Across Alabama, emergency communications systems fell silent this week when tornadoes knocked down antennas and cell phone towers. Amateur radio operators are helping to restore emergency communication in some of the areas hardest hit by the storms. But those volunteers say their ability to provide that help is threatened by a new bill in Congress.
When Hurricane Katrina came ashore in 2005, it destroyed cell phone towers and electrical infrastructure. That left law enforcement and relief agencies without a viable way to communicate — until amateur radio operators stepped in.
Hundreds of amateur radio operators – or hams, as they call themselves – poured into Louisiana and Mississippi from all over the country, bringing their own portable antennas and amplifiers to temporarily replace what the storm had wiped out.
"They set up communications for the agencies, both governmental and relief agencies that were trying to help people there," says Kay Craigie is the president of the American Radio Relay League, an advocacy group that represents hams . "And they stayed there for weeks under very, very difficult conditions."
Craigie says Hurricane Katrina is just one example of how volunteer ham operators have responded to emergencies all over the country. But she says their ability to provide that help is being inadvertently threatened – in the name of improved emergency communication.
Peter King is a Republican congressman from New York, and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. At a hearing in March, King lamented that police, firefighters and other first responders have trouble talking to each other during emergencies.
"As we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, public safety must be allocated sufficient spectrum so that a national, interoperable public safety wireless broadband network can finally be built," he said.
King is sponsoring a bill called the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011. The measure would take some of the broadcast spectrum that was freed up by the transition to digital television and set it aside to build a new emergency communications system. That idea has wide support in both parties, and both houses of Congress. To pay for it, King's bill proposes auctioning off another band of broadcast frequencies that are sometimes used by first responders. The problem is, those same frequencies are used by ham radio operators, too.
Joseph Taylor lives in Princeton, N.J. His house isn't hard to find: It's the only one on the block with a giant radio tower in the backyard.
"Ham radio operators have a long history of being very useful in emergency situations," Taylor says. "The training of amateurs has been a national resource for many decades now."
Taylor says his early radio training led him to a career in physics, and eventually, a Nobel Prize. There are other frequencies besides those targeted by the House bill that hams can use. But amateur radio advocates worry that this bill could be just the first step.
"They start taking these frequencies away now, and then down they take a few more. And pretty quick, it becomes a major problem instead of just a minor issue," says Vince Kolar, the emergency manager for Cascade County, Montana. He says hams routinely help the county with traffic control, and with its emergency response in case of wildfires and severe weather.
"Those people are all volunteers," he says. "They all volunteer their time and their equipment, mostly. If it makes it harder for them to do what they need to do, then I'm certainly opposed to it."
Across the country in Virginia, state emergency coordinator Michael Cline doesn't dispute the importance of hams. But he thinks the House bill can be changed.
"They really are an integral part of emergency management and public safety," Cline says. "But I think now that a lot of folks are realizing that there is a potential harm to the amateurs that we'll be able to make accommodations for them."
King, the author of the House bill, declined requests for an interview. In a written statement, King says he's working to address the concerns of the amateur radio community, while still moving forward with a new public safety network. And when a future disaster knocks that network offline, hams hope they'll still be in a position to help. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.