Electronic Design

ARRL's Role In Rescue Offers Lessons For Future

Investigations into the communications breakdowns in our national emergency response systems continue. Yet I'm struck by the contrast between the hue and cry for upgraded infrastructure solutions and the much quieter revelation that old-school ham radio provided the only trustworthy communication during Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans emergency departments' radios were wiped out when broadcast towers lost backup power generators. Police and fire departments only had citizen-band radios, offering inadequate bandwidth. Emergency responders lacked coordinated frequencies.

The National Guard cited antiquated communications technology-as a contributor to its delayed response. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum told USA Today that there was a shortage of high-tech radios and satellite communications gear. "We were underequipped," Blum told USA Today. "We don't need tanks and attack helicopters... but we must have state-of-the-art radios and communications."

The Guard has historically gotten "handmedown" equipment from active-duty military. It now uses "Vietnam-era radios while it needs 37,000 newer radios," according to Guard budget briefings.

Meanwhile, ham radio operators proved that older technology can be the most reliable technology. Our EDA Editor (and ham) David Maliniak wrote an online column on the subject, pointing out that sometimes "old works when new doesn't." (Read it and add your comments at ED Online 11136.) During and after Katrina, hams running on generators (sometimes with makeshift antennas) worked throughout the hurricane zone to put emergency stations on the air. They guided rescuers to stranded victims and updated weather services via the Hurricane Watch Net.

Amateur radio was the primary means of contact with the outside world for many shelters. It's estimated that some 1000 amateur radio volunteers helped serve the hurricane-ravaged communities and shelters, even providing communications for the Red Cross.

Still, the real lesson of the ham radio successes isn't that old sometimes trumps new. Upgraded, reliable hardware is vital for adequate emergency response. Amateur radio has continued to upgrade too. Hams use satellites, digital systems, cross-band repeaters, and more. As the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) puts it, the Morse code key may still be on the desk, but generally it's next to a modern system operable under extreme emergency conditions.


Katrina taught two key lessons. First, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) organization proved effective because hams don't depend on a centralized infrastructure. When cell towers, phone switching centers, or other central communicationsnetworks are down, hams aren't. Many operators have their own generators and are ready to fire them up to get on the air when there's no power. National disaster response plans must assume that the centralized communications infrastructure likely will be crippled, so the emergency system must include a distributed or "mesh" networking scheme.

Second, ARRL succeeded because operators subscribe to a mission that comes with their licenses—to be ready to provide emergency communications whenever and wherever they're needed. ARES has a well-conceived action plan coordinated through the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). ARES is part of the ARRL, and RACES is coordinated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But like the broacast system, the emergency plan is decentralized. Radio operators can work independently to serve their community as circumstances require.

A decentralized emergency plan requires deputized people who truly understand and care about their responsibilities. The best emergency response relies on distributed manpower, with first responders empowered to make decisions at the scene of the crisis.

It doesn't take a federal investigation to realize that the government's emergency-response debacle was caused by centralizing the decision-making with politically appointed bureaucrats who didn't have a personal mission or a true sense of ownership in ensuring preparedness. The fiasco with now-deposed FEMA leader Michael Brown exemplifies the folly of appointments based on cronyism, rather than the recruitment of people who have a passion, understanding, and commitment for the responsibilities they shoulder.

In this issue's cover story, Ron Schneiderman looks at government programs and the new technologies tackling our homeland security problems. But will the right people get those technologies? Too often, homeland security appointments and dollars are doled out according to political favoritism. As we saw in the recent emergency response, technologies are only effective when managed by people—like the hams—who take their responsibilities to heart.

Hats off to all of you who care about the quality of the security and emergency communications technologies you're engineering. Let's hope they end up controlled by people who care just as much.

See associated figure

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.