Like a black-and-white movie, ham radio may evoke an image of how people communicated in the old days. In fact, Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney,... Ham radio: An ‘old’ technology is a lifesaver in the emergency field
Ham radio operators working at the race command center at the 2013 Publix Atlanta Marathon

Ham radio operators working at the race center at the 2013 Publix Georgia Marathon

Like a black-and-white movie, ham radio may evoke an image of how people communicated in the old days. In fact, Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney, who died this month at 93, starred in a classic film as a teenager in which ham radio was a key plot device.

But ask someone in emergency management about ham radio, and you’ll find that this medium of communication is anything but outdated. In recent years, recognition of its importance has actually increased.

A case in point occurred in March 2008, when thousands of people were attending the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament in downtown Atlanta, and thousands more were at various venues nearby as a  tornado struck, cutting a path of destruction through the heart of Georgia’s capital city.

Unbeknownst to many, a lone amateur radio operator, using only a hand-held radio, called “CQ, CQ” — the ham radio code that signified he was reaching out to whatever stations could hear him. He hoped to alert any station on the air that he was located in the worst of the storm-affected area and needed help.

Barry Kanne, an active ham radio operator, and an Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) volunteer, happened to be listening to the main ham radio weather channel as the storm hit. He responded to the CQ call. Immediately, an ad hoc emergency net between the two operators was established. Soon other stations joined in to report storm damage.

For the balance of that evening, and into the early morning hours, reports were relayed to the National Weather Service office in Peachtree City and local public safety agencies in the affected area.

Amateur radio operators have provided communications during disasters for decades, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

They rely on their equipment and antennas to communicate using radio technologies and battery power. Amateur radio operators ensure ongoing emergency communications when Internet services fail and cellphones are rendered useless. According to a Wired Magazine blog, there are over 700,000 licensed ham operators in the U.S. today. That’s 60 percent more than 30 years ago.

They use terminology and slang unique to ham radio — an avocation for many participants. With the knowledge of this technical language comes the ability to relate on all levels, transcending barriers of native tongues and cultures, and vital to saving lives.

“Our communities rely on ham radio in a way the average citizen just does not realize,” says Steve Garrison, president of the Alford Memorial Radio Club in Stone Mountain.

“Most people are caught up in what we consider advanced technology like smartphones and the Internet,” says Garrison. “We forget how reliant they are on supporting infrastructure.”


A standby in times of crisis


Shortly after the Gulf Coast experienced the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, which left some hospitals barely functioning and cut off from outside help, the federal government recognized the important contributions made by amateur radio. The feds released funds to establish emergency ham radio stations in many hospitals throughout the country.

Post-Katrina flooding in Louisiana

Post-Katrina flooding in Louisiana

In 2007, the Georgia Department of Public Health contracted with the Georgia Hospital Association (GHA) to manage the installation of ham radios in 15 Regional Coordinating Hospitals throughout Georgia.

“A Health Resources and Services Administration grant enabled hospitals to secure redundant communication, making certain it was in place during emergencies,” says the director of emergency preparedness for GHA, Adrianne Feinberg.

By 2009, the Joint Commission, an independent hospital accreditation agency, began to focus on hospital emergency management, resulting in a dedicated emergency
management chapter as part of a standard operating procedure, says Feinberg. “Ensuring reliable communication capability continues to be a vital component of emergency preparedness,” she says.

Joint Commission standards now specify that hospitals prepare for how they communicate during emergencies as part of their internal crisis communication planning. Amateur radio is viewed as an example of backup communications that meets this requirement.


Hospital employees join in


Today, those original 15 hospital and dozens more Georgia hospitals have installed ham radio equipment. In addition, some hospital employees have obtained their own FCC amateur radio licenses, enabling them to establish vital communications while waiting for the ARES volunteer operators to arrive.

Federal Communications Commission regulations prevent amateur radio operators from receiving any compensation for performing their communications tasks. But a recent FCC ruling relaxed these restrictions for hospital employees with ham licenses, allowing them to use amateur radio equipment for drills and exercises while still on the hospital clock. This ruling recognizes the critical nature of ham radio as an emergency communication backup for hospitals.

“We strive to develop good working relationships with the agencies we serve,” says George Olive, ARES Emergency Coordinator for DeKalb County.

“By participating in drills and exercises alongside professional emergency responders, we are an integral part of events like parades and marathons,” Olive says. This Involvement keeps message handling skills sharp and helps integrate operators into the emergency management structure of their communities.


Photo courtesy of the American Radio Relay League

“What works is we get to know the emergency response team before there is an actual emergency,” Olive says.

Kanne adds, “Ham operators need to remain ready and flexible at all times. Our ability to respond in a crisis relies on having our own plan that aligns with the hospital’s preparedness needs.”

“Not only are we there when hospitals need us,” says Kanne. “But the true beauty of what we do allows doctors, employees and other hospital staff to do what they do best — provide vital patient care in an emergency.”

The task at hand is to get the messages delivered in support of the hospital’s needs. “We are their communicators,” Kanne says, “when all else fails.”

Kara Tarantino is a strategic marketing consultant in health care communications, planning and content marketing. She lives in the Atlanta area.

Sign up for our free email alerts and follow us on Facebook and on Twitter @gahealthnews.
Help us fulfill our nonprofit mission with a tax-deductible donation!

Kara Tarantino

  • K2NCC

    April 24, 2014 #1 Author

    Many thanks Ms Tarantino for the excellent article about amateur radio,
    and to GHN for providing the medium. Frank K2NCC in Oregon


  • W4DTR

    April 25, 2014 #2 Author

    Nice recognition. Thanks! -Dave, W4DTR in Duluth, GA


  • Hame Bone

    July 1, 2014 #5 Author

    Just a few comments about the Ham radio article above. 1 – Amateur Radio is not channelized, with the exception of a couple of select frequencies permitted on 60 meters, any amateur can operate anywhere within the band plan. There is no weather channel frequency used by amateurs. The writer might be confused with a designed repeater frequency that was used for ARES or RACES on the two meters or 70 CM. Real hams uses mainly HF radios and leaves the hand held radios to the little kids and dummies that are not smart enough to pass the General Class License Exam. Although there is about 700,000 call signs, the amount of actual hams fluctuates from day to day – since there is always a VE test session somewhere and people die. I would estimate the actual count to be much closer to 500,000 actual hams and about 350,000 that actually operates in a given year.

    We have moved away from much that amateur radio was founded on, and many has confused amateur radio with just another way for public service to use our frequencies in an emergency.
    Even the ARRL has gotten away from calling it Ecom’s –
    Emergency Communications, preferring to call it Public Service – since we do not physically provide much of a service anymore.

    Technically all emergency communications should be performed using plain English, not to distort the meaning of the messages being sent, since not all licensed hams are active hams, or knows the proper lingo.


    • Matt BK

      August 4, 2014 #6 Author

      “Real hams uses mainly HF radios and leaves the hand held radios to the little kids and dummies that are not smart enough to pass the General Class License Exam.”

      Such welcoming words.


      • New Technician class

        September 11, 2014 #7 Author

        For the most part, hams I’ve met are a welcoming and and friendly bunch of folks. But this guy, sheesh.


      • Eddie

        August 5, 2015 #8 Author

        Nothing a case of Metamucil can’t fix . . . . {grin}


    • Eddie

      August 5, 2015 #9 Author

      Yep, he sounds like one of those douchebags they call “Elmers” in their lingo. These are mostly old fart HAMs who achieve guru status for being able to baffle and bullshit the noobie HAMsters with their advanced FCC licenses and years of experience. I am clearly not worthy for only owning a Baofeng and not even carrying a Tech license yet.

      I am only *reluctantly* wading into the HAM waters after purchasing my Baofeng handheld for backup comms in emergency situations. I have to get at least a Technician license to legally transmit. I’m not impressed by the HAM crowd so far and don’t see myself becoming “assimilated”. The nerd factor is enormous, but this is definitely not rocket surgery. Any motivated person with an above-room temperature IQ can figure this stuff out in a few days.

      I already don’t think I want to devote much time to this hobby. Every time I listen to these HAM broadcasts they seem obsessed with either “hows the weather?”, nerdy technical questions about the equipment/repeater/antenna being used, to “gee, so whereabouts is your town located?”, and “I’m sorry, what was your name and call sign again?” Wash. Rinse. Repeat. {yawn}


  • Vern (KV5SIX)

    August 14, 2014 #10 Author

    Old technology?! Seriously? That’s what you think we hams use? Get a clue.


    • Matt BK

      August 14, 2014 #11 Author

      To be fair, I don’t think that was meant as derogatory. The incandescent light bulb is an “old” technology as well, but it still works well–and would work even if we lost the ability to manufacture compact fluorescents and LEDs.


      • Vern (KV5SIX)

        August 14, 2014 #12 Author

        I disagree. I see computers in the background of the stories in this story. Are those old technology too? I just hate the stereotype that all we hams are is a bunch of propeller beenie wearing nerds with old antiques. I just spoke to a captain at sea on a commercial cruise ship. I hardly think this was common place in years gone by, even with the old technology. It just irks me is all. People have a tendency to glaze over when a person mentions ham radio and they diminish that which they do not understand. Ham radio uses satellites and advanced communication protocols that rival any of the technology that so many think is “new”. Just my two cents. But thanks for your reply Matt.


  • K4HYJ

    September 7, 2014 #13 Author

    Nice article – thanks for writing it.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please leave these two fields as-is:

Help us pursue our nonprofit mission with a tax-deductible donation.

Credit Cards

Donations Welcome

Donate Icon