When Networks Fail, Hams to the Rescue
"Our mission is to provide emergency communications to various agencies in the manner to which they're accustomed," Slater says. "E-mail, it runs the world."
What's the catch? It's slow. "Running the Pactor 1 protocol [designed for noisy radio environments], you can get 300 baud on a good day," Slater says, showing off a modem similar to that most people used to dial up to bulletin boards in the 1980s. Some more "modern" modems might get you 9600 baud.
MARS is supporting the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by deploying AirMail systems to facilities that are susceptible to hurricanes, Slater says. The system is quite resilient in that it can resend lost packets when needed, and clients can automatically redirect to another station if the primary cannot be reached.
Hams are also reaching out to hospitals in an effort to keep them connected if primary communications systems fail in the region. The New Hampshire ARES group, in conjunction with state officials, is trying to get a licensed ham operator and the necessary gear at each of the hospitals in the state, a program modeled after a similar effort taking place on the West Coast, says Jim Blaine (WD4JZO), the ARRL Emergency Coordinator for Hillsborough County.
ARES also helps out with communications during non-emergency events, Blaine says, such as the Reach the Beach relay race that stretches 200 miles across the state of New Hampshire.
While events such as Field Day are termed disaster-preparedness exercises by those participating, they're also a good way to market the hobby to the general public. One issue facing many groups is a graying of the population, with many ham hobbyists retiring from the airwaves. That's where 14-year-old Britanny Decker (KB1OGL) comes in.
Decker, a Hudson, N.H. native, picked up on the hobby a couple of years ago when her father was preparing to sell his old gear on eBay. Decker's interest prompted her father to keep the gear and get her licensed. Now she's the assistant section manager for youth in the New Hampshire ARRL group. Decker is hoping to get more kids licensed and actively involved in ham radio through clubs and activities. She says current programs around the country are designed to get kids licensed but don't follow up to keep them active in the community.
Anyone can get an entry-level Technical Class license by taking a 35-question exam administered by the FCC, a test made easier by the recent decision to drop the Morse Code requirement. After passing, ham radio operators are issued a unique call sign that is renewable every 10 years.