of Public Safety) or maintaining profitability for a public carrier. Don’t get me wrong, public safety systems are extremely robust; much more so than public carrier systems in many cases. But, no economically viable commercial or governmental communications, save, perhaps for certain military communications systems, could afford to have the inherent redundancy that amateur radio offers. On a local or regional basis, VHF and UHF repeater systems, while each tied to a given site, tend to be dispersed by the individuals that operate and maintain them. If one goes down, there are several others ready to take its place. HF communications offer nationwide – even worldwide – communications with little to no required infrastructure. Each amateur operator and his station, and each group supporting a repeater, invest their own funds to build and maintain these systems. True, they often receive benefits in the form of a spot on a tower to place their equipment, but, in the end, it is an insurance policy that communications will always be available – no matter what the circumstances are. Redundancy and resiliency on the level that is offered by amateur radio is difficult, if not impossible, to equal in the commercial world. It would be nice if communities and subdivisions / developments would recognize the impact and importance of this service to the community by an otherwise innocuous league of people. Amateur radio is alive and well but I worry for its future. CC&Rs, increased regulation on small towers and antennas in the name of aesthetics, and the increased difficulties in simply enjoying the hobby today because of these restrictions may very well kill the hobby. If that happens, the nation will be poorer for it. People just don’t realize what they have until it is no longer there. I ask why is it OK to have a cell tower seemingly on every corner but an amateur often times cannot have an efficient antenna to enjoy his hobby and be prepared so the need arise?

BOB LECH AF2Q (not verified)
on Dec 1, 2013

I have seen ham radio in my area go from drive time chats down to nothing in the last year.
A few days ago I heard a ham I know well calling on simplex and I was not able to get him on the repeater.
All my gear is up for sale.
The hobby went down the drain and now I understand just the hard core type that can make SKEDS and sort of form a club were doing good until a few months back and now thats falling apart.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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