On June 4th 2010 a flash flood hit the Albert Pike recreation Area, a part of Ouachita National Forest around 75 miles from Little Rock in Arkansas. The waters rose hard and fast, over eight feet per hour and with so much force it peeled the bark off trees. As campers slept, the Little Missouri river flooded, the flood waters were 4ft deep by two am, by five a.m. the entire campsite was under twenty three feet of water. Rescue personnel mounted a search for survivors but the area was remote. Extra cellphone towers had to be brought in but were unable to provide full coverage, so emergency personnel turned to ham radio operators who were delighted to help co-ordinate the search. In all nineteen people died.
On the following night severe weather smashed through parts of North west Ohio. Again radio hams provided a useful channel of communication, charting the progress of storms, downed power lines and storm damage, many stations working through the night until four am.
Ham radio operators often supply critical services in case of emergencies because their equipment does not rely on any form of infrastructure and can be run on temporary power supplies such as car batteries. There is a network of over 650,000 amateur radio operators in the USA with another two million in the rest of the world. Ham operators have helped coordinate communications during the California wild fires, several tornadoes and big storms in Oregon and Michigan. Volunteers provide these emergency communications channels for local and state services entirely free of charge and have in the past been critical to the success of several rescue missions. One such was a recent rescue in the Pacific ocean which occurred in April.
An amateur radio operator in Flagler Beach, Florida picked up a "PAN PAN" distress signal from another radio operator who turned out to be on board the S/V Wind Child, a small sailing vessel in the Pacific Ocean, over 1,400 miles South West of San Diego and 3,300 miles from where his distress call was received in Flagler Beach. The Florida operator called immediately for emergency medical assistance; one of the crew members of the Wind Child, Michael Kalahar, had been severely injured with a puncture wound to the skull, he had been unconscious and had even stopped breathing for a while, what's more he had almost bitten his tongue off and it was bleeding profusely. The Florida operator established a telephone patch with the Coast Guard in Alameda California to report the incident and they had a flight surgeon contact the vessel, through the Florida radio operator, in order to provide assistance and stabilise the injured crewman. The Florida radio operator Bill KI4MMZ then helped set in motion a lengthy and complicated air sea rescue mission; other amateur radio operators worked around the clock to keep communications flowing and to keep the crewman's family up to date. In addition to Bill KI4MMZ in Florida, the rescue relied on the radio services of operators in Texas, California, Duluth and Hawaii as well as those on the M/V Cap Palmerston, a large container vessel bound for Mexico which changed course to assist in the rescue. Four para-jumpers and an inflatable boat eventually reached the Wind Child and were successful in transferring the injured crewman to the Cap Palmerston which then diverted towards San Diego to rendezvous with 2 hawk Helicopters sent to transport the injured man and the para-jumpers to hospital in San Diego. That the rescue happened at all was a miracle; the emergency equipment sent to the Wind Child was too big and bulky to bring on board and the para-jumpers were ill themselves with sea-sickness. Despite the traumatic events, crewman Kalahar recovered from his injuries.
Many radio amateurs volunteer to conduct radio watches for anyone in distress. Cellphone coverage is not world wide and there are even gaps in satellite phone availability, as there was in the case of the Wind Child. So what use is radio? Ask Michael Kalahar.