By David Henderson, Publisher and Co-Founder of BoomerCafé and amateur radio enthusiast.
The system of thunderstorms that ravaged the mid-Atlantic region late on Friday, June 29 – leaving about 1.5 million homes without power and killing at least five people – was not only destructive, it was rare. When emergencies like this strike, an invincible army of volunteers – many of them baby boomers – is in the background, providing vital communications. They are called, “hams.”
Vulnerable power/communications infrastructure
Known as a derecho, the string of storms combined intense lightning and rain with hurricane-force gusts as it swept from the Midwest into the mid-Atlantic Friday night. Electrical, telephone and mobile phone services in major cities, including Washington, DC, were interrupted for hours and days, leaving many people with a feeling of helplessness. News media was hampered by lack of communications.
Meteorologists blamed the violent weather on the prolonged 100-plus temperatures that blanketed the eastern United States for a week.
Derechos typically form when an atmospheric disturbance lifts the warm air in regions experiencing intense heat, causing thunderstorms and hurricane-force winds to develop. Traveling at an average speed of 60 miles per hour, Friday’s storm took 10 hours to cover more than 600 miles before reaching the Atlantic Ocean.
Whether it’s a rare and devastating series of storms or the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, amateur radio volunteers go into action without hesitation and with practiced discipline. In the case of 9-11, the already fragile cell phone system was destroyed but amateur radio clubs stepped in to assist fire, police and rescue crews.
In the Rocky Mountain region, teams of amateur radio operators have been providing expanded and critical radio communications in the massive efforts to bring forest fires under control.
It’s long been my belief that the thousands of amateur radio enthusiasts and their independent amateur radio networks, called repeaters, across America make up the nation’s most reliable communications system. Amateur radio is the backbone of reliable radio communications, especially when all else fails. Ham radio enthusiasts fund the expense out of their own pockets. I should note that an FCC amateur radio license is required by law to use the special airwaves.
Amateur radio has advanced greatly from when “ham” radio operators erected big antennas and interfered with TV reception with their high powered transmitters. That was years ago.
Most amateur radio equipment today is miniaturized, lightweight and portable. A sophisticated 5-watt, three-band handheld radio is no larger than an iPhone yet it can have a range of hundreds of miles when using a repeater.
A boom in popularity of amateur radio happened when the FCC, working together with the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), introduced the Tech license class that does not require learning Morse code. The Tech license requires passing a 35-question FCC exam. The exam and license are free.
ARRL’s website has a wealth of information and study guides. I also highly recommend visiting one of the 12 Ham Radio Outlet stores. They are in business to help people who want to learn about the hobby. By the way, many amateur band radios are surprisingly affordable and easy to use.
The RAND Corporation published an interesting related article recently – “Why Aren’t Americans Listening to Disaster Preparedness Messages?”