In an age of cellphone, mobile technology and the Internet, areas affected by tornadoes, fires, storms and other infrastructure failures often are left without a communications system. In these cases, the one consistent service is amateur radio. These radio operators, often called “hams,” provide backup communications for everything from the American Red Cross to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even for the International Space Station.
During a 24-hour “field day” beginning this afternoon, Bartow County hams will host a demonstration open to the public.
“It will be a hands-on, ‘What is amateur radio? How do you do it? How do you get a license?’” said Charlie Pitchford with Bartow County Amateur Radio Emergency Services. “[It will explain] the different aspects of the hobby whether it’s just for personal pleasure, you know, uniqueness of communicating with wireless technology or whether it’s community service through emergency communications or whether it’s just you’re interested in the technology aspect of it, the challenge with all the different modes of communication that are beyond the norm of a cellphone and a chat room.”
Held from 2 p.m. today until 2 p.m. Sunday in the rear parking lot of Bartow County Fire Department Station 1 on Highway 20, the field day is the climax of the weeklong “Amateur Radio Week” sponsored by the American Radio Relay League, the national association for Amateur Radio. Using only emergency power supplies, ham operators will construct emergency stations in parks, shopping malls, schools and backyards around the country. Their slogan, “When All Else Fails, Ham Radio Works” is more than just words to the hams as they prove they can send messages in many forms without the use of phone systems, Internet or any other infrastructure that can be compromised in a crisis, according to a press release. More than 35,000 amateur radio operators across the country participated in last year’s event.
“There is a local group called Amateur Radio Emergency Services that is available for backup communications if there is a, say, communications emergency,” Pitchford said. “You mentioned the tornadoes recently in our area. Of course those were disasters, but there was not a breakdown of the communications system, in other words cellphones were still working, Internet was still available, 911 was still in operation. ... However, if there had been one, amateur radio would have been a backup resource for the community because we are not dependent upon any infrastructure at all.”
“The fastest way to turn a crisis into a total disaster is to lose communications,” he added. “From the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to tornadoes in Missouri, ham radio provided the most reliable communication networks in the first critical hours of the events. Because ham radios are not dependent on the Internet, cell towers or other infrastructure, they work when nothing else is available. We need nothing between us but air.”
There are more than 700,000 amateur radio licensees in the U.S. and more than 2.5 million around the world. Through the ARRL’s Amateur Radio Emergency Services program, ham volunteers provide both emergency communications for thousands of state and local emergency response agencies and non-emergency community services too, all for free.
“An [Federal Communications Commission] license is required to operate, which means you do have to take an exam. There are three different levels of licenses. Each level gives you more privileges on the frequencies that are allocated to amateur radio by the FCC,” Pitchford said.
For more information on amateur radio, visit www.arrl.org.