When networks fail, hams to the rescue

Normally, in a time of crisis, an "amateur" is not the first person you might call. But when communications networks go down, amateur radio operators - or hams - and their gear can get communities connected to the outside world via the radio waves.

Normally, in a time of crisis, an "amateur" is not the first person you might call. But when communications networks go down, amateur radio operators – or hams – and their gear can get communities connected to the outside world via the radio waves.

During the recent Field Day activities hosted by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), ham operators and clubs across North America spent 48 hours demonstrating their communications abilities. After a 24-hour setup period, groups had a second 24-hour window to make as many contacts as possible around the world using voice or Morse Code (knows as Continuous Wave in ham parlance) over varying frequencies. In the case of the Nashua Area Radio Club (NARC), which set up camp at Wasserman Park in Merrimack, N.H., a group made some 1,165 contacts over the 20m band, one in Australia.

More important than potential bragging rights for making the most contacts, NARC and other teams participating in Field Day proved they’re ready to set up 24/7 communications sites when disaster strikes. To wit, at the Wasserman Park site the group from NARC erected two 70-foot towers complete with various antenna beams, set up tents and campers to house people and gear, and self-powered the site with a gas generator. (See related slideshow)

Many similar camps are currently operating in flood-ravaged parts of the Midwest, says Don Grant, a NARC member that uses the handle N1UBD and was involved in the setup of the Wasserman Park site. Hams also helped maintain communications in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Hams work in conjunction with other volunteer groups such as the Military Affiliated Radio Stations (MARS) and Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), both of which work with state and local officials to coordinate communications during emergencies. The ham sites can be used to relay information over voice (both analog and digital, the latter offering greater privacy) or data – even e-mail.

MARS also operates a publicly available e-mail relay service called Airmail that is popular with those traveling the country in RVs and yachters sailing off the coast, says Marc Slater (KB1DFE), the Region 1 Emergency Operations Officer for MARS. All you need to run Airmail is a ham license, radio, modem and list of frequencies on which Airmail stations operate. There are 36 sites in North America, one of which Slater runs from his house in Brookline, N.H. And, it’s free.

"Our mission is to provide emergency communications to various agencies in the manner to which they’re accustomed," Slater says. "E-mail, it runs the world."

What’s the catch? It’s slow. "Running the Pactor 1 protocol [designed for noisy radio environments], you can get 300 baud on a good day," Slater says, showing off a modem similar to that most people used to dial up to bulletin boards in the 1980s. Some more "modern" modems might get you 9600 baud.

MARS is supporting the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by deploying AirMail systems to facilities that are susceptible to hurricanes, Slater says. The system is quite resilient in that it can resend lost packets when needed, and clients can automatically redirect to another station if the primary cannot be reached.

Hams are also reaching out to hospitals in an effort to keep them connected if primary communications systems fail in the region. The New Hampshire ARES group, in conjunction with state officials, is trying to get a licensed ham operator and the necessary gear at each of the hospitals in the state, a program modeled after a similar effort taking place on the West Coast, says Jim Blaine (WD4JZO), the ARRL Emergency Coordinator for Hillsborough County.

ARES also helps out with communications during non-emergency events, Blaine says, such as the Reach the Beach relay race that stretches 200 miles across the state of New Hampshire.

While events such as Field Day are termed disaster-preparedness exercises by those participating, they’re also a good way to market the hobby to the general public. One issue facing many groups is a graying of the population, with many ham hobbyists retiring from the airwaves. That’s where 14-year-old Britanny Decker (KB1OGL) comes in.

Decker, a Hudson, N.H. native, picked up on the hobby a couple of years ago when her father was preparing to sell his old gear on eBay. Decker’s interest prompted her father to keep the gear and get her licensed. Now she’s the assistant section manager for youth in the New Hampshire ARRL group. Decker is hoping to get more kids licensed and actively involved in ham radio through clubs and activities. She says current programs around the country are designed to get kids licensed but don’t follow up to keep them active in the community.

Anyone can get an entry-level Technical Class license by taking a 35-question exam administered by the FCC, a test made easier by the recent decision to drop the Morse Code requirement. After passing, ham radio operators are issued a unique call sign that is renewable every 10 years.

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