The Role of Amateur Radio in Providing Emergency Electronic
Communication for Disaster Management

Russell C. Coile, Ph.D., CEM, FICD (1917-2017)
Disaster Coordinator, Pacific Grove Fire Department


In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides support to State and local governments in fulfilment of their responsibilities for preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation of disasters. One method FEMA has used to support State and local emergency communication functions was to sign and implement a Memorandum of Understanding with the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) for amateur radio operators to provide electronic communications for State and local governments in disasters.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has licensed more than 600,000 amateur radio operators in the United States. The national organization of amateur radio operators called the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was formed in 1914. More than 80,000 of these amateurs have registered their availability for emergency communications in disasters in the ARRL's Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES).

Amateur radio operators have been providing communications in natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes since 1910. Since amateur radio operation was prohibited during the years of both World Wars I and II, FEMA has sponsored a new branch of the amateur service called Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). RACES operators are authorized to operate if the President invokes his War Emergency Powers while all other amateur operation would be silenced.

Some amateur radio operators in the United States communicate by sending Morse code signals, others prefer to use microphones. Some use computer-to-computer communications, while still others set up amateur television stations so that they can see the person they are talking to.

The role of amateur radio in providing emergency electronic communications for disaster management will be examined and future contributions will be explored.


American Radio Relay League (ARRL)

The national organization of amateur radio operators, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) ( was formed in 1914. Individuals and clubs have been involved in providing communications during disasters from the earliest days of amateur radio. Radio amateurs at the University of Michigan and Ohio State in 1913 provided emergency communications for a Midwest area isolated by a severe windstorm. In 1935, the ARRL reorganized and formalized this type of activity by establishing its "Amateur Radio Emergency Service" and appointing amateurs all over the United States to be Emergency Coordinators. In 1949, the ARRL created its "National Traffic System". The ARRL's monthly magazine is called "QST", (Ford, 1994)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ( and the American Radio Relay League signed a Memorandum of Understanding on August 3, 1984, (Note: A copy of ARRL MOUs can be obtained from Richard Palm, Manager, ARRL Field Services, e-mail: According to this memorandum;

"The purpose of this document is to state the terms of a mutual agreement between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), that will serve as a framework within which volunteer personnel of the ARRL may coordinate their services, facilities. and equipment with FEMA in support of nationwide State and local emergency communications functions. It is intended, through joint coordination and exercise of the resources of ARRL, FEMA, and Federal, State and local governments, to enhance the nationwide posture of emergency communications readiness for any conceivable emergency."

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

The Federal Communications Commission ( has rules and regulations for the amateur radio service in Part 97 of its Rules. (

The role of amateur radio in emergencies is stated in Rule 97.1 Subpart A General Provisions

    97.1 Basis and purpose. The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:

    (a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.

Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (Races)

During the cold war era, civil defense planners in the Defense Department requested the Federal Communications Commission to establish a "Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service" so that there could be special amateur radio communications during a war when normal amateur communications would be prohibited as happened throughout the war years ofWorld Wars I and II, (FEMA, 1991).

FCC Rule 97.3 Definitions defines RACES as follows:

    97.3 (a)

    (33) RACES (radio amateur civil emergency service). A radio service using amateur stations for civil defense communications during periods of local, regional or national civil emergencies.

Amateur Radio Support Of The Federal Response Plan

The Federal Response Plan (1992) has twelve emergency support functions with primary agencies as shown:

Emergency Support Functions (ESF)
ESF Functional Area Primary Agency
1 Transportation Department of Transportation
2 Communications National Communication System
3 Public Works Army Corps of Engineers
4 Firefighting Dept. of Agriculture/Forest Service
5 Information/Plans FEMA
6 Mass Care American Red Cross
7 Resource Support General Services Administration
8 Health & Medical Dept. of Health/Public Health Service
9 Search & Rescue Department of Defense
10 Hazardous Materials Environmental Protection Agency
11 Food Department of Agriculture
12 Energy Department of Energy

Emergency Support Function #2 Communications And Amateur Radio

Amateur radio is included in Emergency Support Function #2 Communications. The primary agency for ESF #2 is the National Communications System. The National Communications System signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the American Radio Relay League on June 2, 1983.

The purpose of this communications function as stated in ESF#2 I. Introduction A. Purpose is:

    "The purpose of this Emergency Support Function (ESF) is to assure the provision of Federal telecommunications support to Federal, State, and local response efforts following a Presidentially declared emergency, major disaster, extraordinary situation and other emergencies under the Federal Response Plan. This ESF supplements the provisions of the National Plan for Telecommunications Support in Non-Wartime Emergencies, Hereafter referred to as the National Telecommunications Support Plan (NTSP)."

ESF#2 VI. Resource Requirements B. Support for Field Activities states:

    "Amateur Radio networks /systems may provide daily and emergency public service communications during emergencies and major disasters. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) sponsors the combined facilities of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) and the National Traffic System (NTS), and recognizes the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES) and the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS). Other licensed amateur activities and Personal Service Radio (PSR) groups also provide public communications during emergencies and major disasters. Members of the Radio Emergency Associated Communication Team (REACT) perform similar services utilizing Citizen Band radio equipment."


Amateur radio provides communications support to the American Red Cross (, the primary agency for Emergency Support Function #6 Mass Care. The American Radio Relay League and the American Red Cross have had cooperative statements of understanding since 1940. The current Statement of Understanding is dated July 13, 1982.

The purpose of this function as stated in ESF #6 I. Introduction A. Purpose is:

    "The purpose of this Emergency Support Function (ESF) is to coordinate efforts to provide sheltering, feeding, and emergency first aid following a catastrophic earthquake, significant natural disaster or other event requiring Federal response assistance; to operate a Disaster Welfare Information (DWI) System to collect, receive, and report information about the status of victims and assist with family reunification within the disaster ares; and to coordinate bulk distribution of emergency relief supplies to disaster victims following a disaster."

Amateur radio operators help with communications among American Red Cross shelters and also assist with communications for the disaster welfare information system. The disaster welfare information is discussed in ESF#6 II. C. DWI System:

    "1. DWI, consisting of those persons identified on shelter lists, National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) casualty lists, and any further information made available by the State Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) and hospitals will be collected and made available to immediate family members within or outside the affected area."

    "7. Communications support agencies identified in ESF #2 - Communications will be tasked with transmitting information to the DWI Center. In no case will fatality lists be transmitted via amateur radio or the ARC 47.42 Mhz system"

Some of ESF #6's planning assumptions which are relevant to communications support by amateur radio are stated in ESF#6 III. Situation B. Planning Assumptions:

    "1. ESF#6 planning is based on a worst case scenario in which a disaster occurs without warning at a time of day that will produce maximum casualties, but also considers other disaster which could cause large numbers of casualties and result in widespread damage necessitating the temporary relocation of disaster victims."

    "4. A formal ESF#6 organizational structure for supporting the efforts of other voluntary agencies and government agencies to provide feeding, shelter, emergency first aid stations, bulk distribution centers, and providing for DWI will be in place in the disaster area within 48 hours after implementation of the Plan."

    "6. The DWI system should be capable of responding to one million disaster welfare inquiries, from around the world, within 30 days of the disaster's onset. These inquiries will relate to persons who are residents of the disaster-affected area, as well as transients such as foreign and domestic tourists, business travelers, students, etc. In addition, the system must provide information needed to reunite family members separated at the time of the disaster."

    "7. Surviving telephone service into and within the disaster area will be either inadequate or prioritized to emergency uses to the extent that it will be unable to handle disaster welfare inquiries."

    "10. The massive relocation of disaster victims will limit or prevent routine mail delivery."

    "14. The restoration of communication systems, disrupted by danages and overloads, may take weeks."

Amateur Radio Support Of The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army has for many years provided emergency services to individuals and groups in time of disaster. The U.S. Congress officially recognized the capabilities of the Salvation Army when it enacted the Disaster Relief Act of 1970, amended by the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, Public Law 93-288. The American Radio Relay League and the Salvation Army have signed a Statement of Understanding with respect to Disaster Services.

Amateur Radio Support Of The National Weather Service

The American Radio Relay League signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Weather Service (NWS) on January 19, 1988. Radio amateurs provide emergency communications support to the National Weather Service on an as-needed basis in weather emergencies such as hurricanes, snow and heavy rain storms, and other severe weather situations, (Hensley, 1990). The National Weather Service has a special tornado spotter service called SKYWARN. The NWS recruits volunteers, trains them in proper weather spotting procedures, and accepts the volunteers' reports during tornado watches and episodes of severe weather. Radio amateurs have assisted the NWS as communicators and spotters since the inception of the SKYWARN program, (Barton, 1991).

Disaster Management In The United States

In order to examine the role of amateur radio in providing electronic communication for disaster management, we must first look at the way Federal, State and local government authorities handle disasters. The former civil defence organization in Washington is now called the Federal Emergency Management Agency. James Lee Witt, the emergency management director for the state of Arkansas when Clinton was governor, was appointed by President Clinton to be director of FEMA in mid 1993. In October 1993, Mr. Witt reorganized FEMA to de-emphasize civil defense and to give more emphasis to preparedness for the threats of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. The new FEMA has four directorates: mitigation; preparedness, training, and exercises; response and recovery; and operations support.

FEMA's budget provides for assistance to each state for emergency preparedness. For example, the State of California ( takes one third of its grant to help support the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, and divides up the other two thirds of the grant among the counties and cities which wish to participate in this Federal program. Each county or city must provide funds to match the FEMA grant which provides funding for half of the salary expenses of emergency management personnel.

Role Of Amateur Radio In Disasters

The United States seems to have suffered an unusually large number of different types of disasters in the past few years. Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina in 1989, the Loma Prieta, California earthquake of 1989, the wildland-urban Oakland/Berkeley fire of 1991, Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992, the Mississippi and Missouri River floods of 1993, the Southern California fires of 1993, and the Northridge, Los Angeles earthquake of January 1994 have all been catastrophic disasters. In order to examine the role of amateur radio in support of disaster management , we will briefly review some of these large scale disasters.

Loma Prieta Earthquake, Santa Cruz, California, October 17, 1989

In the Loma Prieta (Santa Cruz) earthquake, there were 63 people killed and 3,757 injured. 1,018 homes were destroyed and 23,408 damaged while 3,530 businesses were damaged. Property damaged was estimated about $5.9 billion.

The principal cities in Santa Cruz County are Santa Cruz and Watsonville. The quake's epicenter was only eight mile from Santa Cruz. Landslides, damaged roads and bridges closed most highways and rural roads. The county was isolated with no electric power and no telephone service. 592 homes and 668 mobile homes had been destroyed, 2,069 had suffered heavy damage and 10,000 people were displaced from their homes. (Two months later, 3,000 remained homeless.)

Santa Cruz ARES members were quick to provide emergency communications. QST, March 1990, printed some first-person accounts of ham activities which provided a vivid picture of the events of October 17, (Ewald, 1990). Radio amateurs provided the initial communications between the county Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and hospitals, Red Cross shelters, and the State Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento. The Watsonville Community Hospital had been severely damaged after being displaced about a foot, which broke many pipes. The emergency power generator had been damaged and there was no telephone service. Critical-care patients had to be evacuated from the third and fourth floors of the building. Hams assisted in communicating requests for ambulances to move patients to the other two county hospitals and to hospitals in Monterey County. Medical helicopters from Stanford Medical Center and from Fort Ord. were unable to establish radio communication with the hospitals for landing clearance. Radio amateurs relayed landing instructions to the helicopters through their home bases. An amateur brought a portable generator to power lights for emergency surgery.

Amateur radio operators were able to help by reporting many gas leaks as well as broken sewer and water lines. Amateur Radio was also used to assist in coordinating arrival of structural engineers brought from other parts of California. Amateur radio was used to provide communications for about a dozen Red Cross emergency shelters for a week. Many of these locations required 24-hour coverage, and some needed two operators. About 370 amateur radio operators were involved in providing emergency communications after this earthquake..

Oakland/Berkeley Fire, October 20-23, 1991

In the Oakland/Berkeley East Bay Hills fire there were 25 people killed and 150 injured. There were 3,471 houses destroyed, and 1,600 acres burned, despite the efforts of 350 fire engines. This was the largest single urban fire disaster in the history of the United States. It was 100 time bigger than the great Chicago fire of 1871. This fire illustrates some of the problems which resulted from poor land-use policies.

Some of the problems of the Oakland/Berkeley fire were: the fire ignited 790 homes in first hour; there was a hilly urban/wildland interface; there was no time to prepare for an orderly evacuation; narrow streets and abandoned automobiles made it difficult for fire engines to get to areas and for the police cars to evacuate residents; the Fire and Police Departments did not use the Incident Command System and had not practised using the Mutual Aid System; there were equipment and organizational problems with communications; there were problems with low water pressure and non-standard hydrants; wood shake roofs were not treated with fire retardent chemicals; and the fire spread to adjacent houses because of lack of proper weed and brush abatement policies.

QST had an article, "Hams Put to Test in Huge Oakland Fire - Amateur Radio played a key role in the fight against the worst fire in US history" in the February 1992 issue, (Girard, 1992). The article reported that Hams began to gather on UHF and VHF nets almost immediately after the fire started and people saw the smoke. Many of those on the nets were RACES- and ARES-trained volunteers. However, the fire was so overwhelming that in the resulting confusion it was more than five hours before amateur radio emergency volunteers were called to action in Alameda county to assist in providing communications with the Oakland Fire Department.

The Oakland Fire Department had only four channel radios which caused difficulties in communicating with the 350 fire engines brought to Oakland for mutual aid assignments. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CDF) mobilized 70 amateur radio operators who had been trained in a CDF program called "Volunteer in Prevention". These hams are communication "shadows" for CDF fire officers, (Rich, 1991). The State Office of Emergency Services' Regional Emergency Operations Center had amateur radio operators assisting in its radio room. The hams provided communications for support of the Red Cross shelters in Oakland around the clock for a week.

Participating organizations and ham clubs included: Livermore RACES, East Bay ARES, East Bay Amateur Radio Club, South Bay Amateur Radio Club, Marin County Amateur Radio Club, North Bay Amateur Radio Club, Mount Diablo Amateur Radio Club, Reno Amateur Radio Club, River City Amateur Radio Club, N6ICW Telephone Pioneer Radio Club, and Contra Costa Repeaters.

Hurricane Andrew, Homestead, Florida, August 22, 1992

Huricane Andrew was a catastrophic American disaster. The local and State emergency response forces were overwhelmed. Forty people were killed and 130,000 homes damaged. More than 250,000 people were left homeless. There were 630,000 people evacuated. Four million people were without electricity and water. There were 117,000 telephones out of commission.

Some of the problems in Hurricane Andrew were: command & control confusion; inadequate damage assessment; 30,000 Military arrived late; too much unexpected mutual aid; unexpected donations caused problems; lack of emergency power generators; lack of emergency water and food; fire engines could not operated in winds greater than 70 mph; no wind measurements; and the National Hurricane Center radar, computer, & satellite communications failed during storm.

QST had an article describing Hurricane Andrew amateur radio operations in Florida in its December 1992 issue, (Kandel, 1992). RACES hams had been mobilized before the hurricane and were on station inside the Dade County Emergency Operations Center, a 1950 nuclear vault-like shelter. The shelter building survived the hurricane, but six of seven antennas and towers did not. VHF antennas which the County, the Red Cross and the School Board were supposed to have installed long ago on schools earmarked for shelters had not been installed. Luckily, one amateur radio repeater in Miami, 35 miles out of the severely damage area, had survived.

About 150 amateurs came from all over Florida to help in Dade County. Hams kept the EOC in constant contact with the State of Florida EOC in Tallahassee, 500 miles away. One amateur radio operator was struck by lightning and killed as he was providing communications for a helicopter unloading food supplies. Another ham in a shelter reported by radio that the hurricane wind had increased and that the roof of the gymnasium was lifting five feet off the building during gusts. He helped evacuate the shelterees to lower floors after breaking open some locked doors. The roof eventually blew off. This was the worst hurricane to hit this part of South Florida in 27 years. Amateur radio operators supported more than 80 city,county, state, and federal agencies for nine days.

Northridge, California Earthquake, January 17, 1994

The most expensive disaster in the United States was the earthquake in the Los Angeles area in January,1994. In the Northridge (Los Angeles) earthquake, there were 57 people killed, 1,566 hospitalized, and 9,158 injured. There were more than 2000 houses destroyed, 32,000 apartment units damaged, and more than 6,000 mobile homes damaged. Property damage was estimated to be about $20 Billion.

The damage was inflicted over a wide area in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It was fortunate that so few people were killed considering that so many people were injured and so many apartments, houses, and mobile homes were damaged. The American Red Cross quickly established about 40 shelters to house the earthquake victims. However, initially only about 5,000 people registered to stay at the Red Cross shelters which were mostly school buildings, while over 20,000 others, mostly Mexican, were sleeping in public parks in makeshift tents.

The damage to the Los Angeles freeway system caused tremendous problems. It was estimated that more than 300,000 cars a day used the Santa Monica freeway before the earthquake. Since Californians in the Los Angeles area do not have mass transit yet, their automobiles and freeways are unbelievably important to them. The mutual aid system brought many firefighters and police to help respond to the quake. Specialized Federal urban search & rescue teams were flown to Los Angeles to help rescue people trapped by collapse of buildings and parking garages. Federal emergency medical teams with portable hospitals arrived, since a number of hospitals in the area not only could not provide medical attention for the thousands of injured residents, but had to have their own patients evacuated elsewhere because of damage to their buildings.

A report in QST gave some personal accounts of ham heroics following the Los Angeles earthquake, (Palm, 1994). The San Fernando Section Emergency Coordinator activated the ARES emergency communications van at the San Fernando hospital for communications with area hospitals. The Los Angeles Section had more than 100 hams volunteer for communication services. Another ham checked in with the Southern California DX Club repeater and was able to relay a report to the Sheriff's disaster net that a high-pressure gas main had ruptured on Muholland Drive. During the first two days he had to use his own emergency power generator since there was no electricity in the San Fernando valley. Using 20 meters, he was able to relay about 300 messages before telephone service was restored to the 818 area.

Seventy ARES operators checked in by radio with Ventura's ARRL Emergency Coordinator after the 4:31 AM earthquake. Most of them were assigned to provide communications for Red Cross shelters. There were more than 4000 messages forwarded into the San Fernando and Santa Clarita Valleys by amateur packet radio.

A ham in Arkansas tuned in to14.245 Mhz after he heard about the earthquake on the news and found someone in Washington state acting as net control. The band was fading so that he ended up as net control and handled 517 messages before turning the net over to someone else.

Preparedness For Disasters

Many cities, counties, and states are taking actions to invite amateur radio operators to volunteer their communication services in normal times in order to prepare for disasters. One of these cities is Martinez, California where the Chief of Police is also the Disaster Preparedness Director, (Boyd, 1991). The City Council decided to get a 30-foot motor coach and equip it as a mobile-command vehicle, called Control II. It is equipped with amateur TV, HF, VHF, SSB, and packet.

A county in Missouri has a highly active organization of ARES and RACES amateurs, (Schuchardt, 1992). The amateurs are organized much like a volunteer fire service association. They provide a mobile command post for communications support for floods, blizzards, search and rescue , hazardous chemical accidents and tornado spotting for the National Weather Service.

Amateur radio clubs, such as the Naval Postgraduate School Amateur Radio Club, have many members who participate in local ARES activities, (Bible, 1995). These members responded to the communications problems posed by the 1995 floods of the Carmel and Salinas Rivers, (

Future Of Amateur Radio In Emergency Communications

In order for amateur radio operators to be able to contribute their help in emergencies, the local public officials should be aware of amateur radio capabilities and limitations. A survey of mayors, city managers, and city council members attending an annual Michigan Municipal League convention disclosed that 80% had never had contact with their local ham radio group, (Turner, 1990). This indicates that amateurs should take appropriate action to educate their local authorities before some disaster occurs.

The amateur radio community has been studying disasters to investigate how they can provide emergency communications to organizations which are not as well prepared as are modern police, fire, and emergency medical units, (Boyd, 1995). Public works departments in cities and counties are key responders in large scale disasters. For example, they are becoming more involved in massive mutual aid assistance projects for debris removal and demolition of damaged structures. Many public works organizations have rather basic communications gear only usable within their home jurisdiction. This may cause problems when they are asked to respond to a differentjurisdiction to furnish mutual aid. Assisting in this type of situation is an appropriate activity for amateur radio. Similarly, utility companies such as water, power, and sanitation agencies may need emergency communications assistance from amateur radio.

Both private and public transportation providers used to transport injured to medical treatment centers or evacuees to shelters may have only the most basic radio equipment. Many school busses have no radios. Amateur radio can provide two-way radio communications essential for prompt efficient assignments and coordination of transportation resources.

Hospitals may need amateur radio radio operators as backup communicators if the telephone system is down and cellular systems down or overloaded. In recent earthquakes and hurricanes, many hospitals have been severely damaged with large scale relocations of patients necessary. Similarly, convalescent centers and retirement homes usually only have the usual telephone service. If many of the residents are non-ambulatory, there may be an urgent requirement for amateur radio emergency communications to support patient relocation and evacuation.

Child care centers may also have tremendous problems if a disaster, such as an earthquake, were to occur when the children are there and the parents are at work. Amateur radio operators should be able to help with emergency communications. Also, many school systems may have basic communications equipment but may not be able to cope with damage to antennas and equipment after a disaster. Amateurs practice for emergencies with battery-operated gear and hastily erected antennas.


This article resides on the Technical Information and Operations portion of the NYC-ARECS wesbite.