More 'hams' in training for emergency response

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When news of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers broke on Sept. 11, Charles Hargrove was already prepared for action.

Flipping open the softsided black bag he had brought from home, he pulled out his portable radio equipment and activated an emergency-frequency response network that within minutes would aid thousands of rescue workers in meeting the needs of a panic-stricken New York City.

No one saw this coordinator for the city's amateur-radio emergency service counted among the day's heroes on the news that night, but it is the nature of these "hams," as they are known, to operate unseen. In the days following Sept. 11, the efforts of Mr. Hargrove and scores of other box-wielding broadcasters played a critical role in coordinating emergency response as the deluge of phone calls rendered more conventional forms of communication unreliable.

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That role hasn't gone completely unnoticed. Last month, Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, announced that his department would extend a $182,000 grant to the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), a national membership association. Among ham-radio enthusiasts, interest in emergency-response training has never been higher.

The Homeland Security grant will provide up to 1,700 hams nationwide with the basic skills needed to be effective team members in emergency situations.

Thanks to this training, many more skilled volunteers will join local emergency-service radio networks, says Dan Miller, the ARRL's coordinator for certification and continuing education. Fresh recruits will support emergency activities in a variety of ways: victim identification and location, distribution of materials and medical equipment, and transmission of the names of those being treated in emergency shelters to the Red Cross.

While many volunteers have participated in emergency response without formal training, Mr. Miller says the Level I emergency-communications course is by far the best way to learn. Because of the grant, he says, people who might have been deterred by the cost of the training will be able to participate.

Most emergency-communications courses are offered online. Level I is "a piece of cake" to pass, Miller says, and requires only about 20 to 25 hours of work. Operators learn message handling and personal safety, as well as how to select the right equipment for different kinds of disasters. An online mentor answers students' questions and helps them prepare for the final exam.

Radio enthusiast Ed Matthews, a retired State of Connecticut employee, is one of the amateur operators who decided to undergo the training. "Everyone became patriotic after 9/11," he says.

Mr. Matthews has been practicing the art of radio ever since a friend introduced him to it in 1985. Currently more than halfway through Level I, he says he has been doing well on the quizzes so far and hopes he'll continue that pattern when it's time for the final exam.

Most recently, Matthews volunteered his radio skills at his town's blues and chili fest contest. Along with the other members of his local radio club, he assisted in coordinating bands' setup and teardown times as well as the finer details of chili testing. Public service and local communications are the aspects of radio he enjoys most. "It's a fun hobby, and it's got a lot of parts and pieces to it," he says, "but the ability to be able to help is one of the best."

Helping out has always been a natural role for ham operators, who often coordinate rescues during natural disasters – whether earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Hawaii, tornadoes in Kansas, or ice storms in New England.

Former newspaper correspondent Bob Burns has been using ham radio to assist rescue workers in Massachusetts since 1956.

"The year after I got my license at age 16, there was an enormous forest fire that engulfed a large part of Plymouth for three days," he remembers. "I was still in high school, but I took my radio and went out and helped with communication."

Mr. Burns has assisted in many other emergencies since then and even serves as a weather spotter for the National Weather Service. The department trains volunteers to supplement their computer's weather-tracking system by reporting live on location.

Burns has also witnessed a substantial evolution in radio technology. "We used to have some pretty heavy equipment we'd have to put in our car and lug around. Now we have radios the size of cellphones."

To begin accessing the airwaves, an aspiring ham needs just a two-way radio and an FCC Technician Class license. For the license, students need to pass a 35-question multiple-choice exam that covers basic operational techniques as well as radio theory and rules of communication.

They must demonstrate, for instance, that they know what frequencies they may operate on and how to identify themselves properly when making a transmission. Passing this test allows the amateur operator access mostly to short-distance communication on local VHF and UHF frequencies.

From there, with a little bit of training, the frequencies are virtually unlimited.

Whether they're alerting firefighters in downtown New York or contacting a friend in Shanghai, local hams stress one point: When your cellphone is down, the Internet won't start, and the power is out – radio works.

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