Amateur radio operators, often called “ham radio operators” regularly volunteer their skills and expertise to coordinate responses in emergencies like the Boston Marathon bombing and when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
There are more than 725,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States. Those that were providing support for the 2013 Boston Marathon became a key communication link when cellphone systems became overloaded after bombs exploded near the finish line killing three and injuring hundreds.
Here in New Mexico, radio hams play a vital role in battles against wildfires, said Ed James, section manager for the Amateur Radio Relay League, the state branch of the national association for amateur radio.
His group has 1,400 members. Many of them volunteer with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), groups of trained radio operators who work with county emergency management organizations, local hospitals, the Red Cross or local sheriff’s departments.
Local ARES groups provided communications support during the 2016 Dog Head fire that ravaged areas of the Manzano Mountains and the massive 2011 Las Conchas fire near Los Alamos.
Radio hams are a regular sight at many of New Mexico’s outdoor events like the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range. They’re also at aid stations for the Santa Fe Century cycling event, the Run for the Zoo and the La Luz Trail Run.
“Hams can have wide area coverage where there is minimal or no cell coverage,” said Ed Ricco, Bernalillo County ARES emergency coordinator for special events.
Radio is more efficient than individual cellphone calls because it allows all the operators to listen on the same frequency so everyone knows what is going on at different points over a wide area, said Ricco.
The radio equipment they use can communicate with smart phones or tablets, but it functions independently from internet or cellphone infrastructure. Batteries, solar panels or gas generators provide the power source. Repeaters, electronic devices that receive weak or low-level amateur radio signals and retransmit them at a higher level or higher power, enable the signal to cover long distances.
However, being a ham radio operator isn’t all about disaster response. James estimates there are 6,500 radio operators statewide, which he said is a record high number.
Clubs like the Amateur Radio Caravan Club in Albuquerque hold regular events like “Summer Fun in the Park,” on the fourth Friday in May, July and August at Sister Cities park at McKinney and Harper in the Northeast Heights.
Clubs around the country, including in New Mexico, hold an annual Field Day in late June. Club members set up temporary radio stations at a city park where they can do demonstrations for members of the public.
Ham radio attracts people for different reasons. Ricco said he became enthralled as a kid listening to a shortwave radio at an aunt’s house. The big old-fashioned radio could pull in signals from the BBC and Radio Australia.
Amateur Radio Caravan Club member Pete Stine got hooked after he found the cellphone his daughter persuaded him to get didn’t work on camping trips with his Boy Scout troop.
“I thought a ham radio would (work) and there was a guy giving a class for the troop so I signed up,” Stine said.
Fellow club member Terry Taylor said he got his basic radio operator license when he was 11 years old. Radio experience was helpful to him in his career as an electrical engineer with Boeing.
Sandia National Laboratory employee Neall Doran wanted to get involved in a program he heard about that uses radio communication and high-altitude ballooning to help teach science, technology, education and math in local schools.
The STEM Trajectory Initiative, which started four years ago, has given students from elementary through high school level the chance to work with New Mexico Space Studies, an amateur radio group, and other ham clubs to launch balloons and monitor them through radio communications. In 2016, students from Valley High School established a direct link with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
This summer, Valley High School hosted a course where students passed exams for their Federal Communications Commission Technician Class Licenses, the entry-level license for ham radio operators.
The course was the beginning of a three-year effort for students to design, build and launch a small satellite that will eventually orbit the earth, providing opportunities for radio communication with others around the world via satellite.