Monday, May 11, 2020

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 likely. 

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.

Sources:  My wife directed my attention to a rather colorful writeup of the original CAL-FIRE letter carried by the website at  A more even-handed view was taken in this report:  And the ARRL's response to the controversy can be viewed at  For an article about how ham operators helped out during Hurricane Katrina, see

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