Amateur Radio – The Obsolete Heroes
– Originally written by Richard Bateman, 2005
Most people have heard of them: old guys, remnants of the 1920s, who have 200 foot antenna towers in their backyards and spend all day in their basements tapping out Morse Code to talk to other weirdos on the other side of the world. Normal humans beings have yet to discover why these old men haven’t figured out that it’s much easier to just use Internet Chat. It seems the ancient rituals of Amateur Radio just won’t die. I consider myself an authority on the subject; a tower decorates the side of my house and extends approximately 15 feet above my roof. On top of that tower stands a long white antenna of approximately 25 feet in length, and several other antennas of varying sizes and shapes are attached to the sides. Friends and family never seem to have any trouble figuring out which house is mine.
I should probably mention that I am not actually a remnant of the 1920s. In fact, my parents brought me into the world in 1983. My father installed the aforementioned antennas and tower in my youth; they were given to him by his father, who has been an active Amateur Radio operator in Utah for around 50 years. My fascination with the archaic sport derived mostly from things I learned at home while growing up,.
As everyone knows, the downfall of Amateur Radio began with the invention of the telephone (when our parents were in high school) and modern technology ruthlessly crushed any slim chance of survival with the introduction of the Internet and cell phones into our everyday lives. However, since there are still old men such as my grandfather kicking around who copy and send Morse Code at 40 words per minute (which seems to indicate some sort of mutant gene, as this is clearly physically impossible for a normal human), I figure I may as well enjoy my geeky hobby while I wait for Ham Radio to finally complete its inevitable demise.
Interestingly enough, however, despite the obvious antiquity of the hobby, every month more and more people take the 35 question test to earn their amateur radio licenses. I periodically get together with other Ham Radio operators and assist with community events and emergencies such as races, parades, fireworks, charity fund-raisers, auto shows, forest fires, power outages, floods, earthquakes, mudslides, chronic boredom, and lost or annoying family members. In fact, despite the clear superiority of other technologies that do not require a Ham Radio license, I have yet to see any signs of decline at all in the hobby that I have come to love. Actually, quite the opposite seems to be true; there are now more things than ever before that one can do with a radio license, and the number of licensed Amateur Radio licensees is growing at a seemingly unimpeeded rate.
This conundrum can be explained if one understands more about the nature of Ham Radio itself. Ham Radio, officially designated “Amateur Radio”, is managed by the Federal Communications Commission, commonly referred to as the FCC. Part 97.1 of Title 47 (Code of Federal Regulations: Telecommunications) describes the primary purpose of Amateur Radio as (paraphrased slightly) being of value to the public as a voluntary non-commercial communications service, particularly by providing emergency communications. For those of you who – like me – think this sounds like another language, I’ll paraphrase even more: Ham Radio is strictly non-profit and is used primarily to provide communications for public, service, and emergency events. Amateur Radio’s non-profit rule makes it a valuable resource for many organizations, such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and even your local police and fire departments, that otherwise could not provide adequate communications for their events.
When trying to convince others to get their Amateur Radio license, I hear the same argument nearly every time: “I have a cell phone. What would I do with a radio?” As everyone knows, it’s much easier to call someone on a cell phone than it is to call that same person on a radio; the person you wish to contact must be not only on the correct frequency but also close enough to be in range of the call. What most people do not consider, however, is that while cell phones are a wonderful resource – I carry one myself – there are many areas that lack adequate cell phone coverage and many situations where cell phones are simply unable to fulfill the need.
My family and I help out every year with a scouting event called the Klondike Derby. It’s a winter camping event involving hundreds of scouts from around the area. Getting everyone parked as close to their campsites as possible while still making efficient use of limited parking space can be a thorny problem, requiring a great deal of coordinated effort between seven parking lots and the lodge, where the camp is managed from. The “person to person” nature of cell phones make them extremely inefficient at sharing information with more than one or two people at a time, and we have yet to find a cell phone carrier with coverage at that campsite. With radios, we keep everything running smoothly with parking and obtain fast answers from the camp coordinators for frantic scoutmasters. All radio operators on the channel hear every question ask, as well as the answers given; rarely is information repeated..
Another well-known event that – sadly – exemplified the problems with the “regular” communications systems like cell phones occurred on September 11, 2001. Two Boeing 747 airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York, killing thousands of people and sending the world into a shocked outrage. Few understand the role that Amateur Radio operators played during this time of tragedy. When the towers collapsed, they took with them not only the cell phone towers that provided much of the coverage for the area, but New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (formerly located on the 21st and 22nd floor) as well. The sheer number of frantic people trying to call and check on loved ones quickly rendered the public and cell phone systems virtually useless to emergency personnel. Firefighters and other emergency personnel use two-way radio systems similar to Ham Radios, but the inability for services to talk to each other caused the deaths of many firefighters who could have otherwise been warned by the police that the towers were collapsing.
As soon as the scope of the emergency became known, the FCC and public safety divisions began to activate RACES (pronounced RAY-seize) groups across the United States. RACES, or Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, is a government directed program of Amateur Radio operators that takes control of the airwaves in the case of an emergency. Amateur Radio operators across the United States – particularly in the areas surrounding New York City – immediately volunteered their time and skills to assist with the efforts, coordinating the efforts of the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the government, and other service organizations.
If anyone believes they are “too young” to be “one of those old guys”, think again. When ten-year-old Beverly Holtz (Amateur Radio Call sign KC2IKT) from Huntington, Long Island, New York learned of the tragedy at the World Trade Center, she wanted to help. At a Red Cross shelter in Valley Stream, New York, Beverly used her father’s hand-held radio to relay health-and-welfare information to emergency response coordinators. Despite being the only radio operator at the shelter for a full 8 hour shift, Beverly faithfully performed her duties, only one of many radio operators that kept things running when all else was chaos (Lindquist).
There are other less dramatic examples of ways that Amateur Radio saves lives, prevents panic, and even just provides convenience. Some things are small – like patrolling the course of a 10 mile race, watching for and reporting anyone who may need medical assistance and keeping track of where the runners are. Some things are larger – every year Amateur Radio operators keep the parade running smoothly at the Provo, Utah Freedom Festival (one of the largest Independence Day celebrations in the nation) by coordinating the timing and position of the parade entries, keeping track of confused vendors, and helping to find lost children. Last year my neighbors lost a child at that parade; they searched the street for 20 minutes to no avail, but when they finally asked the radio operator at a nearby first aid station, the operator immediately remembered a report of a child the police had found just down the street matching his description. My neighbors found their child. Cell phones are wonderful tools, but they don’t work well to keep track of 30 different locations all at once.
I have been a licensed Amateur Radio operator for seven years now. I have assisted with many events and used the associated skills in many of the jobs I have held, installing and configuring many types of radio systems and antennas, troubleshooting electronics, and helping to coordinate group activities. My father and I once used our radios to locate a lost cousin by triangulating in on the signal from the FRS (Family Radio Service) radio he was carrying. I’ve had the opportunity to stand barely 500 yards away from the launch site and watch fireworks; I and other operators circled the perimeter and watched for fires. When I attend large public gatherings, I frequently know everything that is going on in the area – because Amateur Radio operators are providing communications for the event. I have saved lives. I have reunited lost children with their parents. I have kept loved ones in touch with each other.
Ham Radio is misunderstood by a great many people. Some of us do, indeed, use Morse Code to talk to people in other countries – which, by the way, do not all have telephone systems or Internet access. Most of us earned our licenses for other reasons. We enjoy our hobby. We use it for fun, to find out what traffic conditions are like, to keep track of each other on family hikes, and sometimes just to chat with our friends. What we are really about, however, is the people that we help. We are the sum of the services we perform, and you could be too. You aren’t too young to get a license. You aren’t too cool to help people. You aren’t too poor to get involved. You aren’t too busy to make a difference. Ham Radio isn’t the past; it’s the future.
Lindquist, Rick, N1RL and Diane Ortiz, K2DO. “9/11/01: This is Not a Test.” ARRL QST Nov 2001. 15 Mar 2005
National Archives and Records Administration. The Code of Federal Regulations Title 47 (Telecommunication), Part 97 (Amateur Radio Service) 17 Dec 2004. 15 Mar 2005