In the early 1900s, hams were considered irritations and nuisances to the “real” communicators – the commercial sector and the military. Amateur Radio was almost outlawed, and ultimately relegated what were then considered “useless” frequencies above 1.5 Mhz.
Hams rose to the challenge and figured out how to effectively use the higher frequencies. They also demonstrated that they could actually be of use as a service.
In 1913, college students/hams in Michigan and Ohio passed disaster messages in the aftermath of severe storms and flooding in that part of the country when other means of communications were down.
A Department of Commerce bulletin followed, proposing a dedicated communications network of radio amateurs to serve during disasters. A magazine article noted that amateurs – who were once considered nuisances – were now considered to be essential auxiliary assets of the national public welfare.
The American Radio Relay League was formed in 1914, and disaster response communications provided by radio amateurs became more organized and useful. In 1920, Amateur Radio was used to help recover a stolen car, of all things!
Soon, the use of Amateur Radio for natural disasters emerged, with hams active in deadly flooding in New Mexico and an ice storm in Minnesota.
More organization followed, such as a “MoU” with the American railroad system for Amateur Radio support when the railroad’s wire lines were down.
A major New England flood had amateurs supplying the only efficient means of communications from the devastated areas to the outside world, prompting the chairman of the Federal Radio Commission to say the future of radio depends on the amateurs.
In 1935, the ARRL Emergency Corps was formed with the goal of having an Amateur Radio Emergency Station in every community — a goal that remains just as urgent today as it did then! Just look at today’s emphasis on the neighborhood and community as “first responder” and on self-reliance in the post-disaster survival chain.
In 1936 the ARRL Emergency Corps provided essential communications during major flooding across a 14-state region, solidifying Amateur Radio’s status as a critical disaster response communications asset and public service.
Amateur Radio was shut down during World War II, but communications techniques pioneered by hams were put to use during the war. Many hams joined the War Emergency Radio Service, which provided some disaster communications during the war period. After the war, the ARRL reconstituted its disaster response communications programs and networks, and the first Simulated Emergency Test was run in 1946.
The Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) was formed by the government for civil defense (CD) purposes during the Cold War.
The roles, procedures, protocols, equipment and techniques of Amateur Radio in public service, disaster, and emergency communications continue to evolve, fueled by advances in Amateur Radio technology and its application, and lessons learned from each and every incident that involves amateur communications support.
Commercial and government communications infrastructure has reduced the need for Amateur Radio emergency communications. But these systems still do fail. Many readers of this column experienced just such a failure during the recent torrential rainstorm.
As the ARES Section Emergency Coordinator for Northern New York, I encourage anyone interested in radio communications for emergency preparedness (and just for fun as well) to get involved in ham radio. For more information, contact me at 315-376-8879 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit the Northern New York Amateur Radio Association web site www.nnyara.net.
Original newspaper article published November 2019