September 11, 2007

Let's Hear it for the Hams

I give my students assignents that are bit of the wall. One is "What a day/week/month" that is designed to get them thinking aobut days/weeks/months that commemorate products or causes.

Another is "World", which is designed to get them thinking about how they are connected to the world in unusual ways.

Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute provided the following tip.


Saturday, Sept. 15, is Amateur Radio Awareness Day.

Journalists really should be aware of what Amateur Radio operators, or Hams, do during emergencies.I asked Al's Morning Meeting reader Allen G Pitts, (radio call sign W1AGP) to help me with this idea. Allen is the Media & PR manager of The National Association for Amateur Radio.

He wrote to me:
In the strange silence immediately after a disaster, when the noise finally stops, it is often ham radio operators who are first to have communications, provide damage assessment and share the status of their communities. Because Amateur Radio operators can either use a shared infrastructure (the ham equivalent of a cell phone tower) or just “go direct” and talk to each other without anything between them but air, Amateur Radio has capabilities beyond phones and Internet systems. There are no choke points which can overload or fail. In an ever-shortening news cycle, when you want to get correct information quickly, accurately and directly from the scene, Amateur Radio has repeatedly been the initial means by which early reports are shared. Later, as other systems are repaired and come back up, Amateur Radio usually shifts and becomes the means by which victims notify families of their status. Hams call this “health and welfare traffic.” While other systems are often still overloaded with emergency response messages, hams serve the victims directly by passing messages around the country on behalf of victims. In addition, they provide the emergency communications for other responders. The Red Cross, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Salvation Army, National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service and many other organizations have formal relations with ARES to provide Amateur Radio communications in a crisis because they know it works. Hams are the people behind the curtain that make the “heroes” look good.

He is right. In the days after Katrina, I listened to Hams online as they passed along vital information for the National Weather Service.

Allen says that during a disaster, media representatives sometimes use Amateur Radio as a source of information and news stories about conditions in the affected region. Just last week, Hams played a role in relaying information about floods in Minnesota. Hams were also very active in reporting damage from Hurricane Felix. In times of emergency, this is the page I go to to find Hams' broadcasting online. Hams played a role in these emergencies, Allen says:
Earthquake in Hawaii -- 2006
Flooding in Northeastern States -- 2006
Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita -- 2005
Wildfires in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico -- 2005
Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne -- 2004
Tsunami in Asia -- 2004
Earthquake in Central California -- 2003
Hurricane Isabel -- 2003
Northeast Blackout -- 2003
Shuttle Columbia Recovery Effort -- 2003
Wildfires in Colorado -- 2002
Flooding in Kentucky -- 2002
World Trade Center, Pentagon and Western Pennsylvania Terrorist Attacks -- 2001
Tropical Storm Allison -- 2001
Fires in Los Alamos, New Mexico -- 2000
Hurricane Floyd -- 1999
Flooding in Texas -- 1998
Hurricane Georges -- 1998
"500-Year Flood" in N.D. and Minn. -- 1997
Western U.S. Floods -- 1997
Hurricane Fran -- 1996
TWA Plane Crash -- 1996
Oklahoma City Bombing -- 1995
Why are they called "Hams?" The word used to be a slam from commercial and government radio signal operators, but over time the meaning was lost. Click here for background.How Can Journalists Tap into Hams' 'Expertise and Connections? There are rules as Allen explains:

Many Amateur Radio operators ("hams") are willing to provide interviews with reporters concerning information and operations from the disaster site. In addition, reporters may wish to develop stories on Amateur Radio's role in disaster relief -- handling health and welfare traffic out of the site, for example. Most local emergency services groups or clubs will have public information officers who will help you in this.

However, under federal law, Amateur Radio may not be used for active news gathering or program production purposes. For example, it would not be legal for a reporter to use Amateur Radio in a professional capacity to interview someone in another location. This is spelled out in Part 97.113(b), Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Amateur Radio operators are permitted to assist news media representatives in gathering information to be relayed to the public from areas where normal communication has been disrupted, particularly when the information involves the safety or life of individuals or the immediate protection of property and no other channels of communication are available.

The operator may ask questions of, or relay media questions to, Amateur Radio operators in the area. The responses may be electronically recorded by media representatives. However, Amateur Radio must not be used to assist the news media in gathering information when telephones or other commercial means of communication are available.

The news media may of course monitor any Amateur Radio transmissions, but recording and rebroadcast under certain conditions (in or from war zones, for example) may not be legal or prudent. Under no circumstances may Amateur Radio operators retransmit commercial radio and television broadcasts.

An Idea: Get Local

If you really wanted to connect with Hams, you might find space in your building for the Hams to meet and/or practice. How valuable would it be to have a base of operations near your newsroom in a time of emergency? TV and radio stations should think about whether it would make sense to provide space on their transmission towers for Ham antennas.

You can click here to find local ham radio clubs

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