The Amateur Radio Service:
Why It Is Essential

Homeland Security

Ham radio is essential to homeland security in the United States. Our service is a dispersed and decentralized communications system that can't be shut down by terrorist attck. While public safety agencies rely on central dispatch stations, amateur radio operators can go on the air just about anywhere anytime. Hams are trained communicators with technical knowledge that prepares them to put their stations on the air at remote sites quickly, creating makeshift facilities when needed. Amateur radio operators don't have to wait for technicians to arrive to repair equipment or re-program computers. Hams can do it themselves on the fly.

Natural and Human Disasters

Amateur radio operators have proven themselves to be essential volunteer responders in weather and other natural emergencies, and disasters of human origin. Hams can go on the air and stay on the air when ordinary public service communications fail. For many decades, ham radio often has been the only means of communicating from a stricken area to the outside world for hours and sometimes even days.

Communications Technology

Radio amateurs have unique capabilities. The telephone companies can't afford to build cellphone towers everywhere. There are big holes in coverage of sparsely populated areas away from cities and Interstate highways. Ham radio, on the other hand, is everywhere. During disasters, amateur radio volunteers can work without any fixed infrastructure. We're mobile and we're portable.

Of course, we do have a huge infrastructure in place, also. For example, the ARRL Repeater Directory 2006-2007 lists 20,389 VHF and UHF repeaters across the U.S. and Canada. And then there are hundreds of thousands of homes and cars outfitted with two-way radio transceivers on HF, VHF and UHF bands.

Whether or not there are towers to receive and repeat their signals, we can't help but notice there are cellphones everywhere. Unfortunately, the one-on-one nature of cellphone calls makes it almost impossible for a large group of emergency workers all at the same time to get an overall picture of how an event is developing. When an emergency manager is taking a call from one person, he or she miss calls from others.

Also, cell networks can go down when conditions are most critical. Towers can become disabled by the very conditions that may have caused an emergency and cellular networks can be flooded out with panic calls placed by members of the general public.

Hams operate nets all over the HF, VHF and UHF bands, while public safety agencies and related industries have narrow two-way systems on one or a few frequencies with what they call dispatchers. Those public safety agencies – such as police and fire departments, ambulance companies, rescue squads and the power and telephone companies and other outfits that are part of the nation's critical infrastructure – can't afford to provide the kinds of widespread, distributed radio communications networks for themselves that hams already have. Instead, those agencies that radio amateurs work with during emergencies have to rely on ham radio.

Radio amateurs bring more than two-way voice communications to emergencies. Here are some of the additional services hams can offer:
  • portable and mobile amateur television (atv)
  • fixed and mobile data services (packet radio)
  • vehicle location services (APRS)
  • telephone connections (phone patch) where cellular networks don't have coverage.
Hams are ready now to carry emergency message traffic across town, across the state, coast-to-coast or around the globe.

Human Resources

Those public service agencies served by radio amateurs get more than the latest technology. They get the hams themselves – dedicated workers who are trained specifically in emergency communications. Training and experience in unexpected emergencies make radio amateurs more likely to convey accurate information over their radio systems. In fact, the served agencies get a close-knit collection of experienced, disciplined volunteers who know how to work together as team.

For many hams, solving communications challenges is what amateur radio is all about. Because they are dedicated communicators, hams aren't as likely to miss key information shared on a net while agency leaders are busy doing other things. Radio amateurs often can see the big picture and provide information support to agency leaders during a crisis simply because the hams have been monitoring emergency nets and know more about what's going on at any one moment than the agency leadership.

National Emergency Resources Online
ARRL When All Else Fails logo
Amateur Radio related organizations:

American Radio Relay League
    Amateur Radio Emergency Service
    Amateur Radio Emergency Nets
    Amateur Radio Public Service
    Public Service Communications Manual
    National Traffic System (NTS)
    ARRL Online Net Directory
    Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Courses
Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service
Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Net
REACT International
Memoranda of Understanding with Agencies
North Carolina ARES

Some of many major nets active in emergencies:

The Waterway Radio & Cruising Club Net
Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Net (SATERN)
Hurricane Watch Net at the National Hurricane Center
Amateur Radio Station WX4NHC at the National Hurricane Center

Memoranda of Understanding documents:

American Red Cross
National Weather Service
Department of Homeland Security - FEMA - Citizen Corps (pdf)
Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials - International
National Communications System
National Association of Radio and Telecommunications Engineers (pdf)
Salvation Army
Society of Broadcast Engineers
Quarter Century Wireless Association (pdf)
Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams
Civil Air Patrol (CAP) (pdf)

U.S. federal government:

The White House
Office of Homeland Security
Federal Emergency Management Agency
    FEMA Project Impact
    FEMA Mitigation
    FEMA Kids
    FEMA Emergency Management Institute
Dept. of Defense Emergency Preparedness Policy
Disaster Finder
SBA Disaster Site
Citizen Emergency Response Team
Department of Justice
USA Freedom Corps
Medical Reserve Corps
Persons with Disabilities
Peace Corps

National and international organizations:

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster
American Red Cross
National Crime Prevention Council
National Neighborhood Watch Program
World Wide Disaster Relief
National Emergency Management Association
International Association of Emergency Managers
Internet Disaster Information Network
National Disaster Communication Response Team
National Emergency Resouce Information Network
AlertNet from Reuters
Disaster Response Network
ICES Disaster Resources
Senior Corps
Disaster Related Networks on the WWW
Volunteers of America
Volunteers in Technical Assistance
America's Second Harvest
Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team
Humane Society of the United States
International Relief Friendship Foundation
International Aid
National Emergency Response Team
National Organization for Victim Assistance
Northwest Medical Teams International
The Phoenix Society For Burn Survivors
The Points Of Light Foundation
United States Service Command
World Vision
Alliance of Information and Referral Systems
C.O.R.P., Inc.
DERA International
Disaster Resource Guide
Institute for Business and Home Safety
Nippon Volunteer Network Active in Disaster
Special Medical Assistance Response Teams
Voluntary Organisations in Cooperation in Emergencies
Association of Volunteer Emergency Response Teams
Craft Emergency Relief Fund
DERA International
Disaster Related Networks on the WWW
Working with children in a disaster
Shelter Net

Religious organizations:

Catholic Charities USA
Christian Disaster Response
Christian Reformed World Relief Committee
Church Of The Brethren
Church World Service
Episcopal Relief and Development
Friends Disaster Service
Lutheran Disaster Response
Mennonite Disaster Services
Nazarene Disaster Response
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance
The Salvation Army
Society Of St. Vincent De Paul
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief
United Jewish Communities
United Methodist Committee On Relief
American Baptist Men USA
Adventist Community Services
North Carolina Interfaith Disaster Response

Paul Harvey
America's Quiet Warriors

America's quiet warriors are the legion of ham radio operators, 700,000 of them, who are always at ready for backup duty in emergencies – amateur, unpaid, uncelebrated, civilian radio operators, during and after floods and fires and tornadoes. After the 9/11 attacks, hams were indispensable in reuniting friends and families. Most recently it was they who expedited the search for debris after the disaster to the space shuttle Columbia, and right now, at this moment, they are involved in homeland security to a greater degree than you would want me to make public.   — Paul Harvey News and Comment, ABC Radio, March 19, 2003

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