In the midst of the multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises, a statewide coalition is staging its own preparedness drill. The annual Makani Pahili hurricane exercise, which allows a multitude of agencies to test their readiness for the next natural disaster, kicks off today.
Working alongside government officials and emergency professionals will be a volunteer corps of amateur radio operators. They will provide critical communication links between sites in a disaster scenario.
“Imagine a situation where all the cell towers go down during an emergency — how are you going to communicate?” asked Stephen Levy, who is helping to coordinate volunteers during the hurricane drill. “Ham radio operators will be able to communicate because they have both the radio as well as the cell tower.”
“Amateur radio fills the gap that opens up when the wireless infrastructure that powers your smartphone goes offline,” added Keith Higa, who will be stationed at a simulated hurricane shelter at Castle High School on Saturday, as the exercise continues. “But I don’t want to give the impression that ham radio is something that is only useful in the event of a zombie apocalypse.”
Indeed, Higa and fellow local hams admit that the public has a lot of misconceptions about amateur radio.
“Every time someone asks me about the antennas on my car or why I’m carrying a portable radio, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, CB radio,’” said Wayne Greenleaf, president of the local Emergency Amateur Radio Club. “And when I explain the licensing requirement to get a ham radio license most get turned off.”
An amateur radio license gives operators access to a broader range of frequencies and more powerful radios (and thus greater range) than CB and Family Radio Service, or FRS, equipment. And while getting a license requires a test, it no longer requires learning Morse code.
One big barrier is that many people who might be interested don’t realize they no longer have to become proficient in Morse code, said Ron Hashiro, a Honolulu IT administrator and project manager who runs a comprehensive ham radio website.
“The Morse code requirement was dropped in 2007, so to quality for the entry-level amateur radio license, one need only pass a 35-question multiple choice exam and pay the $15 testing application fee,” he said.
“The questions and answers are all available online, in any number of books, and there are study guides and web sites on which you can drill the questions,” Higa added. “It’s not much different from studying for the Hawaii driver’s license exam and doesn’t take that much more effort.”
Higa and Levy both stressed that ham radio isn’t only for people who are technically inclined.
“People don’t realize that they use radios every day in their lives — they are called cell phones,” Levy said. “They are just radios that are limited to one frequency and protocol.”
Amateur radio operators do need to learn more about radios, but it’s not especially complicated.
“Having more choice of frequencies and protocols does take more understanding on the part of the user than pushing a button to talk,” Levy explained. “The comparison is a point-and-click camera versus a camera where you can adjust the settings yourself.”
Higa also noted that there is no age requirement for a ham radio license.
“Even elementary school students have passed the exam,” he said.
Ham radio has been around for more than a century, but the technology involved is still found in today’s tools and toys.
“Technologies that we take for granted, like the internet, were first explored by ham radio operators sending packet messages and relaying them around the world,” Levy said.
“An early predecessor of the modern wireless internet was developed at the University of Hawaii’s electrical engineering department in the early 1970s and later extended and enhanced by experimenters in the amateur radio service in the 1980s,” Hashiro said. “What we know today as Wi-Fi and the wireless internet bears vestiges of these early developments.”
Now, hams are integrating internet tools into their operations, connecting radios to digital communications tools like Skype.
“The use of VoIP technologies provides greater reach,” Higa said, referring to voice over internet protocols, a form of internet phone service. “Although not all hams will agree on it, I believe it’s a great thing for amateur radio.”
“There are ways to connect PCs via the Internet to allow the user to remotely control another person’s radio equipment to get on the air,” Hashiro said. “So the merger of the modern internet and amateur radio means someone may pass the written exam and never really have to own a piece of radio equipment.”
And the accessibility of equipment is growing today, thanks to the maker movement.
“We, after all, have historically tinkered with radios and electronics long before Arduinos and Raspberry Pis put the possibility of prototyping small electronics into the hands of hobbyists,” Higa said, referring to two companies involved in microcomputer and digital device technologies.
As for more cutting-edge applications, Levy said that amateur radio operators are now experimenting with unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.
“With the availability of drones, we are exploring real-time capture of disaster information, such as flooded roads or homes destroyed during a hurricane, and relaying those images directly to government agencies,” Levy added. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Local hams are eager to welcome newcomers to the fold, describing it as a unique gateway to the rest of the world.
“Ham radio is the best way to learn and experiment with new technologies,” Greenleaf said. “And with ham radio you still have to push the microphone and talk into it, thus creating a true connection to the person you’re speaking with.”
And amateur radio operators are proud of the tight-knit community they’ve built — a family in both the figurative and literal sense.
“My whole family is involved — my wife, my two older kids have their licenses, and recently my youngest, age 12, got his license,” Greenleaf said. “I love experimenting with different modes in ham radio and teaching my son the coolest tech things.”
Levy’s wife of 39 years, Carolyn, also was inspired to join the amateur radio ranks.
“During disasters, hams operate in pairs, so it made sense for me to become licensed to be the other half of the team,” she said. “We compliment each other in that Stephen is more technically inclined and I handle more of the human-interface aspects.”
An infectious-disease scientist and consultant, Carolyn Levy will be volunteering alongside her husband for Makani Pahili.
“Being able to work successfully together, solve problems and support each other during an emergency solidifies the team and the marriage,” she said. “Working as a husband-and-wife team as hams definitely brings us closer.”