If a disaster takes down the internet and cellular telephone networks, Palm Beach County’s western communities still have an old-school option to communicate.
OK, not smoke signals — ham radio.
Yes, it’s still out there, sustained by dedicated hobbyists including a number of police and fire professionals. Members of Wellington’s Public Safety Committee heard precise details on Wednesday, March 8 about how many of its practitioners are ready to do their thing if matters go sideways and it becomes vital to stay in touch in an emergency.
This method of communication dates back more than a century and is officially known as amateur radio, but is often called “ham” radio, said Lt. Eli Shaivitz of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, himself a longtime user of the medium. “It is predominantly a hobby, but it does have a public-service benefit,” he said.
For example, he often can get information through ham radio about emergency matters during hurricanes before it appears on the news, he explained to the committee.
According to Shaivitz, there are 93 licensed ham radio operators in Wellington’s 33414 zip code. Another 153 are in Royal Palm Beach’s 33411. Added to that total are the 118 operators in Loxahatchee’s 33470 zip code.
Are all of them active around the clock? No, Shaivitz said. Nonetheless, they represent a potential network to step into the breach if needed.
Florida has more than 48,000 licensed ham radio operators, and there are more than 848,000 across the United States, he said.
Users can communicate radio to radio within a mile or two, or use “repeater” networks to expand that range, or even tap into wider systems that include the improbable-sounding bouncing of signals off the moon, Shaivitz said.
Florida is the only state with a system of connected repeaters across its entire territory, which involves microwave technology, not internet or cellular, he said. Each Florida county has an emergency operations center, and there’s typically someone there who can use ham radio.
Wellington has a communications tower that includes ham radio repeater equipment, Shaivitz said.
For anyone out there who might be interested, there is even a Wellington Radio Club that meets at the Wellington Community Center on the fourth Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m.
One long-running debate is where the term “ham” originates. Shaivitz said that there is not a clear consensus on this.
Many explanations propose that it was initially a derogatory term for incompetent or heedless users in the early 20th century beginnings of amateur radio, or going back even before that, to telegraph technology. In the same way that “ham” actors might be regarded as giving a bad name to their craft, ham users might create signal interference and make it difficult to prevent train accidents or other misfortunes.
The name stuck, according to the web site of the American Radio Relay League, a venerable group representing people who hoped to make constructive use of amateur radio.
“Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves. As the years advanced, the original meaning has completely disappeared,” the AARL web site explains.
Committee Chair Mohammad Junaid Akther asked about the command structure for using ham radio in local, county or state emergencies.
“You have to remember, these are basically, I’ll use the word, volunteers,” Shaivitz said.
“Let’s say everything is down and there is a fire in Wellington,” Akther said. “Do you have to go to Palm Beach County to tell them or do you just tell anybody who can get there?”
The technology increases the chances that someone can get word to the county center or other regional authority.
“It’s not a perfect science, but if cellular and internet go down, it’s just handy to have as a backup,” Shaivitz said.