Ever since Marconi tinkered with wireless transmissions in the early 1900s, people have been fascinated with communicating via the airwaves. Today there are over 700,000 amateur radio licenses issued to private individuals in the U.S. In our rural county alone there are approximately 300 license holders. Granted not all of those are active, some haven’t touched their radio in years and some are simply no longer with us.
Amateur radio operators (also known as “hams”) have played a vital role in disaster response for decades. Groups such as A.R.E.S (Amateur Radio Emergency Services) and R.A.C.E.S. (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) are well established and have good working relationships with other disaster planners and first responders. Many cities have ham radio stations set up at the hospital, the City Hall and the Fire Department. In the event of an emergency this equipment is designed to operate free from the electrical grid and would be manned by personnel from A.R.E.S/R.A.C.E.S. to provide vital communication services for communities. Emergency communications networks can keep the local responders informed of developing events, while having the capability of communicating on a global basis.
One might think with internet technology such as Skype or Facetime making video calls to loved ones all over the planet, amateur radio would be relegated to the dustbin of “last millenium technology." Quite the opposite is true. Over the past five years the Federal Communication Commission reports issuing nearly 25,000 new licenses. Digital radio equipment is less expensive and more powerful than ever before. When an earthquake or similar event could sever fiber optic cables and bring down electrical grids and internet service, a battery powered ham radio can still transmit and receive vital messages throughout the county and around the world. Even to outer space.
During my time in Vietnam, every G.I. knew if he wanted to call home, he would simply go to the local M.A.R.S. (Military Amateur Radio Station). The M.A.R.S. folks would make ham radio contact with another ham operator in the states, who would in turn initiate a collect call to your home then do a “phone-patch” and presto, you could talk to your loved one. Of course half the planet could listen in on your call and after every phrase you had so say “over” so they would know when to key or release the microphone, but it was a touch from home. Those calls were considered invaluable to preserve the sanity and boost morale of our guys half a world away living in unspeakable conditions. So on behalf of a multitude of Vietnam veterans, I’d like to extend thanks to all those amateur radio operators we never got to meet or thank in person.
If you’d like more information on becoming a ham operator, contact your local A.R.E.S./R.A.C.E.S. club or go online and check out the Amateur Radio Relay League at www.arrl.org.