Sept. 11: Amateur radio’s badge of honor
The events of Sept. 11 have been well-documented in the media including Mobile Radio Technology (November 2001). There were heroes to be sure, but one group of heroes that has received little, if any, attention are the amateur radio operators.
Within a matter of hours, at both the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon, amateur radio operators were on scene to provide communications to law enforcement and rescue agencies, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
After the attack on the Pentagon, the American Radio Relay League, a national association of amateur radio enthusiasts, received a request for assistance from the Salvation Army. But before the request was made, the ARRL’s Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) was already in action. Tom Gregory, ARRL Virginia Section Emergency Coordinator, helped to direct and coordinate the support effort at the Pentagon. “Early on, it was not clear what the extent of the damage to the Pentagon was,” he said. “But even before we had an understanding of what the Salvation Army needed, I contacted a number of volunteers to get them ready to move to the site with their equipment.”
Within five hours of the attack, the volunteers were packing up their personal radio equipment and heading for the Pentagon. They arrived the evening of Sept. 11, and emotions ran high when they saw the extent of the damage. “When we got there we saw a gaping hole in the building. It was gut-wrenching,” Gregory said. “I couldn’t even talk when I first got there and saw what happened. The first couple of days, all the amateur radio volunteers had the same reaction.”
Gregory said that volunteers internalized their emotions as best they could. “No one felt very good,” he said. “Everyone was very frustrated. But after the first couple of days, people got some form of emotional satisfaction in helping the rescue effort. For me, it was a form of striking back.”
The volunteers overcame a number of obstacles when supporting the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. First was determining the amount of effort it was going to take. Starting off with only five or six amateur radio operators operating a few hours a day, the ARRL eventually expanded to operating 24 hours a day. Radio operators worked from what were called “mobile canteens.” Their primary focus was logistics support. When the Salvation Army or Red Cross ran out of an item, they notified the radio operator who worked with the headquarters of the Salvation Army and Red Cross.
Gregory observed rescue team members coming to the canteens hot, tired and dirty. He saw what the amateur radio effort did to support the rescuers. “It was very emotional for me to watch the trucks roll up,” Gregory said. “As one was about three-quarters empty, the next truck pulled up.” The trucks carried everything from food and drink to towels, clean socks and shirts.” Gregory watched as trucks carrying bags of ice would pull up and empty. “The trucks just kept coming. It was amazing.”
The rescue teams faced an incredible challenge, but so did the amateur radio operators. While all the radio equipment belonged to the amateurs, they didn’t have everything they needed. “We needed someone with a portable radio with about 5W of power to communicate back to our base station. But when a volunteer left, he took his equipment with him,” Gregory said. “This presented a problem until the people at Vertex Standard were kind enough to donate a Yaesu base station and hand-held radios.” This donation enabled the radio operators to set up one station and to avoid having to change out the equipment.
But lack of equipment wasn’t the only obstacle they faced. They faced an RF nightmare. “The amount of RF that was present at the Pentagon was unbelievable,” Gregory said. “If you could see the RF, the place would have been glowing.”
To overcome the noise floor, the volunteers realized they needed more power. An amateur radio group in Stanford, VA, packed up its repeater and brought it to the site. The repeater was set up at the Pentagon with a 35-foot antenna. This installation solved most of the amateurs’ communications problems.
New York World Trade Center
“While we would like to think that all our practice and preparation would prepare us, nothing could have prepared us for what happened,” said Charles Hargrove, ARRL New York City District Emergency Coordinator. “It was hard to prepare for something like this.”
The New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM), forced to move out of Building 7 at the WTC, used a bus. “They moved from corner to corner to corner as an event would happen, such as a fire,” Hargrove said. This was the first opportunity for amateur radio to help. OEM needed phone lines for its command bus. Hargrove contacted the mobile command center and was told they needed five phone lines. He then contacted the telephone company, Verizon, and a technician was sent to “steal” phone lines to run out to different locations for OEM use.
Hargrove realized that the police and other agencies would be faced with monumental communications problems — starting with communications inside the first tower that was attacked. “The police and fire department knew the lines of communications were knocked out. They lost contact with their people above a certain point in the building due to [the destruction of] Radiax going up the building,” Hargrove said. “You can tell from the radio broadcasts there was a lot of confusion.” But then the second plane hit. “After the second plane hit, all heck broke loose.”
Dispatchers found themselves inundated with calls for help and with warnings. “If you listen to the tapes of the police and fire activity you can hear the dispatchers trying to calm callers down so they could get a clearer picture of what was going on,” Hargrove said.
In an effort to assist the authorities, Hargrove and his volunteers ran into a number of problems. “Communication with the OEM was poor,” he said. “They moved twice and didn’t tell us where they were going or how to contact them. This was very frustrating. I understand they get money from FEMA to support a RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) station. We have not seen a penny of it.” Unlike the ARRL’s ARES, which provides communications to civilian organizations, RACES provides communications to local and state government agencies with funding from FEMA. Also, Hargrove notes that getting the IDs for volunteers that federal officials required was tough going.
One thing Hargrove did not have a problem with was getting volunteers. “During the two weeks we were active, we had more than 250 people from not only New York, but also Pennsylvania, New England and New Jersey,” Hargrove said. “We even had a couple of guys from Canada and a guy from San Francisco who were in the area volunteering.”
Technical problems in New York were not as big of an issue as they were for the amateur radio volunteers at the Pentagon. One reason was the infrastructure that New York City amateur radio operators had in place. “We often take old stuff, like old taxi cab systems, and make them work. The old stuff is easily fixed or replaced,” Hargrove said. “We have repeaters all over the city — in houses, offices, anywhere we can get one placed. In fact, one club was given space on top of a hospital. They are all individually owned. Not one is owned by ARRL.”