I recently read a Seattle Times article about an injured hiker stranded in the Cascades, who was rescued thanks to a ham radio operator six hundred miles away in Bozeman, Montana. The hiker tapped out a morse code signal on a low-voltage radio. The man in Bozeman, who was testing his radio, just happened to be on the same frequency and recognized the code. Tapping dots and dashes back and forth, the two were able to communicate. The man in Bozeman contacted Snohomish County Search & Rescue and was able to give them the hiker's GPS coordinates, then rescue crews located the hiker and transported him to safety on horseback.
After reading about this incident, I was curious to find out more about ham radios and what role they've played in other search and rescue missions. I learned that amateur radio operators, called "hams," often participate in rescue operations during natural disasters and times of crisis, particularly when conventional means of communication, such as landlines and cellphones, don't work. Examples include the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, the North American blackout in 2003, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the largest U.S. disaster response by amateur radio operators to date. In the aftermath of the hurricane, more than 1000 hams converged on the Gulf Coast to help. Read about their significant impact in flooded New Orleans in this MSNBC article.
In December, 2007, when a storm flooded parts of Oregon and Washington and cut off phone and power, a network of at least 60 volunteer amateur radio operators kept crucial systems such as 911 calls, American Red Cross and hospital services connected. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service relayed information about patient care and supplies needed in areas cut off by water. You can read more about this incident here on DailyWireless.org.
Ham radio operators are often skilled at improvising antennas and power sources, and most equipment can be run on car batteries. Some operate on solar power. Hams can use hundreds of frequencies and are therefor able to quickly connect disparate agencies for more efficient communications, using voice transmissions, digital modes such as radio teletype, and sometimes morse code. Morse code allows operators who speak different languages to communicate.
Some U.S. counties have their own volunteer amateur radio search and rescue teams, such as Pulaski County, MO and Gallatin County, MT. Many SAR units throughout the country and the world utilize ham radio equipment, often packed to remote locations by mounted units when vehicle transport isn't possible. El Dorado County Search and Rescue considers ham radio equipment vitally important to their communications. Visit their site to read about the role ham radio has played in some significant California rescue operations.
The following are some additional articles I've come across about ham radio operators to the rescue:
"Nevada Ham Plays Role in Radio Rescue"
"Ham Radio to the Rescue when Cellphones Failed"
"Ham Radio Instrumental in Pacific Maritime Rescue"
"Ham Radio to the Rescue in Tsunami-Hit Andaman"