When disaster strikes and communications fail, HAM radio operators like Richard Rodriguez are vital to emergency response.
Story by Jordan Burrell | Photos by Sadie Sullivan
In the morning, Richard Rodriguez sits in front of his home radio, capable of connecting him with people anywhere from his hometown of Anacortes, Washington to Antarctica. Radios are easily identifiable, black devices a bit bigger than cell phones with buttons and long, thick antennae, even in an age where texts, calls and emails are only a swipe away. While he usually uses his radios for friendly chats, he and his amateur radio club are prepared to serve their community at a moment’s notice. If disaster struck and phones, laptops and televisions failed, HAM radio operators, like Rodriguez, would be at the forefront of emergency communications.
At 67, Rodriguez is a licensed HAM radio operator and an active member of the Skagit Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Club (SARECC) in Anacortes, Washington. The club may seem like a gaggle of senior hobbyists playing telephone over the radio, but they are actually preparedness-minded individuals ready to serve their community in a unique way. They are constantly honing and refreshing their radio communications skills so they will be ready when they’re needed most.
HAM radio refers to a portion of radio waves available for public use. It’s kind of like having a personal radio show. While emergency services like the Red Cross and law enforcement have their own radio frequencies to communicate, they would be of little help to the general public if modern infrastructure were to fail. HAMs have access to a variety of frequencies and can act as a segue for their communities and emergency services; they just need a license.
“Obviously, if everything’s up and working and there’s an isolated emergency, a text or a phone call is certainly going to be more efficient than an amateur radio,” said Rodriguez. “But if that’s not working then your choices become more limited.”
Rodriguez explained that HAM radio has existed for over 100 years and proves its usefulness best in emergency communications. For dedicated hobbyists like him, however, using a HAM is part of daily life. Whether going to SARECC club meetings to simulate communication emergencies, or chatting with other local amateurs, Rodriguez has a HAM handy.
“My interest was piqued by my dad, who was also a HAM radio operator,” said Rodriguez.
Since the 1950s, his father operated a HAM radio until he died about 20 years ago. Today, Rodriguez uses his father’s call sign, which is a mix of letters and numbers HAMs use to identify each other on the air. If his granddaughter receives her HAM license, he hopes to pass the call sign on to her.
HAM radio fills a gap in the communications system. If something happened to electrical grids or cell towers, Rodriguez said HAM radio operators would be essential for helping emergency managers maintain order. Rodriguez recounted a time when modern communication failed him during a political rally at the University of Washington with over 15,000 people present.
“There were so many people on their phones that I couldn’t make a phone call or even get out a text, let alone get online, and that wasn’t an emergency,” Rodriguez said. “So, if you can imagine some type of crisis and everybody trying to get on the phone at once, there just isn’t enough bandwidth to make that a viable option.”
In November of 2018, the club received a grant of $4,800 from the Shell Puget Sound Refinery to put a repeater on top of Mount Eerie. The repeater intercepts radio signals and broadcasts them at greater distances. Jim Irving said the club worked for three years to get the repeater up. It cost them roughly $11,000 in total.
Brenna Clairr O’Tierney, the external relations advisor for Shell Puget Sound Refinery, explained that Shell granted money because the club needed a repeater to fill gaps in emergency communications throughout the region. She said the new repeater allowed for a huge gain in overall signal coverage in the area.
“The community needs reliable coverage during natural disasters such as an earthquake or flood to be able to assist police, fire, hospital personnel and other first responders,” said O’Tierney.
Ed McLaughlin, a HAM radio operator for over 50 years and member of the Washington State Emergency Network from Tri-Cities, Washington, said many HAMs are preparing for when, not if, disaster strikes.
“What we’re preparing for is what they’re calling Cascadia Rising,” McLaughlin said. “They’re afraid of a giant earthquake that’s going to take the Seattle side of the mountain and sink it.”
Both Rodriguez and McLaughlin routinely participate in simulated emergencies. During the simulations, HAMs take their radio equipment outdoors and attempt to make as many connections around the world as possible under unfavorable, crisis-like conditions. Operators take their radios off their usual energy sources and power them with solar or battery power instead.
Jim Irving, 67, another member of the SARECC club, said they also do routine exercises called “fox hunts” in which a transmitter is hidden somewhere that interferes with their HAM radio signals. The transmitter makes a high pitched beeping noise over the air. Using their radio skills, members try to find where the signal is coming from.
Rodriguez knows well the value of such training. During the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, he was unable to contact his family in Richmond, California without the use of a HAM .
“I had heard on the news that the Golden Gate Bridge had fallen down, and I could not get a message to them for weeks,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was not yet a licensed HAM operator, but a friend who lived near him in Ohio used his own HAM to contact Rodriguez’ father. Since his father was also a HAM radio operator, he was able to tell Rodriguez that he and his mother were okay.
This was not Rodriguez’ first exposure to HAM, having watched his father operate one in the early 60s. Like him, many operators are getting their start early.
“We’ve got folks in the club that range from 10 to 90,” said Rodriguez.
SARECC member Peter Witheford, 72, lives in Anacortes but is originally from New Zealand. With his dual citizenship, he could operate HAM radios in both countries. Witheford said Americans are lucky to have access to amateur radio because some countries do not allow public access to radio waves. Allowing average citizens to participate in HAM radio is important because enthusiasts evolve with the technology and can better serve their communities with their expertise, Witheford said.
While not the most efficient means of communication for everyday life, U.S. citizens can use their access to radio waves in a crisis. Richard Rodriguez and his compatriots continue to meet regularly for SARECC, using their hobby to bolster emergency management in their community.