In the midst of the multinational military exercises on the edge of the Pacific (RIMPAC), a nationwide coalition is conducting its own preparedness exercise. The annual Makani Pahili hurricane exercise, which a variety of authorities can use to test their readiness for the next natural disaster, begins today.
In addition to government officials and emergency specialists, a volunteer corps of amateur radio operators will work together. They provide critical communication links between locations in a disaster scenario.
“Imagine a situation where all cell towers collapse in an emergency – how will you communicate?” asked Stephen Levy, who helps coordinate volunteers during the hurricane drill. “Amateur radio operators can communicate because they have both the radio and the cell tower.”
“Ham radio fills the void that opens when the wireless infrastructure that powers your smartphone goes offline,” added Keith Higa, who will be stationed in a simulated hurricane shelter at Castle High School on Saturday during the exercise is continued. “But I don’t want to give the impression that amateur radio is something that is only useful in the event of a zombie apocalypse.”
In fact, Higa and other local Hams admit that the public has a lot of misunderstandings about amateur radio.
Not your father’s radio operator
“Every time someone asks me about my car’s aerials or why I have a portable radio with me, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, CB radio,” “said Wayne Greenleaf, president of the local Emergency radio amateur club. “And when I explain the licensing requirements to get an amateur radio license, most of them get turned off.”
An amateur radio license gives operators access to a wider frequency range and more powerful radio equipment (and thus a greater range) than equipment from CB and Family Radio Service (FRS). While a test is required to obtain a license, there is no longer any need to learn Morse code.
One major obstacle is that many interested parties fail to realize that they no longer need to be familiar with Morse Code, said Ron Hashiro, an IT administrator and project manager from Honolulu who a comprehensive amateur radio website.
“The Morse Code requirement was removed in 2007. To ensure the quality of the entry-level amateur radio license, all you have to do is pass a 35-question multiple-choice exam and pay the $ 15 registration fee,” he said.
“The questions and answers are all available online in any number of books, and there are study guides and websites that you can use to analyze the questions,” added Higa. “It’s not that different from studying for the Hawaii driver test and doesn’t require much more effort.”
Higa and Levy both emphasized that amateur radio isn’t just for tech savvy people.
“People don’t realize that they use radios every day of their lives – they’re called cell phones,” Levy said. “It’s just radios that are limited to one frequency and one protocol.”
While amateur radio operators need to know more about radios, it is not particularly difficult.
“A wider choice of frequencies and protocols requires more understanding from the user than pressing a button to speak,” said Levy. “The comparison is between a point-and-click camera and a camera that allows you to adjust the settings yourself.”
Higa also noted that there is no age requirement for an amateur radio license.
“Even elementary school students passed the exam,” he said.
Ready for the future
Ham radio has been around for more than a century, but the technology can still be found in today’s tools and toys.
“Technologies that we take for granted, like the Internet, were first explored by amateur radio operators who send and route packet messages around the world,” Levy said.
“An early predecessor of the modern wireless Internet was developed in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Hawaii in the early 1970s and later expanded and expanded by experimenters in amateur radio service in the 1980s,” said Hashiro. “What we know today as Wi-Fi and the wireless Internet testify to these early developments.”
Hams are now integrating Internet tools into their operations and connecting radios to digital communication tools such as Skype.
“The use of VoIP technologies offers greater reach,” said Higa, referring to Voice over Internet Protocols, a form of Internet telephone service. “While not all hams will agree, I believe it’s a great thing for amateur radio.”
“There are ways to connect PCs over the Internet so the user can remotely control someone else’s radio equipment to go on the air,” said Hashiro. “So the fusion of modern internet and amateur radio means that someone can pass the written test and never really has to own a radio.”
And the accessibility of devices is growing today thanks to the manufacturing movement.
“We tinkered with radios and electronics in the past long before Arduinos and Raspberry Pis put the ability to prototype small electronics in the hands of hobbyists,” said Higa, referring to two companies involved in microcomputer and digital device technologies .
Referring to more modern applications, Levy said amateur radio operators are now experimenting with unmanned aerial systems or drones.
“With the availability of drones, we are examining the real-time capture of disaster information such as flooded streets or houses destroyed during a hurricane and relaying those images directly to government agencies,” added Levy. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Everything in the ham family
Local hams strive to welcome newcomers and describe them as a unique gateway to the rest of the world.
“Ham radio is the best way to learn and experiment with new technology,” said Greenleaf. “And with amateur radio, you still have to press the microphone and speak into it to make a real connection with the person you’re talking to.”
And amateur radio operators take pride in the close community they have built – a family both figuratively and literally.
“My whole family is involved – my wife, my two older children have their license and recently my youngest, 12 years old, got his license,” said Greenleaf. “I love experimenting with different modes in ham radio and teaching my son the coolest technical things.”
Levy’s 39-year-old wife, Carolyn, was also inspired to join the amateur radio.
“Hams work in pairs during disasters, so it made sense for me to get a license for the other half of the team,” she said. “We complement each other because Stephen is more technically inclined and I am more concerned with aspects of the human interface.”
Carolyn Levy, a scientist and infectious disease consultant, will volunteer with Makani Pahili with her husband.
“The ability to work together effectively, solve problems and support one another in an emergency strengthens the team and the marriage,” she said. “Working as a husband-wife team as a ham definitely brings us closer.”
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