We’ve all seen or read it at some point. In the aftermath of a major disaster, “news articles” and “press releases” get published touting the role of Amateur Radio as the only means of communication left working and describing its role in aiding disaster recovery and emergency management, often with varying degrees of embellishment. Like many of you who go years or decades, or maybe even your entire lives without experiencing such an event, I read these stories from the perspective of an outsider: skeptical, maybe even a little jaded, but still believing that at their core there was some small nugget of truth where Amateur Radio did, in fact, provide needed and appreciated communications relief “when all else failed.” Well, on 12 September 2008 and in the ensuing weeks I got to experience it up close and personal in the form of Hurricane Ike.
Here is what I saw.
I live in the city of Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of 150,000 people on the southeast side of Houston. Our emergency services operate on the Harris County Regional Radio Network, a 24-site 800 MHz Motorola Smartzone trunked system. The city also hosts its own amateur radio volunteer group, the Pasadena Emergency Communications Group, under the direct management of the city’s OEM. While they were active before, during and after the storm, they were not called upon to provide fill-in communications for emergency services when the storm knocked the two 800 MHz sites closest to this area off-line, nor were they tapped in the days after when the two sites continued to go on- and off-line and in and out of Site Trunking mode and despite the fact that both of the City-owned amateur repeaters never went off-line at any point during or after the storm.
More telling, however, was an incident that happened to me personally on the Thursday after the storm passed. On that day, the electrical service restoral crews re-energized the portion of the grid servicing my neighborhood but without performing any repairs or tree removal. As you can imagine, this sparked a number of fires. One such fire ignited in the back yard of one of my elderly neighbors, who was staying by herself. Not having any cellular service (Nextel was weak in my immediate area until at least two weeks after the storm had pased), I put out two emergency calls on the local 2-meter machine. I finally raised an elderly ham, who:
-did not identify himself.
-did not want to call 911 because he believed the situation did not qualify as an emergency.
-basically gave up after he got no answer at the fire department’s non-emergency number.
By this time I had flagged down a passing police officer, and he radioed it in. While the event did end up not causing any significant structural damage, the seeming callousness of this anonymous OF ham left me dumbstruck.
I should also mention that despite this, amateur radio volunteers did provide a service for FEMA relaying information from the many food-and-water points of distribution (PODs) in Harris County back to their staging area via 2-meter simplex and various repeaters. I’m sure there were also other instances of Amateur Radio providing legitimate assistance in the greater Houston-Galveston area (it’s pretty big, and I didn’t personally stray too far from home for several weeks after the storm.) But overall, the activity in my area sure as hell wasn’t indicative of ARRL’s “when all else fails” party line.