Amateur Radio and the Healthcare Field

Tornadoes, hurricanes, hazmat incidents, and many other disasters – both natural and manmade – can and do affect local communications in many communities throughout the nation. Events can overload communication systems – or, worse, cause complete disruptions that can severely impact a community’s ability to respond to weather disasters and/or other emergencies. Although normal lines of communication may be effective and robust, each jurisdiction needs a back-up plan for times when normal operating systems are down. Redundancy is critical, particularly in the field of communications.

The Amateur Radio Service is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and is used primarily for voluntary noncommercial communications – particularly emergency communications. For more than 100 years, U.S. Amateur Radio operators have volunteered their time, equipment, and skills to their home communities. In times of emergency, they have partnered with a broad spectrum of public safety and emergency management organizations and agencies, as well as healthcare providers – generically referred to as “served agencies.”

What Amateur Radio Cannot Do

Before discussing what Amateur Radio can do for healthcare, it is important to dispel any misconceptions by understanding what it cannot do. The healthcare field is quite diverse – ranging from primary care providers, to emergency medical centers, to disaster medical response teams, to public health administrators. The communication needs of those groups are as diverse as the types of care provided by individual healthcare facilities and organization, and range from day-to-day business communications to the communication needs that arise during an emergency.

As a noncommercial radio service, commercial and business communications are in fact prohibited – in accordance with the FCC rules and regulations outlined for Amateur Radio operators. During an emergency, Amateur Radio can be used only if the following three qualifications are met: (a) there must be an immediate threat to life and/or property; (b) there must be no other means of communication available; and (c) Amateur Radio must not be used on a routine basis.

What Amateur Radio Can Do: Four State Examples

Amateur Radio plays a key role in supplementing, rather than supplanting, existing communications. It is not even intended to be the first alternative in a communications emergency, but, rather, an option that can be used “when all else fails.” Each jurisdiction should already have an “all else” option in their emergency plans. The following examples demonstrate both the emergency communications capabilities and the public service aspects of Amateur Radio.

South Carolina – Evacuations as “the Key to Resiliency”: In South Carolina, Amateur Radio operators came together to install “repeaters” – i.e., devices used to receive signals and retransmit them to cover a larger geographical area – and other equipment in hospitals to provide support during patient evacuations. The program, known as the South Carolina Healthcare Amateur Radio Team (SC HEART), started in the Charleston area and has now expanded to provide services to more than 60 hospitals around the state. The project has the support of Amateur Radio groups, businesses, healthcare providers, and the state government. Large-scale patient evacuations do not occur very often, but South Carolina is in a hurricane-prone area, so readiness is the key to resiliency. SC HEART members regularly participate in training and various drills and exercises to maintain a high level of readiness.

Washington – Field Support for MCI Situations: Western Washington Medical Services Communications ( is a group of Amateur Radio operators who assist healthcare providers when normal lines of communication are down – or perhaps overloaded during a disaster. These operators provide communications to hospitals, blood banks, medical suppliers, and public health offices, and also serve as field support during mass-casualty incidents. In addition, they provide critical communication links between various healthcare providers, as well as between those healthcare providers and the state’s emergency operations centers. The Washington group offers voice as well as digital/data communications.

Mississippi – Medical Surge Capacity & SMAT II: The State Medical Assistance Team is a response group that provides “medical surge capacity in an emergency through the provision of trained medical personnel, medical products, pharmaceuticals, and a physical plant for triage, treatment, tracking, and transport of patients” (quoted from the South Mississippi State Medical Assistance Team, SMAT II, Team Applicant Packet). The team includes a full spectrum of healthcare professionals – including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and technicians – as well as a broad range of logistical and support personnel. There is also a communications team of Amateur Radio operators available to support general communications, backup communications, and maintenance of communications equipment that is carried in response vehicles. These operators regularly train and exercise with the full team, a practice that helps build cohesiveness within the group.

Louisiana – Post-Katrina Challenges: Seven years after the devastating disaster that struck the city of New Orleans and its surrounding areas, the ghost of Hurricane Katrina continues to impress and challenge local and state planners, responders, and receivers – all of whom are still focused on the scope of the damage that occurred, the reactions of individual residents (and emergency responders) faced with an unimaginable crisis, and the preparedness challenges that still remain. Amateur Radio operators played a key role in healthcare communications under true emergency situations during Katrina. In the midst of the flooding, a woman who was pregnant and had gone into labor made her way to a charity hospital that was still staffed and had effectively become an island within the city. Working by flashlight, doctors were able to determine that the birth would require not only a caesarean section but also safe transport to another facility. Fortunately, that hospital, like many others in the area, was equipped with Amateur Radio apparatus and had one volunteer operator available to provide communications during the storm. Moreover, all normal systems were down, but the operator, who had been providing communications to the hospital 20 hours a day since the beginning of the disaster, was able to use the Amateur Radio network to request a helicopter to transport the woman to another hospital, thus saving both lives.

HIPAA, Training & Operators

Obviously, Amateur Radio operators serve as a vital just-in-case asset to the healthcare field during times of emergency or disaster. However, there is one major concern unique to the healthcare field that must be addressed. That concern relates to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Amateur Radio communications are not secure and operators are not permitted to evade or obscure the information they are transmitting. In short, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for the information being transmitted via Amateur Radio.

There are, however, other modes of communication, such as packet (i.e., a data mode), that may provide at least some degree of privacy for information sent, but total confidentiality cannot be guaranteed or expected. However, not all information that must be sent falls under HIPAA guidelines. Healthcare agencies should plan ahead, therefore, to determine how they will address this concern – waiting until disaster strikes is obviously not the time to make this decision. It also seems clear that Amateur Radio operators assisting an organization should receive training on HIPAA regulations so they know what is expected of them during an actual emergency.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend of hospital employees and others in the healthcare field acquiring Amateur Radio licenses to be prepared in case of emergency. Although this seems on the surface to be a good idea, it also presents two additional challenges: (a) During an emergency, these employees may have more important tasks to do, so they may not have time to be communicators; and (b) The same employees are less likely to be involved in Amateur Radio when there is no emergency – a likelihood that would become much more apparent during an emergency. Amateur Radio clubs and groups can and will help, though – usually by providing training and involvement opportunities to licensed employees.

Amateur Radio operators are an almost invisible but very welcome asset to the agencies they serve in their home communities – for a variety of reasons. Through everyday practice as operators, they gain experience building stations, understanding networks, practicing preparedness, exercising their technical skills, and strengthening other “people skills” that are all needed during times of disaster. They are ready volunteers who are both able and willing to serve their communities when called upon.

Moreover, because of the technical nature of the Amateur Radio service, operators understand the need for constant training and education as well as infrastructure utilization. When the infrastructure is already established and fully functioning as it should, Amateur Radio operators will leverage it for maximum advantage. When the infrastructure is disabled, or gone entirely – i.e., a worst-case scenario – the same operators will continue to serve their communities and help facilitate, both effectively and efficiently, the communications that are needed to cope with disasters of all types.

Michael Corey

Michael (Mike) Corey, KI1U, is the Emergency Preparedness and Response Manager for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL – the national association for amateur radio in the United States). He also plays an integral part in the management of Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES), and possesses almost 20 years of experience in the field of emergency communications. He has worked with ARES and SKYWARN, a program for trained volunteers to spot and report severe weather, in Indiana and Mississippi. He also is the author of the ARRL Storm Spotter’s Handbook, published in January 2010, and previously worked as the Communications Officer for the Howard County Sheriff’s Department in Indiana – and, later, as the Communications Officer of the University of Mississippi Police Department. He holds a Bachelors degree in Political Science from Indiana University and Masters degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Mississippi.



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