Emergency response teams and communities prepare for Hurricane Harvey’s potentially devastating effects. Amateur radio enthusiasts are too.
In a statement released earlier today, the American Radio Relay League released a statement saying its members – amateur radio enthusiasts known as amateur radio operators – were ready. This is because amateur radio operators play an important role in disaster response, from monitoring and reporting on storms to providing a method of communication when other methods are down.
Radio amateurs are authorized by the federal government to communicate on the air. Part of that communication is conversation, but part of it saves lives. While amateur radio may seem like an outdated hobby, licensed operators had to learn Morse code until 2007, its frequencies and operators play an important role in disaster situations.
“When normal communication systems are not available, amateur stations can perform transmissions necessary to meet essential communication needs related to the immediate safety of human life and the immediate protection of property,” said the FCC. What this means for Harvey right now, According to the AARL, it is because a team of volunteer hurricane observers sends out condition reports and data such as wind speed and direction, damage and barometric pressure. This data is used by government agencies when monitoring the hurricane. Depending on what’s going on, other services like the Amateur Radio Emergency Service can also help.
In the case of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005, radio amateurs were able to quickly get online and start relaying calls to the ‘aid, Gary Krakow wrote for NBC News. They “monitored distress calls and redirected emergency assistance requests across the United States until messages were received by emergency response personnel,” the White House wrote. Bush in his post-mortem of the response to the Katrina disaster.
In the wake of Katrina, operators who relayed emergency calls to first responders and connected people with vital resources garnered press attention and, for the first time, public funds to help maintain and develop their network.
This attention is credited with fostering the resurgence of hams in America, writes TW Burger for The Patriot-News. In 2016, there were over 735,000 licensed ham operators in the United States, according to the ARRL. This increase in membership means the United States actually has more registered amateur radio operators than at any time in American history, according to the ARRL.
“Amateur radio operators provide an invaluable service to their communities by assisting local emergency communications efforts when disasters strike and main lines are down,” Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said when speaking of a recently introduced bill that would benefit ham operators. Although it is based on old technology, amateur radio is still worth considering.
A previous version of this article used the acronym for Amateur radio relay league like AARL, not ARRL. Smithsonian.com regrets the error.