When all else fails, there is Amateur Radio

Ham Radio in Emergency Operation


Many people grew up hearing about disasters in far-off lands and how amateur (ham) radio operators were initially the only means of contact with the outside world. Disasters, both near and far, still occur today, and ham radio operators continue to volunteer their skills and personal radio equipment to serve the public. From a planning and operations perspective, emergency management professionals must effectively include these volunteer resources into comprehensive emergency management plans (CEMPs).

Ham radio was the original electronic “social media” with initial contacts between radio stations taking place in the 1890s. Federal licensing of ham radio stations began after The Radio Act of 1912 was passed, and today all ham radio stations are strictly regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under US 47 CFR §97.

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), a ham radio member-society founded in 1914, established the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) in 1935. This standby radio service consists of “licensed amateur radio operators who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment with their local ARES leadership for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.”

In 1952, the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) was developed as a standby Civil Defense radio service governed by the FCC under US 47 CFR §97.407. RACES is activated by emergency managers in local, county, tribal, and state jurisdictions, uses Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) protocols, and are the only ham radio operators authorized to transmit during declared emergencies when the president of the United States specifically invokes powers granted under 47 U.S.C. §606.

 Understanding This Communications Resource

Ham radio operators come in all ages and from all lifestyles, and are essentially neighbors in the community. Each licensee has passed one or more extensive knowledge tests covering a multitude of topics, including FCC rules, operator and station license responsibilities, operating procedures and practices, radio propagation, electrical principles and electronic circuits, common transmitter and receiver problems, antenna measurements and troubleshooting, basic repair and testing, non-voice communications, antennas and feed lines, AC power circuits, and safety.

Since ham radio is their hobby, many hams have decades of radio communications experience. Some may have professional broadcasting experience, and others may be current/former first responders. In standards that have arisen with the introduction of the National Incident Management System, ARES and RACES members may also:

  • Be registered emergency/disaster workers under state law;
  • Possess certificates for (sometimes many) FEMA training classes;
  • Have passed law enforcement background checks; and
  • May be engaged in other volunteer activities such as Search and Rescue (SAR) or Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT).
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