How Does Ham Radio Work During Disasters?

Many folks who have heard about the wonderful service ham radio operators provide during disasters don’t have the slightest idea how the whole system works. If they had to guess, there would be no mention of the structure and complex organization that goes into preparing for a disaster and managing the communication aspect of disasters by ham radio operators. 

By the nature of the law and policy in place, operators of ham radio make their services available as volunteers. But they are not a disparate group of independent-minded people who have no rules or guidelines to follow during emergencies or disasters. 

As a matter of fact, the government’s trained emergency professionals must as a matter of principle and exigency include these wireless radio hobbyist as part of the resources to use during actual emergencies. This contingency plan for emergencies is known as the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP).

So how does ham radio work during a disaster? It is important to understand the underlying communication strategy employed by various disaster experts to comprehend how amateur radio works during emergencies.

Identifying and Integrating ham radio operators into the CEMP 

Before ham radio volunteers can be conscripted to be on standby for emergencies, they have to pass through a process of certification and registration. 

Every qualified ham has to register with the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) close to them. ARES was established in 1935 by the national body of amateur radio operators known as the American Radio Relay League (ARRL)

Once an individual registers at the local ARES, they have agreed to be called upon to render emergency communication services by the civil authorities when disasters occur. 

During the registration process, the volunteer must prove they have the requisite qualifications, experience, and expertise. For instance, they must show evidence they have passed the licensing exam and also have all the right equipment. 

When a state, county or district want to map own the CEMPS template for the area, they can contact the local ARRL representative listed on ARRL’s website who would them use the register to help them identify amateur radio operators living in the locality. 

With this simple method, the authorities can integrate experienced local hams and not just anybody who claims to be one. 

When and How to Use Ham Radio During disasters 

In an ideal world, there won’t be any need for backup communication when disasters strike because the communication network would still be active. 

But in the real world, depending on the nature of the disaster, communication services or networks are likely to fail. Hence, the need for a means of coordinating relief and rescue missions with a wireless network. 

However, how this supplemental communication is deployed depends on the severity or complexity of the disaster. As part of the national CEMP strategy, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) categorized 3 levels of incident complexity for the use of hams. 

These are:

NIMS Type 4 or 5 incident – Here, the complexity of the crisis is not critical enough to use ham volunteers. In this scenario, all communications needs can be effectively handled by normal commercial services. 

NIMS Type 2 or 3 incident – In this case, the regular communication systems are overloaded and limited aid might be sought from local hams to bridge the gap. The volunteers would remain active until the regular communications services are restored. 

It is also possible to bring in additional emergency communication resource from other jurisdictions if there is a need for that. 

NIMS Type 1 incident – This is the category one incident complexity level where the communication infrastructure of the affected area is either completely overloaded or down. Other infrastructural failures are in the electrical grid, Internet, public radio systems, cellular phone network, and commercial FM and AM radio systems.

In this category, all available hams and their equipment would be needed for an extended period, or at least, until normal communication services are restored. 

Who can ham radio operators talk to during disasters?

Who hams can communicate with during disasters is codified in the relevant FCC regulations. The policy permits amateur radio operators to makes their services available by communicating with such entities as the National Weather Service, FEMA, the military and other government agencies and non-governmental organizations involved in responding to the incident. 

Further directive on who to communicate with can also emanate from the local emergency management team. 

When called upon to serve the community, hams deploy their equipment to places such as: 

  • Evacuation sites, 
  • Fire stations, 
  • Hospitals and other convenient medical facilities, 
  • Buildings housing security agencies such as the police, 
  • Auxiliary communication centers, 
  • Emergency command centers, 
  • Mobile disaster trucks, 
  • etc. 

Ham radio operators can also use their expertise to provide data services. 

When deployed, they use their experience to improvise antennas (or come with an already assembled unit} and power sources (using batteries and renewable energy like solar power).  

To send radio messages anywhere, they use hundreds of frequencies and can quickly establish active networks linking different agencies together to aid the relief effort. 

Messages can be sent anywhere using part of the atmosphere to propagate the signals by bouncing them off the atmosphere. 

Who is a typical Ham radio operator? 

There is no deep mystery surrounding the people who dedicate their time to helping communities that need them, especially during natural disasters. 

This is a hobby comprising people from all walks of life. Each qualified operator has passed several tests covering various subjects related to wireless communication. 

Specifically, they have varying degrees of knowledge covering topics and subjects like electronic circuits and principles of electricity; basic receiver and transmitters problems and how to troubleshoot these problems; antenna dimensions and issues and how to resolve the issues; how AC power circuits work: and safety precautions among others. 

Because ham radio is just a hobby, it is common for most enthusiasts to have experiences in radio communications spanning several decades. Many of them include people who are retired or currently working as first responders. 


While the importance of ham radio operations during an emergency can’t be overstated, it is not expected that the services they provide would ever come to replace all communications. 

That said, many communities around the world are more than grateful for the establishment and sustained provision of the much-needed ad-hoc communication in situations that are less than ideal and in some cases, dangerous. 

Due to their dedication in honing their skills even when disasters are rare, they more often than not, possess the requisite expert knowledge on how to coordinate communications in emergencies.

 Essentially, hams understand that different situations require different approaches, and without interference from the local authorities, they can swiftly setup the emergency communication needs for the area. 

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