Friday, January 22, 2010

Hams in Haiti

Amateur radio is "low tech" says CNN. Isn't it interesting that in this day of "high tech" cell phones a few Haitians were able to contact people outside of Haiti using that funny, nerdy old thing: amateur radio? How quaint.

For some of us who have invested tens of thousands on extremely complex, digital signal processing communications equipment: transceivers, computers, amplifiers, tuners, towers, stacked rotating antenna arrays would find that condescension infuriating. Many of us who belong to organized emergency communications groups who hold regular drills; many of us who man worldwide radio nets and are trained to expeditiously handle messages, routine or emergency from land based and maritime stations, find this insulting in the extreme.

Low tech? It's a meaningless phrase. Cell phones are limited low power radios and nothing more. They only operate as far as the nearest tower which needs a power grid and a working phone system. Ham radios have worldwide range. Your cell phone can't operate from above the AM broadcast band up to microwaves. It can't access the amateur satellites ( yes, there are a bunch of them.) It can't handle AM, FM, SSB, RTTY, PSK-31, Packet, Video or a host of other digital modes hams have available. If your phone company's tower is down, you can't re-rout your own calls through a neighboring state - or country. You can't build or jury rig your own cell phone. Hams can and we don't charge.

Yes, only a few Hatians managed to contact the outside world before outside agencies arrived, but there are only a handful of operators in that impoverished country. When they did make contact, an organized net was already in place with translators and technical advisers and it was able to immediately forward messages anywhere -- free of charge. The day after the quake, I listened as a Ham calmly advised a Missionary in Haiti how to adjust his equipment to compensate for run down batteries. I heard the same missionary advise the US of a severe aftershock, of large groups leaving the capitol on foot. I heard another asking for emergency insulin and report that he was fleeing in a radio equipped jeep while being hunted by "men with guns." American hams helped him to report his position without giving it away to the gang chasing him. Do I resent being described as some crackpot with archaic equipment just accidentally being of use? You bet.

No, your cell phone may play games and even mix drinks for you, but the communication ability is through the ordinary phone system only and that's almost always the first thing to fail. Comments at the CNN article seem to think the problem was with charging dead phones, but of course a cell phone without the huge, fragile infrastructure is useless. If the lines are down, if the power is out, you phones won't work -- end of story. After any Hurricane, you'll notice people flipping light switches again and again and staring at their useless iPhones in disbelief -- realizing they can't call the police, the fire department, an ambulance or check with the outside world in any way. I know, I've been through three of them. I'm an assistant emergency communications coordinator for my county and an official emergency station and if we have yet another one, I or someone like me, could save your life. That "high tech" enough for ya?


Susannah said...

There are always unsung heroes. Thanks for being one of them. I'm w/ you on this - not a Ham operator, but on becoming dependent on cells & thinking they're the end-all-be-all.

Good on ya.

Hope your new year has been healthy & prosperous so far.

Capt. Fogg said...

I'm well, thank you.

The saddest cell phone dependency story I know happened last year, when 5 football players went out fishing in the gulf. They were in a small open boat some 60 miles from shore and thought they didn't need a radio in the boat because they had cell phones. A storm had been predicted, but that's OK -- they had cell phones.

Only one survived and only by accident.

Crankyboy said...

When Apple makes a Ham radio I'll buy one.

Capt. Fogg said...

You'd need to get a license first and somehow people who can tell you the difference between a J-FET and a beam power tetrode; or why a Tchebicheff filter tends to have more ripple than a Butterworth don't seem to buy Apples.

You do know what the i stands for, don't you?

Crankyboy said...

Yes. "i" stands for incredible.