New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service


In Times of Crisis, Agencies Rely on Ham Radio Operators

DALLAS (AP) March 19, 2003 - With the possibility of additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, emergency management coordinators and government agency personnel say amateur radio operators remain a vital part of the nation's homeland security network.

It's a familiar role for the operators, known as "hams," who have established backup radio communications during 9/11, severe weather and other emergencies.

Most recently, ham radio operators helped in the search for debris from the doomed space shuttle Columbia last month after it disintegrated over North Texas last month.

"On the surface, they may not seem important, but in my business, they're critical," Pat McMacken, Irving's emergency management coordinator, told The Dallas Morning News in Wednesday's editions. "I'd never go into an emergency without them. You never know what's going to happen."

Hams helped emergency officials in New York City after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As in other crises, the volunteers traveled to the scene, set up equipment and worked as couriers for rescue agencies, taking and transmitting messages. They are on agencies' lists for callout if terrorists decide to attack during American military forces' activities in the Middle East.

Disasters can strike in remote areas where electrical power is unavailable or unreliable. During crises, telephone lines quickly become jammed and computers crash. Hams serve as backups for emergency agencies when other communication lines fail. City officials and rescuers rely on hams because radio equipment is expensive and requires expertise to operate.

Hams, who must pass exams to become certified and operate on specific frequencies, keep track of communications technology that has not been outmoded by cellular phones and the Internet.

Cities are encouraged by the federal government to use ham radio operators for support, said Don Jacks, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Texas' Division of Emergency Management endorses hams as an official resource during emergencies. They are critical during a disaster because they're mobile, said Bill Gross, Dallas' coordinator of emergency preparedness.

"It's a good tool to have when all else fails," Gross said.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council is recommending that hospitals train employees to become hams. They would then help hospitals contact medical vendors to order supplies and communicate with other hospitals to determine patient flow, said Paulette Standefer, the council's executive vice president.

She said some hospitals are buying radio equipment and towers.

Scattered across rural East Texas, shuttle debris has been difficult to locate and hams have helped speed the recovery process, said Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss.

"They became a vital link in our operation," he said. "Without the ham radio operators, we simply would not have had communication capabilities in certain areas."

Charles Hargrove, New York City's District Emergency Coordinator for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), oversaw 275 hams who staffed shelters at city schools after the World Trade Center attack. Hams communicated with the Red Cross to request food, personnel, nurses and baby supplies.

"When (the twin towers) came down, the guts of the communications infrastructure of New York City was wiped out," he said. "It took something like this to prove that if you rely on an infrastructure that you have no way of controlling, then you're hostage."

About 835,000 hams live in the United States, the ARRL says. But the group's president, Jim Haynie, says hams need to attract young people into their hobby.

Rena Dulworth, 20, got hooked as a 12-year-old. The Irving resident tracks stormy weather and talks to hams from Europe.

"If I can go out and help the community by doing something I like, that's great," she said.