How to Join a Ham Radio Emergency Organization - dummies

How to Join a Ham Radio Emergency Organization

By H. Ward Silver

An important element of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Basis and Purpose of amateur (ham) radio is emergency communications. Recently, hams provided critical emergency communications during hurricanes on the East Coast, wildfires across the West, and tornadoes and floods in the Midwest. You never know when an emergency will arise, so start preparing yourself as soon as you’re licensed.

Emergency communications (known in the radio biz as emcomm) is loosely defined as any communication with the purpose of reducing an immediate threat of injury or property damage — everything from reporting car accidents to supporting large-scale disaster relief.

How to find an emcomm group for ham radio

Whether your interest in emcomm is to support yourself and your family or to participate in organized emcomm, you need to know how amateurs are organized. Otherwise, how will you know where to tune or how to interact with them?

The different levels of emergencies and disasters, with varying degrees of resource requirements, require different responses by government agencies. As a result, a single, one-size-fits-all amateur emergency organization isn’t enough to handle all emergencies.


ARRL’s Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is the largest nationwide ham radio emcomm organization, organized by individual ARRL sections that may be as large as a state or as small as a few counties, depending on population.

ARES is managed by the ARRL Field Organization (a system of volunteer managers and technical resources) and works primarily with local public safety groups and nongovernmental agencies, such as local fire departments and the American Red Cross.

Local ARES leaders determine how best to organize the volunteers and interact with the agencies their groups serve. Training is arranged by the ARES teams and local organizations.

For complete information about ARES, check out the online Public Service Communications Manual.


Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), organized and managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is a national emergency communications organization governed by special FCC rules.

Its mission, like that of ARES, is to provide communications assistance to public and private agencies during a civil emergency or disaster. The organization is open to all amateurs and welcomes your participation.

RACES groups are organized and managed by local, county, or state civil-defense agencies that are responsible for disaster services and activated during civil emergencies by state or federal officials. RACES members are required to be members of their local civil-preparedness groups as well, and they receive training to support those groups.


A third organization that maintains an extensive emergency communications network of ham volunteers is the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS), which provides an interface between the worldwide military communications systems and ham radio. MARS is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, and each branch of the military has its own MARS program.

MARS members receive special licenses and call signs that allow them to operate on certain MARS frequencies just outside the ham bands. MARS provides technical and operations training, as well as preparation for emergency communications.

How to volunteer your ham radio services

You can volunteer for ARES, RACES, and MARS as follows:

  • ARES: You can register as an ARES volunteer simply by filling out the form and mailing it to the ARRL. You also need to join a local ARES team to participate in training and exercises. The easiest way to find out about the ARES organization in your area is to contact your ARRL section manager.

    You can also search for ARES nets in your area; check in to the net as a visitor, and ask for information about ARES.

  • RACES: You can get more information about RACES by contacting the civil-defense organization in your area, which is managed by your county or parish (or the local equivalent).

  • MARS: To be a MARS volunteer, you must be at least 18 years old, be a U.S. citizen, and hold a valid amateur license. For more information on the MARS program, check out the Army’s MARS Facebook page.

You should start by participating in ARES. Then, if you like being an ARES member, dual membership in ARES and RACES may be for you. The ARES-RACES FAQ page helps explain how the two services relate to each other.

If you want to help administer and manage emcomm activities in your ARRL section after you have some ham radio experience, consider applying for an ARRL Field Organization appointment. Beginning emcomm volunteers like you can fill the following positions:

  • Assistant section manager (ASM): The section manager (SM) is appointed, but you can always assist him or her. Tasks vary according to the activities of the section, but typical duties include collecting and analyzing volunteer reports, and working with and checking into local and regional nets. Should a special task arise, you may be asked to perform it on behalf of the SM.

  • Official emergency station (OES): As the control operator of an OES, you perform specific actions as required by local emergency coordinators. OES appointments go to stations that are committed to emcomm work; they provide the opportunity to tackle detailed projects in operations, administration, or logistics.

  • Public information officer (PIO): You can establish relationships with local and regional media to publicize ham radio, particularly the public service and emcomm performed on behalf of the public. PIOs also help establish good relationships with community leaders and organizations.

  • Official observer (OO): OOs help other hams avoid receiving an FCC notice of rule violation because of operating or technical irregularities. They also keep an ear out for unlicensed intruders or spurious transmissions from other services.

  • Technical specialist (TS): If you have expertise in a specific area, or if you’re generally skilled in some aspect of radio operations, you can be a technical specialist. A TS serves as a consultant to local and regional hams, as well as to the ARRL.