One of the most overlooked groups in any disaster is the amateur — or ham — radio operator community, which had a tremendous impact on Katrina and other natural disasters in recent years.
Immediately at the onset of Katrina, about a thousand Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licensed amateur radio operators began providing continuous high-frequency (HF), VHF, and UHF communications for state, local, and federal emergency workers in and around Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
In Mississippi, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dispatched amateur radio operators to hospitals and evacuation shelters to send emergency calls 24 hours a day. When local 911 operators couldn't handle calls from relatives calling in to check on family members, amateur radio operators were stationed at 911 call centers to relay information back to New Orleans to facilitate rescue missions for stranded people.
The Salvation Army operates its own amateur radio communications system, known as SATERN, using American Radio Relay League (ARRL) volunteers. In Katrina, SATERN operators joined forces with SHARES (as in SHAred RESources), which networks government, military, and Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) radio stations. MARS is an organized network of amateur radio stations affiliated with the different branches of the armed forces to provide volunteer communications.
"The principal reason why amateur radio works when other communications systems fail during natural disasters is that amateur radio is not infrastructure-dependent and is decentralized," Harold Kramer, chief operating officer of ARRL, told the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet during Congressional hearings held last year on responses to Hurricane Katrina.
There are about 670,000 FCC-licensed amateur radio operators who operate not only by voice, but also via high-speed data transmissions using software known as WinLink, a global HF digital e-mail system for linking amateur radios to the Internet.WinLink can handle attachments, position reporting (using WinLink, mobile users may post their positions on a map), graphic and text-based weather bulletins, and emergency communications. WinLink 200 is available only to licensed amateur radio users, MARS operators, and U.K. Cadet Forces.