Ham radio has been around a long time and a lot has changed since the early days. Better technology and robust backup communication systems have become the norm. Add in new satellite technology from companies like Starlink and we have to ask ourselves: Is ham radio still relevant for emergency communications — or is it now purely a hobby?
Ham radio in coastal states
If you live in a hurricane prone area you’ve benefited from ham radio. Hurricanes are unique because they take out critical infrastructure across a large area, often overwhelming the response teams involved. That’s where ham radio comes in.
In 2018, Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle with Category 5 winds of 160 mph. That’s more than powerful enough to create catastrophic damage to even sturdy, well-built structures. Those catastrophic winds spread across much of the Florida panhandle knocking out communications for days.
The North Florida ARRL put the call out for ham radio operators to help with communications. They needed communication between local shelters and the Florida Emergency Operations Center, and ham radio was the only way to get it done. Traffic was passed using NVIS antennas on HF as local VHF/UHF repeaters sustained significant damage. Ham radio operators we’re working around the clock for two weeks before normal communications were restored.
“I think the thing that comes to mind that we learned from Hurricane Michael is that we need to have more robust, resilient and redundant communications capability within the city and county,” said Mark McQueen, city manager for Panama City, Florida.
Since Hurricane Michael, hospitals in the Panama City area have installed ham radio equipment. Local government also invested in satellite phones to diversify the communications abilities they have during a disaster.
Ham radio brings medical facilities together
Another common area where you find ham radio is in hospitals. Many facilities have ham radio gear stowed away and an antenna on the roof if the worst case scenario happens. It allows hospitals to communicate with each other and local authorities in a major disaster. The American Hospital Association petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow amateur radio operators to participate in preparedness drills, which was granted by the FCC. After all, making sure hospitals have the resources they need in a disaster is critical for community safety.
If you’re unsure if your local hospitals have amateur radio capability, it might be worth tracking down the emergency coordinator for the hospital and asking.
Ham radio helps during wildfires in California
Ham radio operators are regularly activated in California to assist with sharing information between Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) and other agencies involved in the firefighting. They built a system known as AREDN (Amateur Radio Emergency Data Network) that is increasingly becoming popular in major metropolitan areas.
Yes, ham radio is still a thing in California, no matter what garbage clickbait video you may have seen floating around the Internet.
In a FEMA published study, Colorado fire agency leaders found numerous benefits of amateur radio to local fire departments. The key was educating both Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) and local fire districts to bring them together.
“As fire agency command staff become exposed to the capabilities of ARES, combined with the low out-of-pocket cost of such a partnership, there is an increased opportunity for such fire agencies to expand their use of ham radio.” (Lugenbill, FEMA 2019)
K0LWC Twitter poll
I asked my followers on Twitter (are you following me there yet?) what they thought.
It’s not all emergency communications
Ham radio is still a valuable service in the worst disasters. These situations are becoming less common thanks to technology advances, but still relevant. However, it’s not just about emergency communications. If we only focus on the service aspect of amateur radio we will it die a slow and painful death.
Amateur radio is a vast hobby with a wide range of skillsets among members. We need to be recruiting and encouraging new ham radio operators on multiple fronts. Personally, I’ve been dismayed to see so many in our hobby use their online influence to focus on “preppers” as ham radio’s saving grace.
One area of potential growth for younger operators is the “makers.” You’re probably wondering what that means. Makers are those kids who love to build things, perhaps our future engineers. Ham radio offers so many opportunities to build radio components it’s a great hobby for that kid looking for life after the Erector set.
Another area is young adults interested in astronomy and space. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are bringing in the new era of human space flight. Many young people today are intrigued with SpaceX and their quest to go to Mars. Tell that child they can bounce their signal off the moon, or communicate with people across the country using meteor showers and they’ll be asking, “How soon can I get my license?”
Ham radio is still important for emergency communications, but our hobby is much broader than that. Let’s start communicating that to the next generation of ham radio operators.