In addition to safe and reliable communication for themselves and their families, there are many ways that ham radio operators can get involved in the community. In addition to hobbyist clubs and organizations, citizens with ham radio licenses often volunteer to help communities in times of disasters.
In September of last year, Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Several small islands were devastated first, and within hours the US territory of Puerto Rico was seeing the first signs of crisis. Storm surge and flash flooding wreaked havoc from the ground while windows of up to 155 miles per hour destroyed from the sky. 3.4 million residents were left without electricity, and 95% of cell networks went down. Residents were left stranded without food and clean water. Diabetics without medicine. And with the communication grid down, suffering residents were helpless to call for much-needed supplies. A few ham radio operators already on the island realized a harrowing truth – their messages were the only ones leaving the island!
That’s when the Red Cross picked up the phone and asked for ham radio operators to step in, speaking with ARRL. Within 48 hours, 350 ham radio operators had answered the call, and 50 were soon sent on their way to the island. In the weeks following, ham radio operators set up stations across Puerto Rico, and dedicated volunteers from all across the US helped relay their messages. They worked hand-in-hand with FEMA and other organizations on the ground to locate food, water, medicine, and fuel to areas that were badly in need. These volunteers truly saved countless lives by volunteering their time and knowledge of amateur radio to help in one of the worst communication disasters ever in the Caribbean.
These amateur radio operators would not have been able to undertake this effort if they were not prepared and educated themselves. The first step is getting your technician license. The test consists of 35 questions, administered by an ARRL volunteer at testing centers in every city in the US. The test covers everything from operating procedures to electronics basics, so make sure you choose a good study program.
In order to be able to respond to an emergency with ham radio, you have to 1) be licensed and 2) get some practice! Once you have your license, there are many ways to start practicing. One fun way is to get involved in the annual Ham Radio Field Day. Field Day is the largest disaster preparedness exercise in the United States, with over 30,000 participants annually. During the weekend long event, ham radio operators set up large antennas at sites across the country and kick back with some good food and comradery while the exercises get underway. For new hams, it’s a great opportunity to make their first transmissions and radio in action. More experienced hams compete in a range of competitions to show off their skill. Everyone learns something and has the opportunity to connect with the larger community.
After getting licensed, there are many ways that ham radio operators get involved in their communities. One of the most common is to join a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). CERT organizations are found in almost every major US city, and they train and equip citizens to prepare and respond to disasters. In a disaster scenario, CERT volunteers jump into action to minimize the loss of life and property. Volunteers can undertake a wide variety of tasks, including first aid, evaluating damage to infrastructure, evacuating dangerous areas, setting up shelters, and the list goes on. It is no surprise that CERT training goes hand-in-hand with amateur radio training, since a major disaster almost certainly means loss of communication to a varying degree, and without an amateur radio license, it is illegal to transmit. Even in local disasters, communication outages can be severe enough that CERT volunteers need amateur radio operators to help communicate what is happening on the ground. On September 11, 2001 when terror attacks shocked the nation, ham radio operators were needed in the middle of a New York City to help with communications!
As in Field Day, it’s not always doom and gloom with amateur radio. Many ham radio operators enjoy setting up their own home antennas to communicate across the country, across the world, or even with the International Space Station. With modern manufacturing techniques, it is no longer cost prohibitive for an amateur hobbyist on a budget to set up an antenna that would enable them to talk across the world. If you have the space and some time, you might have your own ham shack before you know it!