The Digital Journalist
Radio Corner: Amateur Radio Emergency Services
July 2004

by Roger Williams KA7VOM

Throughout the history of amateur radio communications, licensed groups of two-way radio operators have regularly proven to be a reliable backup for existing governmental communications agencies. Amateur radio groups have accomplished this by banding together and providing private-sector emergency communications whenever necessary, both locally and internationally.

2004 Amateur Radio Field Day was held in the Laguna Mountains near San Diego as part of a national exercise, June 26, 2004.

Photo by Roger Williams
Also known as "ham" operators, these ambitious individuals must pass strict license examinations prior to being granted use of the airways, and their qualification is governed and maintained by the rules and regulations of the WARC (World Administrative Radio Council). Radio operators have grouped together to form a huge number of clubs and organizations throughout the world, with each individual club maintaining itself and assigning its own jobs internally. The primary goal of club members has traditionally been to best serve the immediate local area and surrounding neighborhood.

In today's world, with the global shift towards fighting terrorism, the amateur radio groups have also shifted some of their emphasis and resources to this exercise. While these experienced operators have traditionally concentrated on tasks such as aiding local search/rescue efforts, support of law enforcement communications during wildfires and aircraft emergencies, and events such as the Symbionese Liberation Army incident in the 1970s, recently there has been a concentrated effort within the amateur radio community to shift into a position whereby they can assist local agencies in the event of a terrorist attack.

Radio Amateurs Anselmo Ruiz (left) and Mike Maston of the El Cajon Amateur Radio Club of San Diego County exhibit the ability of "ham" radio operators to support local authorities in case of a national disaster.

Photo by Roger Williams
Amateur radio operators are capable of maintaining local communications from a few miles to several hundred miles, something which they do enthusiastically and on a regular basis. In fact, this so-called "chatter" can be heard 24 hours a day, as close-knit club members, friends, and relatives communicate freely with one another. Not surprisingly, therefore, a logical extension of this capability has turned out to be emergency service use - especially since many of the "local" radios are easily transportable handheld or mobile units, often operated in vehicles with small roof-mounted or magnetic antennas. The cost of this equipment is quite low, and easily within the budget range of any operator.

It is, in fact, the very mobility of the equipment that allows the operator to become an emergency radio station on the spot. Technological improvements over the last few years have resulted in the availability of newer radios which are similar in size to the short-range mobile vehicular versions, but much more powerful. By using larger antenna systems, worldwide communications can now be achieved from a vehicle relatively easily, with optimum field performance being primarily dependent upon the size and complexity of the antenna.

As time goes on, Tom Ridge and those operating the Homeland Security Department should become aware of the vast number of amateur radio groups throughout the United States. They should also inform themselves of the capabilities and resources of these organizations, especially since a tie between the government and the self-sufficient amateur radio groups would undoubtedly be beneficial to the country during any emergency situation in which communications was of prime importance.

© Roger Williams KA7VOM