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ask someone in emergency management about ham radio, and you’ll find that this medium of communication is anything but outdated.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.