HAM Radio 101

Want to Put Your Ham Radio Skills to Good Use? Get Involved in EmComm!

One of the missions of the Amateur Radio Service is for amateur radio operators to provide public service and emergency communications (EmComm) when needed. We act as a voluntary noncommercial communication service and pitch in to help our communities and first responders.

So, what organizations are out there for community-minded amateur radio operators and what can we do to help?

Join In

One good entry point into public service and emergency communications is to join SkyWarn, a volunteer program run by the National Weather Service (NWS) with more than 290,000 trained severe weather spotters. These volunteers help keep their local communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the NWS.

Not all of these weather spotters are amateur radio operators, but many are. Amateur radio communications can report severe weather in real time. When severe weather is imminent, SkyWarn spotters are deployed to the areas where severe weather is expected. A net is activated on a local repeater and SkyWarn spotters who are Hams check into that net. The net control advises the spotters when they might expect to see severe weather, and the spotters report conditions such as horizontal winds, large hail, rotating clouds, and even tornadoes.

To become a SkyWarn spotter, you must attend a class that teaches you the basics of severe weather, how to identify potentially severe weather features, and how to report them. The classes are free and typically last about two hours. Check your local NWS website for class schedules.

ARES/RACES/CERT

Another way Hams can become involved in public service and emergency communication is to join an ARES or RACES  group. Technically, these are two separate services—the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is run by the ARRL, while the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) is a function of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Amateur radio operators who typically take part in one also take part in the other.

To participate in RACES, you’ll need to take some self-study FEMA courses in emergency preparedness and emergency-response protocols. Classes may or may not be required to participate in ARES. These requirements are set by each individual ARES group. To get involved with either ARES or RACES, ask your local club members when they meet. You can also contact the Section Manager or Emergency Coordinator for your ARRL section. To contact them, click here and find the section that you live in.

Amateur radio operators belonging to ARES (and its predecessor, the Amateur Radio Emergency Corps) have responded to local and regional disasters since the 1930s, including the 9/11 attacks, and Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Michael, among others.

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program trains volunteers—both Hams and non-hams—how to be prepared for disasters that may impact their area. They provide basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations. CERT offers a nationwide approach to volunteer training and organization that first responders can rely on during disaster situations, allowing them to focus on more complex tasks.

What Gear Do You Need?

For most local needs, a 5-watt VHF/UHF handheld transceiver is sufficient for utilizing local repeaters to relay messages and report on conditions as they exist. Replacing the radio’s stock antenna with a higher gain antenna or connecting it to a magnetic mount on a vehicle will increase range significantly.

Even better is a VHF/UHF mobile radio installed in your vehicle with 25 or more watts output and a good mobile antenna. In the event the repeater loses power, you can talk over a considerably larger area in simplex mode with the extra power and a good mobile antenna.

If you work with an ARES or RACES group, you may be asked to act as a county control station. In this capacity, you’d need both HF and VHF transceivers in a fixed location, such as your house, with a good antenna system and emergency power capabilities like a generator or batteries. This allows you to make contacts within your state and throughout the U.S.

Helping Hams

Ham radio can play a key role in emergency situations. Here are a few examples:

  • Ham radio connected firefighters and police departments, Red Cross workers, and other emergency personnel during the 2003 blackout that affected the northeast United States.
  • In 2017, fifty amateur radio operators were dispatched to Puerto Rico to provide communications services in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
  • Amateur radio operators provided communications in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing when cellphone systems became overloaded.
  • During Hurricane Katrina, more than one thousand ARES volunteers assisted in the aftermath and provided communications for the American Red Cross.
  • During the devastating Oklahoma tornado outbreak that began in May 1999, amateur radio operators—giving timely ground-truth reports of severe weather—played a critical role in the warning and decision-making processes at the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Norman, Oklahoma.
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