Old Technology Still Needed

Joe Carcia, station manager of the American Radio Relay League in Newington, Conn. shown Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005, is taking part in an effort to help with the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina's victims along the Gulf Coast. AARL and Amatuer Radio Emergency Servicees have combined to send over 1,000 volunteers to hurricane torn states. (AP Photo/The Herald, Lauren Tagliatela)
There is a store in London dedicated to "appropriate technology." It mostly carries products designed to be used in developing countries where there is a weak communications infrastructure.

Sadly, that's now the case for a large swath of the United States where Hurricane Katrina and its flood waters have wiped out cell phone towers, telephone switching stations, Internet routers and other ground-based communications systems. Even wireless Internet depends on nearby transmitters and receivers on the ground.

But amateur radio is working and, according to Allen Pitts of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), "ham" radio operators from throughout the country are answering the call to provide vital communications links. Satellite phones, a much newer technology, are also coming to the rescue.

Pitts acknowledges that cell phones and other technologies "work wonderfully when everything is going right," but "they are very vulnerable when everything is going wrong."

Just as with past hurricanes, earthquakes and on September 11th, the ground-based infrastructure, in many cases failed because vital parts of the system were damaged or overwhelmed during the emergency.

In other words, when you need them most, those cell phones are of no value.

Amateur radio, says Pitts, is not vulnerable to these problems "because each of the radio operators is a complete transmit and reception center unto themselves able to continue going and continue with nothing more than an electrical source, such as a battery or a generator, a radio and piece of wire for an antenna."

Listen to audio of Larry Magid's interview with ARRL's Allen Pitts.

While base-station radios are larger and require an electrical power source, there are also portable ham radios slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes with a range of about 20 miles, according to Pitts. Pitts says that the next sized radio, about the size of a paperback book, can communicate up to about 50 miles without a repeater while larger systems, "about the size of a desktop computer" can communicate globally.

Amateur radio operators are in demand. When I checked the ARRL's Web site there was a call from the Salvation Army for "10, two-operator Amateur Radio teams for deployment in the U.S. Gulf Coast. Operators must hold at least a General class license. Teams should be fully self sufficient in terms of food, water and lodging and plan to remain in the disaster area for from one to two weeks."

Pitts said there was a "lady in Connecticut," who was listening on her amateur radio and happened to hear that there was a woman "who was trapped for four days without food and water." She was able to relay that message, by ham radio, into an operations center that dispatched the fire department. A day later she got a call from the trapped woman's mother, thanking her for her role in the rescue.

Ironically, this comes at a time when amateur radio is struggling for respect and, to some extent, survival. What was once a popular hobby has fallen into somewhat hard times for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Internet, cheap long distance calling, cell phones and other technologies make the ability to use these two-way radios not quite as compelling as it once was.