Amateur radio provides critical communications when all else fails

Morse code still an option in a dire situation

transmitter

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – A catastrophic blackout could takeout modern modes of telecommunications.

And that could spell big trouble for people and agencies that rely on power to communicate via the Internet or cellphones.

“It’s a very big concern throughout the country and the world, said Adam Cohen, special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office.

There’s been increased public attention surrounding the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, which could overload the power grid and produce widespread blackouts.

Buffalo FBI special agent in charge Adam Cohen being interviewed
Buffalo FBI special agent in charge Adam Cohen (left) during interview

“Everybody expects their phones to work and they expect to be able to send a text or an email message when they need to,” said Cohen. “If telecommunications systems are down people won’t be able to reach out to friends or family members.”

It’s also a concern for first responders and emergency operations centers that rely on timely information during a natural disaster or deliberate attack.

“It’s conceivable that you would be without power for months,” said Steven Piotrowski, who works for Erie County Emergency Services.

Piotrowski, an amateur radio operator, says an electromagnetic pulse could come from a massive solar storm, or a high altitude nuclear detonation.

“It could cause substations to fail. It could cause local transformers to fail. The power surge could cause lots of things in your house to fail, or in commercial structures. It could be devastating.”

Piotrowski says most communications sites, especially those dealing with public safety, are engineered to a high standard with backup generators.

“Generators run on fuel. Eventually the fuel would run out and then the sites would start to fail,” he said.

Adam Cohen says a more “realistic event” could involve a cyberattack from a hostile nation-state.

“Or by somebody doing hacking activity against telecommunications systems that could possibly have some significant impacts on our ability to use our telecommunications systems,” Cohen explained.“ It’s conceivable that what is done, or the damage that takes place, could spread throughout the entire national telecommunications system.”

So, then what?

If tried and true types of communications fail because of a natural disaster or deliberate attack — what happens then?

“I believe at the end of the day the old-fashioned type of communication for at least some period of time may be the only way to communicate,” Cohen said.

Cohen is talking about amateur radio and the use of Morse code, a system of sending messages using long and short signals of sound that match letters, which can make words.

Morse code was developed in the 1800s and initially used to transmit messages across telegraph wires.

Think of it as text messaging the old-fashioned way.

“Just dots and dashes,” explained Tony Buscaglia, an accomplished international Morse code operator.

Dick Stein (left) and Tony Buscaglia (right) at the amateur radio controls
Dick Stein (left) and Tony Buscaglia (right) at the amateur radio controls

Buscaglia regularly communicates with other ham radio operators around the world from his home on Grand Island.
But instead of using his voice, he prefers the fast-fingered technique of dots and dashes.

He says Morse code could be ideal during a dire situation.

“We would be able to set up a fairly low power station using battery power,“ he said. “You don’t require a computer hookup. All those things seem to get complicated, especially when you’re in a hurry to get it up and running.”

Buscaglia, along with Dick Stein and Mark Adams, belong to Niagara Frontier Radiosport, a local amateur radio club.

They say Morse code is a useful alternative to voice transmissions during an emergency.

For one thing, sending the signal doesn’t require much power.

“With the amount of light you use to light up your bathroom, or your hallway at night, we’re communicating all over the world typically using Morse code,” said Mark Adams, a safety engineer at the University at Buffalo. “In a time of crisis, obviously Morse Code is going to work because hams that are trained in it are going to be very proficient.”

Erie County has a pre-established organization of amateur radio operators at its disposal.

If the power goes out and backup communications become necessary, local ham radio operators are ready to step up, according to Steven Piotrowski.

“Morse Code is kind of the mode of last resort,” he said.

piotwrowski
Steven Piotrowski of Erie County Emergency Services

Piotrowski says amateur radio operators bring a unique skill set to the table.

“Part of their hobby is building their own antennas. Sometimes building their own radios. Operating in less than optimal conditions. These are all the skills that we would need during a large scale emergency.”

Amateur radio, which requires licensing by the Federal Communications Commission, can be a lot of fun for the hobbyist looking to connect around the globe.

But radio operators have a responsibility to serve the public interest, according to Dick Stein, who’s been licensed since the early 1960s.

“When push comes to shove and there’s a need for emergency communications, they want you to jump in the pool. They don’t want you sitting on a chaise lounge with a beer in your hand,” said Stein. “If you want to get a license you have to be prepared and ready to operate. Being part of emergency communications is a mandate to have a license.”

According to the American Radio Relay League, there are over 741,000 active amateur radio licenses in the U.S., and around 3 million operators in the world.

Dick Stein says there are no boundaries when it comes to amateur radio, and that the political world goes away.

“We’re friends regardless of where we live and what our political thought process is.”

While many hams use Morse code for fun, this old-school technology — as a last resort — could be the answer when normal communications fail.

Adam Cohen remembers how panicked people were following the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

“When you picked up your phone and nothing would happen. It wouldn’t work. That’s multiplied significantly now,” he said. “I believe that if an incident were to happen that did take down those systems you would see a lot of people completely paralyzed with not knowing how do they communicate with other people.”

Amateur radio provides a vital communications link during emergencies. Operators have done it numerous times with hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

If something did happen in the Western New York region, Steve Piotrowski says there’s a plan in place to use ham radio if necessary.

“We would expect that we would staff radio operators at every hospital in Western New York, he explained. “There’s ham radio equipment that’s pre-positioned at all the hospitals. All we need is the operators.”

Whether it’s voice communication, or Morse code in the most dire circumstances, the technology is there to make a difference.

“We’re going to be there with our radios, and we’re going to be helping the local first responders to communicate when they’re down. It’s happened over and over again,” Dick Stein added.

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