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Emergency Communications

Emergencies and Amateur Radio


In times of crisis, during both natural and man-made disasters, Amateur Radio is often used for emergency communication when landline phones, mobile phones and other conventional communications fail or are congested. Throughout history radio amateurs have made significant contributions to industry and their nations, and saved lives in times of emergency. Arthur 'Artie' Moore in Wales heard SOS messages from the Titanic in 1912, but was not believed, until official news of the disaster was known later.

In late March 1913, Herbert V. Akerberg, stranded for nearly 72 hours during a big flood in Ohio USA was perhaps the first person to use Amateur Radio to call for help during a disaster. Unlike commercial systems, Amateur Radio is throughout the community and not dependent on terrestrial facilities that can fail or be overloaded, such as mobile phone base sites, satellite communications links and the Internet. It can also keep going when the power grid is problematical though the use of batteries, generators and renewal energy sources. Reliable self-supported communications networks are possible to set up quickly.

Worldwide radio amateurs provide a valuable resource to Emergency Services and Aid Organisations in times of need, either by being the extra manpower required to cope with extended operations at emergency communications centres, or by facilities in the field such as equipment and infrastructure including VHF and UHF repeater systems. The range of frequencies and equipment available to them is vast, and they have specific skills in getting things to work in the most difficult circumstances, keeping them working, and getting the message through. Some explore technology, adding capabilities including the use of digital or text modes, and during an oil spill and a flood have brought responders real time vision from disaster scenes.

The United Nation's agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), has long recognised Amateur Radio as a recreation, a means of self-education and that radio amateurs can provide emergency communications. The International Telecommunications Union Development Sector (ITU-D) actively promotes Amateur Radio through its recommendation to promote "effective utilization of the amateur services in disaster mitigation and relief operations." That means that amateur services are able to be in national disaster plans, and memoranda of understandings with amateur and disaster relief organisations are encouraged. The ITU-D revised recommendation embraces changes adopted at World Radiocommunication Conference 2003 (WRC-03) to Article 25 of the international Radio Regulations. One change is that Amateur Radio stations may transmit international communications on behalf of third parties in case of emergencies or for disaster relief. Another encourages administrations "to take the necessary steps to allow amateur stations to prepare for and meet communication needs in support of disaster relief."

In many countries radio amateurs train to improve their skills through disaster scenarios (either alone or with other responders), field day portable operation, and routine practice at community events. They can quickly establish networks tying disparate agencies together to enhance interoperability, or stand-alone communication with message handling.

Recent Events

Many recent events show the role of radio amateurs in disasters. Whether it be a seismic disturbance, adverse weather, fire, explosions or other calamity, emergency radio is there helping among many volunteers. Often severe weather occurs in South-East Asia, the Pacific, the Americas and elsewhere. Earthquakes, power outages, structure and wild fire, plus searches for missing people or injured animals, have involved emergency communications.

After a massive earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti on January 12, 2010, many individuals provided reliable local and international communications that included email, phone-patch and medical aid logistics. Other major international examples include the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in Manhattan in 2001, the 2003 North America blackout, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and numerous earthquakes, where Amateur Radio was used to help disaster relief activities.

The largest disaster response by the US was during Hurricane Katrina which first made landfall as it went through Miami Florida on August 25, 2005, eventually strengthening to Category 5. More than a thousand radio amateurs converged on the Gulf Coast in an effort to provide emergency communications assistance. Subsequent Congressional hearings highlighted the Amateur Radio response as one of the few examples of what went right in the disaster relief effort.

Perhaps the most destructive tsunami in history killed about 230,000 people and engulfed Indian Ocean coastal areas in 12 countries on December 26, 2004. During that disaster, communications were lost or severely disrupted. It was the ham radio operator community in many countries that helped to reunite families and assist in relief operations. A major effort in response was by the Radio Society of Sri Lanka (RSSL) that also had the world's biggest train disaster when a train was washed off the rails at Pereliya. The RSSL was later presented with the German town of Bad Bentheim 'Golden Antenna' award, to recognise the use of Amateur Radio technology in connection with humanitarian work.

Among the rescue and recovery of the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake in the People's Republic of China were radio amateurs, who provided emergency communications. They repeated their major effort in the devastating 2013 Ya'an earthquake. When an earthquake struck the Canterbury region in New Zealand's South Island on February 22, 2011 radio amateurs used their emergency command van to keep rescue teams and Civil Defence staff in touch, and did a fine job among the many others involved in that disaster.

In November 2012 South African radio amateurs were asked to provide a link between Johannesburg and search teams looking for a missing aircraft in Mozambique where normal communications were not available. This was provided for four days. Community service provided in a number of countries provides emergency communication training and a time for interfacing with other responders. Such was the case on April 15, 2013 when 200 radio amateurs helping the Boston Marathon used their skills after the event was hit by bombings, to perform magnificently alongside professional first responders and medical volunteers from the Red Cross.

Typhoon Haiyan - known locally as Yolanda - struck the Philippines on November 8, 2013, and the deadliest typhoon in the country's history. Over 14 million people were affected across 46 provinces. The City of Tacloban, home to 220,000 people, suffered more loss of life than any other area. Throughout the disaster area the government put the loss of life at 6,201 and many people are missing. An estimated 100 radio amateurs provided emergency communications in response to the disaster and worked with other agencies for many weeks.

A winter storm in Slovenia in February 2014 caused the loss of power to 25 per cent of the country and European Union support mechanisms to be triggered to provide electricity generators. At the request of the Austrian Fire service, a communications link was provided between Austria and Slovenia for 10 days to ensure reliable communications between the Austrian team and their home base.

The Australian Scene

Exactly when radio amateurs in Australia first assisted the community or government authorities is still unknown. However, we do know that a tropical cyclone in the Cairns area of North Queensland in February 1927 had cut all communications. Andy Couper 4BW in North Queensland and Leighton Gibson 4BN in Brisbane handled press traffic then were allowed private messages for five days during the disaster.

It is a tradition in Australia for radio amateurs to provide communications for the community during cyclones, fires and floods. Amateur Radio notably handled emergency communications for the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, Cyclone Tracy in Darwin 1974, Ash Wednesday bushfires 1983, the Newcastle Earthquake 1989, and the Black Saturday disaster in February 2009. There have been numerous other rescues and searches. Earthquakes are unusual in Australia, but on December 28, 1989 the town of Newcastle, New South Wales, was rocked by an earthquake that killed 13 people and made over 15,000 homeless.

Also through WICEN, emergency services were also provided during the 1994 and 2002 Sydney Bushfires. Extreme alpine forest fires in southeast Australia in January and February 2003 again saw radio amateurs providing emergency communications and winning high praise for their efforts.
Again radio amateur repeater facilities were used for emergency service communications during the disastrous Queensland floods in January 2011. WICEN was again effective during the Tasman Peninsula fires in January 2013.

A turning point occurred in Victoria with the Ash Wednesday 1983 disaster resulting in the emergency communications service of WICEN gaining greater recognition by government and other players in emergency response and recovery. It presented to and was featured in the Miller Inquiry into that disaster. Then greater communications resources were made available by government to emergency services, while the universal availability of mobile phones and other factors began to play. By the early 1990s there were doubts that Amateur Radio would ever again play a significant emergency communications role.

However, in 1997 the Red Cross Emergency Communications (RECOM) was formed by a group of radio amateurs using digital amateur radio and quietly built up an enviable list of achievements. During the disastrous Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 the Red Cross deployed RECOM to nine evacuation centres, where all communications had been lost.
The data and messages from those centres were transmitted by the Amateur Radio digital HF system developed by RECOM. Following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfire disaster it became evident that the needs of Emergency Service Organisations (ESOs) and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) had changed over the previous couple of decades.
WICEN also had a role to play in Black Saturday gaining some high level recognition for its work. Coupled with the demonstrated rapid and pre-planned response of telecommunications companies to maintain or quickly restore telephone services in the bushfire affected areas, electricity supply companies also restored power within relatively short timeframes.

Modern emergency communications infrastructure is now more robust and reliable, in some cases allowing seamless communications between various ESOs over the Government Radio Network. Mobile phone network coverage is also robust and extensive however these more complex systems are still vulnerable to disasters which may cut their power supplies. So there is always a need for trained and adaptable radio amateurs, sometimes providing their own equipment and skills, but also to be trained in other important counter-disaster work. They are trained and prepared for any emergency communication call that can vary among many regional WICEN groups depending on their local needs.


Most of the time modern communications work well. Despite the development of very complex systems - or maybe because they are so complex - Amateur Radio has been called into action again and again round the world to provide communications when it really matters.

Amateur Radio - A Trusted Partner in Emergency Response.

Page Last Updated: Monday 19 January 2015 at 21:14 hours