Hams in Haiti

Low-tech often wins in a disaster--but it still needs operators

4 min read

27 January 2010—Two weeks after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake devastated Haiti, amateur radio operators are hard at work there connecting rescuers within the country and to the outside world. But they are switching gears from rescue mode to recovery mode as aid workers set up camp and distribute food, water, medical supplies, and other aid to survivors.

This has been ”the most challenging of any disaster response I’ve been part of in terms of communication,” says Maj. Pat McPherson, who heads the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN), which embeds amateur radio operators, or hams, with local Salvation Army recovery teams in disaster areas.

In part, he says, the difficulty has been a dearth of amateur operators in Haiti.

Ham operators have a history of responding to emergencies, including during the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. ”Hams hold down the fort until regular communication infrastructure is able to be rebuilt,” says Allen Pitts, media and PR manager for the ARRL, the U.S. membership organization for amateur radio operators. Hams were the ones reporting the levee break during Katrina, Pitts says, and drug theft from nurses during the chaotic aftermath of the hurricane. And in Haiti, ”some of the earliest information about the severity of the earthquake was coming out from amateur radio operators,” Pitts says.

The difference in Haiti, however, is twofold. First, the communication infrastructure, while heavily damaged, was still functioning at times. ”It may have been overloaded,” Pitts says, but it wasn’t totally destroyed. That wasn’t the case during Katrina, especially in the first 48 hours, so amateur radio ”was the only game in town,” Pitts explains. ”But it worked, because hams were there.”

Which leads to the other difference in Haiti: The country is home to very few amateur operators in the first place. Though there are around 100 to 120 ham licenses active for Haiti, according to Pitts, only about seven or eight operators were actually in Haiti as far as the ARRL can determine. According to Bill Pasternak, the president and cofounder of the Amateur Radio Newsline, which broadcast audio from one ham operator outside Port-au-Prince soon after the earthquake hit, most of the operators who have Haitian licenses aren’t even Haitian but rather missionaries and aid workers who travel in and out of the country.

Pitts says that the ARRL has heard from only a few operators, most from outside Port-au-Prince, though one operator did radio in from the city just to let the organization know he was alive. ”The ones that were there did all they could,” Pitts says, ”but we haven’t heard from all of them.” It is likely that some were killed, Pitts speculates. Others may have been concerned with safety, McPherson suggests, so hams in Haiti have been ”on and off the air,” he says.

Hams use different bands of the radio spectrum depending on the purpose of their calls. The HF band, which operators were using early on to call out of Haiti and reach their families and friends, is what lets amateurs in their backyards bounce signals off the ionosphere to talk to anyone around the world. The VHF and UHF bands, however, require line of sight to transmit a signal and are best for shorter-range communications.

Now, as rescue gives way to recovery in Haiti, and as Haitian hams call out less frequently with emergency messages, Red Cross and Salvation Army teams are turning to VHF and UHF frequencies to communicate and coordinate the distribution of recovery supplies. That means traffic on HF frequencies has cleared up. So on Sunday, two HF frequencies that had been kept clear for emergency radio traffic were released for normal use by the International Amateur Radio Union’s emergency coordinator for Region 2, the region that includes Haiti.

Because VHF and UHF frequencies don’t travel far, particularly in the hilly hinterland outside Port-au-Prince, they need a boost to their signals.

To help out, hams from the neighboring Dominican Republic have traveled into Haiti several times to set up equipment, despite being attacked by looters last week. They set up a 2-meter analog repeater high on a mountain close to the Haiti–Dominican Republic border. The repeater takes in weak signals—even one from a clip-on radio putting out just 5 watts—and rebroadcasts those signals on a different frequency and at a higher power.

Dominican operators installed a second repeater near the airport in Port-au-Prince and were expecting a third to arrive from ARRL Tuesday, which they will likely put in the region southeast of the capital.

”They’re doing really good work,” Pitts says of the Dominican helpers, ”getting things where they need to be and coordinating with other teams.”

Pitts adds that the international nature of ham radio is well suited to emergency missions like this one. Hams in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Florida, and Puerto Rico, among others, were on the air and listening for any signals soon after the earthquake. ”Nobody was going to hiccup without being noticed,” Pitts says. And because they talk in radio code, language barriers don’t matter as much. ”We all have the same language,” Pitts says. ”We’re used to talking with each other.”

The embedded hams in Salvation Army recovery teams work, too, McPherson says, because they can tap into the entire amateur radio community. Nonofficial operators, for example, who may hear an embed trying to reach Haiti or to call out, may help relay a signal. ”It’s like [all the] amateur community is listening, standing by to help,” McPherson says.

The lesson to be learned, according to Pitts, is that ”in a situation or population where amateur radio is encouraged and present,” hams can provide better and faster information during a major disaster, which allows a faster response. ”That golden 48 hours is where the hams really can shine, if they’re there.”

So while cellular and Internet communication return ever so slowly to normal (or better than normal), what Haiti might also want to invest in is a few more homegrown radio operators.

To Probe Further

To learn more about the latest technology in ham radio, check out the Ham Radio in the 21st Century section of the ARRL Web site.

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