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).
Knowing When/How to Use Ham Radio
The need for supplemental communications increases with incident complexity.
If, for example, the incident complexity is NIMS Type 5 or 4, and all communications needs are being handled through commercial services, there is no need for additional communications resources. When incident complexity reaches NIMS Type 3 or 2, regular communications systems may not be capable of normal capacity in the affected areas. Supplemental ham radio communications resources can fill the gap until regular communications are restored. Depending on the quantity of communicators needed and operational periods, deployment of emergency communications resources from outside the affected jurisdiction(s) is possible.
During major emergencies and disasters (NIMS Type 1 incident complexity), there may be major failures and overloading of the communications infrastructure, including the degradation or loss of the electrical grid, cellular phone network, Internet, public safety radio systems, and AM/FM radio systems. In such cases, supplemental emergency communications resources are needed in quantity and for extended periods until regular communications are restored.
FCC regulations permit ham radio operators to serve the public by communicating with non-amateur entities (e.g., FEMA, the National Weather Service, the military) during emergencies and disasters, and when specifically authorized by the civil defense (a.k.a. emergency management) organization for the area served (under RACES protocols):
- 47 CFR §97.111(a)(2) – Essential communication needs and to facilitate relief actions;
- 47 CFR §97.111(a)(3) – With another FCC-regulated service;
- 47 CFR §97.407(d)(1) – Public safety or national defense or security:
- 47 CFR §97.407(d)(2) – Immediate life safety, protection of property, law and order, human suffering/need, combatting of armed attack or sabotage; and
- 47 CFR §97.407(d)(3) – Public information or instructions in civil defense and relief.
In many areas, or with supplemental resources from outside the affected area, ham radio emergency communicators can provide both voice and data communications modes.
Ham radio resources are available for emergency communications support to any public service agency, and can bridge interoperability gaps between served agencies on a local, tribal, and/or state level. Potential ham deployment locations include, but are not limited to, auxiliary command posts, emergency operations centers, emergency shelters, evacuation sites, fire stations, medical facilities, mobile disaster vehicles, police stations, public works sites, and volunteer intake centers. They can also be deployed to provide mobile links to:
- Create communications links between similar agencies across political boundaries, especially where there are misalignments in frequency bands and modes;
- Establish communications in locations outside the existing coverage areas of public service and commercial communications systems;
- “Shadow” critical public officials and emergency management personnel to facilitate constant and rapid contact;
- Monitor crucial infrastructure (such as highways and bridges) and provide periodic situation reports; and
- Staff observation posts (river levels, flooding, damaged areas) and provide periodic situation reports.
While it is unlikely that ham radio will be able to replace all existing communications, the forte of this pool of volunteers is establishing critical communications under less-than-optimal conditions. For hams with solar-powered equipment, they can keep communications going well beyond the limitations of fuel reserves for motor-driven generators until the commercial infrastructure is restored.
Integrating Ham Radio Into the Emergency Management Community
We get so sophisticated and we have gotten so used to the reliability and resilience in our wireless and wired and our broadcast industry and all of our public safety communications, that we can never fathom that they’ll fail. They do. They have. They will. I think a strong Amateur Radio community [needs to be] plugged into these plans.
—Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator (2009-2017), 3 May 2011
As a communications provider, ham radio falls under the Emergency Support Function #2 umbrella. Planning for a “when all else fails” communications scenario is essential for all jurisdictions, and there are multiple ways of achieving this goal at the state, tribal, and local levels. Following are two examples:
- Colorado enacted HB16-1040 in 2016 and put emergency communications provided via amateur radio into public law by establishing an Auxiliary Emergency Communications Unit within the state’s Office of Emergency Management.
- The CEMP for Clark County, Washington, includes the paragraph:
Routine communications systems will be used to the greatest extent possible. When routine communication systems are ineffective, alternate methods, such as amateur radio, will be used to communicate between the EOC, field operations, mass care facilities, and the state emergency operations center (EOC).
As a side note, in late 2015, the emergency manager in Clark County hosted a ham radio license class for his staff, and all emergency management personnel are now licensed ham radio operators.
The old adage about avoiding the exchange of business cards in the midst of an incident is the guidepost here. Each state has one or more ARRL member-elected volunteers who can put emergency management professionals in touch with local hams. So, if a jurisdiction has not yet established an ongoing working relationship with hams in the community, the section manager listed on the ARRL website can direct these professionals to local ham radio resources.
It is difficult to maintain a cadre of active ham radio emergency communicators in areas that experience little actual activation of those volunteers. To overcome this, frequent involvement in drills and exercises is essential. The professionals need to feel comfortable working with the hams and vice versa. Not every exercise plan needs to include a communications outage in the scenario, but there is no reason messaging cannot take place in parallel by sending the same message over routine communications systems and also via ham radio.
Hams typically like to implement different technologies, so what is transmitted by voice in one exercise might go by digital mode (computer to computer connected to radios) the next, a video link after that, and maybe even via a ham radio satellite at some point. Therefore, give the hams a communications problem and see what they come up with for a solution. Do not dictate the way they should solve the problem, but rather the emergency communications needs requirements. And, make it interesting for the volunteers to keep them involved, because hams could be critical communications lifelines in disasters.
Steve Aberle, WA7PTM, is a FCC-licensed amateur radio operator and currently serves as the (volunteer) Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) liaison to the tribal communities in the State of Washington. He has been active in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) since 1976 and in RACES since 1979. During his multifaceted career, he was a trooper with the Oregon State Police, a county emergency communications director, a data network manger, and a cybersecurity consultant. He has over four decades of experience in volunteer emergency communications planning, training, responses, mentoring, and exercise evaluation, and is a former mountaineering and search and rescue leader and instructor.