'hams' in Training for Emergency Response
Aaron Bingham | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
2002) 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
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.
Security grant will provide up to 1,700 hams nationwide with the
basic skills needed to be effective team members in emergency
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
correspondent Bob Burns has been using ham radio to assist rescue
workers in Massachusetts since 1956.
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."
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.
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.
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
with a little bit of training, the frequencies are virtually unlimited.
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