In Defense of Ham Radio

A nasty letter from the
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL-FIRE) to an unnamed
amateur radio operator (“ham”) has been making the rounds of the
Internet.  To understand it, you need to
know a little context.

Amateur radio is just
that:  people who like operating two-way
radios not for profit, but for fun, and also for community-service purposes
such as emergency communications.  In disasters
such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that decimated New Orleans and its
communications infrastructure, amateur radio operators using their portable “rigs”
and privately-owned VHF repeater systems managed to help rescuers locate
survivors, relayed health and welfare information, and generally made
themselves useful during a time when many mobile-phone base stations were
knocked out and phone service was nonexistent in many areas. 

Because they have proven so
helpful in emergencies, many public-safety government organizations such as
police and fire operations have allowed amateurs to install repeaters on towers
and in equipment vaults across the country. 
While normally, a private entity such as a telecomm company would have
to pay good money for such a privilege, amateurs have on occasion worked out
agreements whereby they can install their equipment without being charged the
usual fees, and in turn the community gets the benefit of their potential for
emergency services.

Obviously, such agreements
can be changed, and apparently it was one bureaucrat’s heavy-handed attempt to
clear space in a repeater vault that got the attention of amateur radio operators
nationwide, to the extent that their umbrella organization, the quaintly-named
American Radio Relay League (ARRL) had to issue a clarification. 

Some time last year, it
appears that a group of amateurs who operated a repeater installed in a
CAL-FIRE communications facility received a letter demanding payment of several
thousand dollars plus an annual rental fee, or else they would have to come and
take down their equipment.  With the addressee
and date redacted, a copy of this letter gained the attention of several groups,
and the ARRL contacted CAL-FIRE for further information. 

It turns out that internal
management changes at CAL-FIRE introduced some property management personnel to
the unfamiliar world of amateur radio repeaters, which they apparently viewed
as simply some people having fun at the taxpayers’ expense.  Accordingly, one ill-informed manager named Lorina
Pisi drafted and sent the letter, which was not representative of CAL-FIRE’s
overall attitude toward ham radio in general. 
Such situations are negotiated at the local level and other such
controversies have come up in the past. 
But this letter was egregious enough that it inspired someone to leak it
publicly, and it got a lot of attention.

Being an amateur radio licensee
myself, I am not exactly a neutral observer. 
Admittedly, the exotic aura attached to ham radio has lost some of its
luster in the last few decades.  Back
when the only people who could communicate with others while in a moving
vehicle were policemen, firemen, cab drivers, and the odd millionaire who could
afford to pay nearly an infinite amount for the five or ten mobile-phone
channels available in a city like New York, having a rig in your car, let alone
being able to talk over a wide area with a handheld radio operating through a
repeater, was a thrill worth studying for, because getting a license was a
substantial ordeal involving learning Morse code and knowing a minimum of
technical information about radio science. 

But with the advent of
commercial cellular mobile-phone networks, anybody who could afford a phone
could talk from their car, and so it’s understandable that people whose only
experience with ham radio is possibly the crochety old uncle with a pile of
electronics under his dashboard would think that with everybody having mobile
phones, ham radio is just a hobby and no longer potentially useful for public
service in emergencies.

And it is just a hobby
for some people.  But there is a small
but dedicated group of amateurs who practice emergency communications with
drills, procedures, and other means of being ready to spring into action if a
natural disaster strikes such as Katrina. 
The disaster most relevant to the California situation is the
self-imposed blackouts that PG&E has imposed in areas where their lines on
poorly-maintained right-of-way can cause wildfires during windy weather.  In defense of PG&E, the reason they
haven’t trimmed more trees away from their lines is a combination of financial
straits and environmental laws that perversely make such fires more

Even if PG&E didn’t
impose blackouts, California has plenty of other potential
disasters—earthquakes, landslides—in which amateur radio could come in quite
handy.  The point here is that while most
of the time, amateur radio folks seem to be just playing, their hobby can
become a vital necessity in certain rare and critical situations.  So I for one would like to see them defended
against any movement on the part of goverments to abrogate agreements regarding
repeater space on towers and in vaults, or other government-mandated conditions
with wider implications.

For example, the lifeblood
of amateur radio is the portions of the frequency spectrum allocated to their operations.  No allocations, no amateur radio.  In the last few decades, the spectrum has
increasingly been viewed in economic terms, with auctions and sales of
bandwidth becoming routine. Amateur radio operators, who not only don’t have
profits to spend on bandwidth but are legally enjoined from making any money
with their hobby, can’t pay for their frequencies, so they must rely on other
justifications for their existence, and one of the main ones is their role as a
backup communications means in emergencies. 

I hope the CAL-FIRE letter
doesn’t represent a wider trend in government against amateur radio in general,
and the ARRL, at least, doesn’t seem to think it does.  Nevertheless, the price of liberty is eternal
vigilance, and it seems to me that we should do what we can to encourage hams
to continue in their role as providers of a backup communications means when all
others fail.

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