How to Operate a Ham Radio in an Emergency

All emergencies are different, of course, so no single step-by-step procedure for your ham radio is always going to be useful. But here are some solid general principles, based on the ARES Field Resources Manual, to follow when disaster strikes:

  1. Make sure that you, your family, and your property are safe and secure before you respond as an emcomm volunteer.

  2. Monitor your primary emergency frequencies.

  3. Follow the instructions you receive from the net control or other emergency official on the frequency.

    Check in if and when check-ins are requested.

  4. Contact your local emergency communications leader or designee for further instructions.

Everyone is likely to be fairly excited and tense. Keep your head on straight and follow your training so that you can help rather than hinder in an emergency situation.

How to report an accident or other incident via ham radio

Accident reports are more common than you may think. Anybody who spends time driving can attest to the frequency of accidents, and many rural areas have little or no mobile phone service. Know how to report an incident quickly and clearly — and don’t assume that people with mobile phones are already doing it.

Follow these steps to report an incident via a ham repeater’s autopatch:

  1. Turn up your radio’s output power to maximum, and clearly say “Break” or “Break emergency” at the first opportunity.

    A strong signal can get the attention of listening stations. Don’t shy away from interrupting an ongoing conversation.

  2. After you have control of the repeater or the frequency is clear, state that you have an emergency to report.

  3. State clearly that you’re making an emergency autopatch and then activate the autopatch system.

    If you can’t activate the repeater’s autopatch, ask another repeater user to activate it for you, or ask that someone make an emergency relay to 911. Report all the necessary material and then stand by on frequency until the relaying station reports to you that the information has been relayed and the call is complete.

  4. Dial 911, and when the operator responds, state your name and say that you’re reporting an emergency via amateur radio.

  5. Follow the directions of the 911 operator.

    If the operator asks you to stay on the line, do so, and ask the other repeater users to please stand by.

  6. When the operator finishes, release the autopatch, and announce that you’ve released it.

Whether you use a repeater’s autopatch feature or relay the report via another amateur, you need to be able to generate clear, concise information. To report an automobile accident, for example, you should know the following details:

  • The street name or highway number

  • The street address or approximate highway mile marker

  • The direction or lanes in which the accident occurred

  • Whether the accident is blocking traffic

  • Whether injuries are apparent

  • Whether the vehicles are on fire, are smoking, or have spilled fuel

Don’t guess if you don’t know something for sure! Report what you know, but don’t embellish the facts.

How to make and respond to distress calls with your ham radio

Before an emergency occurs, be sure that you know how to make a distress call on a frequency where hams are likely to be listening, such as a marine service net or a wide-coverage repeater frequency. Store at least one of these frequencies in your radio’s memory, if possible.

Anyone, licensed or not, can use your radio equipment in an emergency to call for help on any frequency. You won’t have time to be looking at net directories in an emergency.

How to make a ham radio distress call

Do the following things when you make a distress call:

  1. For immediate emergency assistance, say “Mayday” or send the Morse code signal SOS (yes, just like in the movies).

    Maydays sound something like “Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is NØAX,” followed by

    • The location (latitude/longitude) or address of the emergency

    • The nature of the emergency

    • The type of assistance needed (such as medical or transportation aid)

  2. Repeat your distress signal and your call sign for several minutes or until you get an answer.

    Even if you don’t hear an answer, someone may hear you.

  3. Try different frequencies if you don’t get an answer.

    If you decide to change frequencies, announce the frequency to which you’re moving so that anyone who hears you can follow.

How to respond to a ham radio distress call

Here’s what to do if you hear a distress signal on the air:

  1. Immediately record the time and frequency of the call.

  2. Respond to the call.

    Say something like this: “[The station’s call sign], this is [your call sign]. I hear your distress call. What is your situation?”

  3. Collect and record the following information:

    • The location (latitude/longitude) or address of the emergency

    • The nature of the problem

    • The type of assistance needed (such as medical or transportation aid)

    • Any other information that might help emergency responders

  4. Ask the station in distress to remain on frequency.

  5. Call the appropriate public agency or public emergency number, such as 911.

    Explain that you’re an amateur radio operator and that you’ve received a distress call. The dispatcher will either ask you for information or transfer you to a more appropriate agency.

  6. Follow the dispatcher’s instructions to the letter.

    The dispatcher may ask you to act as a relay to the station in distress.

  7. As soon as possible, report back to the station in distress.

    Tell the operator whom you contacted and any information you’ve been asked to relay.

  8. Stay on frequency as long as the station in distress or the authorities need your assistance.

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