From the top of my street in the wintertime, you could see them, reflecting the afternoon sun or the colors of a sunset. You could also see them from the CQ headquarters office, which is about as far east of Manhattan as my house in New Jersey is west of it, and from Sandy Hook, the northernmost point of the Jersey shore. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were a beacon for New York City, visible for miles in every direction. In the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed them, so was the seemingly never-ending column of smoke and dust that rose from “Ground Zero” (see photo). Even for those of us in the New York metropolitan area who did not know someone personally touched by the tragedy—and there weren’t very many of us—the loss was personal.
So here we are ten years later. How have our lives changed? How has ham radio changed? How safe are we from another 9/11-scale attack?
Some answers are obvious. Just try to get on an airplane. For all the questions that some people may have about how effective airport security measures really are, the fact is that there have not been any additional successful terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda in the United States in the past ten years. That’s not for a lack of trying, either. There have been several well-publicized attempts (along with others that we don’t know about, I’m sure), many of which have been thwarted by quick-thinking citizens.
Another long-term change as a result of 9/11 is that we Americans, as a group, have become much more proactive in protecting ourselves and our neighbors. The “don’t fight back” advice of the ’80s and ’90s has been replaced by a credo of “If you see something, say something,” and when the danger is imminent, do something.
This renewed ethic—a tradition that goes back to sheriff’s posses in the old west and the Minutemen of the American Revolution—has led to a greater acknowledgement by public safety officials that they can’t always handle everything on their own and that citizen involvement in our collective security is good and necessary. This has resulted in the creation of groups such as CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams), the involvement of schools and businesses in emergency planning, and a greater recognition of the value of amateur radio as part of an emergency or disaster response plan.
Since 9/11, ham radio has provided high-profile assistance in other large-scale disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Chilean earthquake, and this spring’s tornadoes in the southeast … and emergency management leaders have noticed. But there have been mixed results in putting this new-found appreciation into practice on the local level. While we have strong support at the highest levels (such as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate; see “Public Service” on page 13) and some municipalities have welcomed ham radio with open arms, others have been more resistant, mostly because their communications systems have yet to fail.
To them, I offer these two quotes: (1) The director of London’s emergency medical service, speaking at a conference I attended, said “an emergency becomes a disaster when communications fail;” and (2) the former emergency management director in my hometown once told me, “The more sophisticated these (communications) systems become, the more likely they are to fail, and when they fail, we’re going to need you guys.”
But he retired … the new director doesn’t have the same vision, and ham radio no longer has a voice on the Local Emergency Planning Committee. This is despite the fact that ten years ago, just 15 miles away, perhaps the most sophisticated emergency communications system in the world failed when the twin towers literally collapsed on New York City’s Emergency Operations Center. And in those critical early hours, it was ham radio that kept city agencies in touch with each other until a backup EOC could be activated.
Ham Radio a Decade Later
How has ham radio itself changed since 9/11? There now seems to be a greater emphasis on our emergency communications capabilities, which is all well and good, except that it appears that a whole lot of people have gotten their ham licenses solely to be able to use amateur radio in the event of an emergency. Our licensing numbers are now at record levels, but many of these newer hams do not appear to be getting involved in the broader ham radio community by getting on the air, joining clubs, joining the ARRL, or subscribing to magazines. For them, ham radio is only a tool, not a hobby. But one of the reasons ham radio works “when all else fails” is because of hams who regularly use their equipment on a hobby basis and are familiar with its operation and capabilities so they can hit the ground running in an emergency. A ham who keeps a handheld locked in a drawer along with his or her license, waiting for the next emergency to arrive, won’t be able to do that. Besides the fact that the battery will likely be dead, he or she likely won’t have the training and experience needed to be truly useful as an emergency communicator.
Disasters such as the 9/11 attacks demonstrate the ongoing need for the services that ham radio can offer. But we must offer more than warm bodies with licenses and handhelds. Radio amateurs at the highest level of their game—be it in emergency communications, satellites, digital modes, or other specialties—are those whose thirst for advancement is insatiable, both technologically and operationally.
One group of hams who regularly stretch the limits of their equipment, their skills, and the ionosphere is contesters. This was demonstrated once again in the 2010 CW weekend of the CQ World-Wide DX Contest (results begin on page 31 of this issue), with record participation and several new scoring records, despite marginal band conditions. Contests such as the CQ WW demonstrate the dedication of participants to making sure that their equipment and their skills are always at peak efficiency. A combination of these factors is necessary to keep ham radio vital, growing, FUN when everything is working as it should be, and ever-more capable of helping our communities at those times “when all else fails.” 73, W2VU