A tornado. A hurricane. An earthquake. A wildfire. In an instant, life changes. Communities are wiped out and destroyed. Homes and cars are totaled. Telephone poles are splintered in half. Cell phone towers blown over and eliminated. During these natural disasters all forms of communication are interrupted. Communities of people are cut off from the world and the emergency services they might need. There is no way to contact loved ones and there is no way to ask for help. Emergency crews work to restore communications so that lives can be saved through coordinated rescue missions. These types of natural disasters are real and happening more frequently. The Tsunami in Japan, the tornado in Joplin, and the wildfires of Colorado are just a few of the events of recent years that provide us with horrific images of devastation and lives lost. So how can we, how do we, communicate in this situation? When all else fails, we have amateur radio.
Amateur radio, also known as Ham radio, has been a reliable means of communication in emergency situations for many years. Cellular phones, satellite phones, and the internet fail when there is a lack of electrical power or become overloaded with large numbers of cries for help. Ham operators can communicate using microphones, computers, TV cameras, satellite, and morse code by telegraph. They use a variety of antennas and radios to communicate with other hams across town or across the country. The National Weather Service uses ham radio operators for their “SKYWARN” program to get ground level reports of events that are missed by Doppler radar. Information is relayed on a dedicated frequency that is shared through storm warnings, alerts, and television news broadcasts. Ham radio is a valuable tool for communication in emergencies and it is also a great recreational activity and hobby for individuals. Radios are used for keeping in touch with family, public service announcements, and just plain personal enjoyment. There are over 600,000 licensed ham operators in the United States. They connect on the air or in person through radio clubs. I had the opportunity to spend some time with a club this week.
The Henry County Amateur Radio Club promotes fun and fellowship through amateur radio. It is a group of individuals who share a love and passion for amateur radio. They meet monthly to have discussions, promote amateur radio in their area, and participate in activities and events. An annual event the club participates in is the National Association of Amateur Radio’s Field Day event. Field Day is the single most popular on-air event held annually in the US and Canada. More than 35,000 people gather with their clubs or groups to operate from remote locations. Field day gives the club an opportunity to expose the public to amateur radio while practicing its emergency practice capabilities. I participated in Field Day and it was my first real exposure to amateur radio. The club set up remote radios under a tent in a local park. For 24 hours, they worked the radios in an attempt to connect with as many ham operators as possible. Each contact made is documented and logged as part of a contest. Clubs compete to see how many total contacts can be made in different parts of North America. For the Henry County Amateur Radio Club is not about the competition. It is about making contacts, practicing emergency capabilities, and having fun. During my time at the radio we connected with a gentleman sitting on an island in the Caribbean. We were in a park in New Castle, Indiana and we were able to connect with someone in the Virgin Islands using a radio and a large antenna. Proof that amateur radio is a powerful tool for connection and communication. During the Field Day event, 1350 contacts were made covering all 50 states and provinces in Canada. It was a successful event for the club and an eye-opening learning experience for me.
Amateur radio is a great and important recreational activity that can be enjoyed by anyone. Unlike other radio services, you need a FCC license to communicate with a ham radio, but it seems that the process is relatively simple. In addition to being fun, amateur radio is the most reliable form of communication in case of emergency. We have seen many life changing events and natural disasters affect our country over the last few years. The threat is real that your ability to communicate with others could be cut off. After my experience with the Henry County Amateur Radio Club I am comfortable knowing that we have a solid back up plan. There is security in knowing that messages can be sent and received in almost any situation. I hope we never have the need, but it is nice to know amateur radio is there. You can visit www.w9ob.org to learn more about the HCARC and amateur radio. Step outside your box and see what is around you. I did and I enjoyed going ham for Field Day.