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Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial

The "Health" of Amateur Radio


*e-mail: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

How healthy is our hobby? It's a simple question with- ut a simple answer. By the numbers, things look reat! We have approximately 730,000 licensees CC's database1, a population that has increased by more than 11% in the eight years since the code test requirement for all license classes was removed. And CQ's contests, already the most popular in the world, con- tinue to set records for numbers of logs received and num- bers of unique callsigns worked.

On the other hand, when I drove from New Jersey to the Boxboro Hamfest in Massachusetts in August, I found only a few 2-meter or 70-centimeter repeaters with any activi- ty, and there were a whole bunch in my rig's memory bank that simply wouldn't key up at all. Maybe I didn't have the right repeaters programmed in, maybe their access tones were wrong in the directory, or maybe the time of day was wrong (midday Friday and Sunday afternoon).

The people I did talk to were friendly and I appreciate their company on the drive, but one still has to wonder where everyone else was. Driving from New York to Boston takes you through one of the most densely-pop- ulated regions of the U.S. Nearly half of our 730,000 licensees have Technician licenses with primary privi- leges on VHF and UHF. Yet it was a struggle to find peo- ple to talk to on repeaters. Where is everyone?

One answer we keep hearing — although there's real- ly no way to confirm this easily — is that many of the 100,000-plus new people who have come into amateur radio over the past decade got their licenses solely to pro- vide themselves with an additional communications tool in the event of an emergency or disaster. They may have purchased a $30 handheld and put it in the closet, or may occasionally turn on their radio to participate in a drill. Many of them, we're told (but again, can't confirm), work in healthcare settings where amateur radio is increasingly becoming a part of disaster preparedness plans.

This issue of CQ, our annual Emergency Commu- nications Special, takes a look at this segment of ama- teur radio "EmComm" that is rarely reported on in the amateur media. Dave Cox, NB5N, explains the growing role of amateur radio in health care settings in his article, "Integrating Amateur Radio Into Public Health Emer- gency Response," and Duane Mariotti, WB9RER, explains how the Kaiser Permanente Amateur Radio Network (KPARN) keeps that chain's 14 facilities across a six-county area of southern California in contact with each other and with local government officials. He also discusses the special challenges of installing a ham sta- tion in a hospital.

The healthcare segment of emergency response pro- vides a unique opportunity for ham radio. As NB5N explains, public health agencies and hospitals have joined the ranks of "first responders" only within the past 15 years. In most respects, they have fully integrated themselves into the emergency response network. But in the arena of communications, there is a difference between health professionals and other first responders.

Police and fire departments already have radio com- munication systems in place, often quite sophisticated (and thus more prone to failure, but that's a topic for another day). Emergency medical personnel such as paramedics and ambulance crews generally share one or the other of these networks. Hospitals, on the other hand, tend to be well-equipped for internal communica- tions but also tend to rely heavily on their phone systems. Should the need arise to contact other area hospitals, local emergency operating centers (EOCs) or county/ state health departments, and the phones don't work, there usually is no alternative infrastructure already in place. The same applies to state, county and municipal health departments, which may or may not have sufficient access to radio infrastructure. Clearly, this is a void which can be filled by trained amateur radio operators, and as NB5N explains, since the FCC loosened its rules against hams participating in drills on behalf of their employers, many hams who work in public health and hospital settings have begun to be part of these agen- cies' emergency response structures. In addition, many public health and hospital employees who might be involved in a disaster response have become licensed amateurs as well.

As a result, there is growing amateur radio participation in hospitals' emergency and disaster planning. For the past 35 years, CQ Contributing Editor Joe Moell, KØOV, and his wife, April, WA6OPS, have coordinated the Health Disaster Support Communications System (HDSCS) in Orange County, California, which provides backup com- munications for health care facilities throughout the coun- ty. In addition, some hospital groups are now forming their own amateur radio emergency networks. KPARN, described by WB9RER, is but one example.

The question is how many of our fellow amateurs who have gotten ham licenses specifically for use in a poten- tial emergency or disaster ever turn on their radios out- side the context of an emergency or an emergency drill. This is not just a matter of wanting to integrate them into the broader ham radio community and encourage them to discover the fun parts of amateur radio (which we do want to do), but a matter of their own emergency oper- ating skills as well.

True mastery of your equipment — essential when "the real thing" happens — is achieved only through regular use. WB9RER describes monthly on-air drills held by KPARN, and that is great for keeping the network well- oiled, so to speak. But it is not enough to bring operator skill levels up to a point where you are able to just do what needs to be done on the radio, without having to give much thought to knowing how to program memory channels or follow correct net procedures. Being on the air regularly is the only way to achieve that skill level. In addition, being on the air regularly puts you in contact with hams from out- side your inner circle of co-workers, which leads to more interest in the rest of what our hobby has to offer, and that should be a major goal for those of us who see amateur radio as a wonderful hobby as well as a backup commu- nications tool "when all else fails."

We encourage those hams who are involved with groups in which the primary focus is on amateur radio's utilitari- an value to offer incentives and motivation for other mem- bers of those groups to discover more of what ham radio has to offer … and then share your success stories with us. It'll be good for the "health" of amateur radio.

Beyond EmComm …

Even though this issue is our Emergency Commu- nications Special, we've got much more than EmComm in our pages this month, including the conclusion of our interview with legendary DXpeditioner Don Miller, W9WNV. Don't forget — the SSB weekend of this year's CQ World Wide DX Contest is on October 24 and 25, and Propagation Editor NW7US is predicting excellent con- ditions. Even if you're not a contester, the CQWW pro- vides a great opportunity to work new countries and just to see how far your signal travels when the HF bands are full of stations all over the world. To quote Charles Osgood, "I'll see you on the radio." 73, Rich W2VU

Licensing statistics courtesy ah0a.org

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