Top 25 things vanishing from America: #16 -- Ham radio

This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

An easy way to prolong a disaster is to have the respondents use dozens of different, incompatible communications systems, or operate them with no protocol. Yes, I'm thinking about Katrina. I'm also thinking about a vanishing American treasure, the amateur radio operator. In the past five years alone, the number of people holding active licenses has dropped by 50,000, even though Morse Code is not longer a requirement.

Many think of a ham radio operator as a tubes-and-wires geek, and there is a certain truth to that stereotype, although today's ham is more likely to be computer-savvy and involved in cutting-edge technologies. However, from my personal experience, I know them to be among our nation's best trained and most capable respondents to disasters. In the hands of the amateur radio volunteers, disaster communications become orderly and prioritized, as they employ the protocols and training received in gaining their licenses. As director of one of the nation's largest week-long bicycle tours, I watched the ham community deal with countless challenges with imagination and expertise, whether it was assembling a portable tower and repeater in the field, coordinating emergency medical transport, or organizing the search for a lost child. I saw them sit for countless hours patiently looking out for the safety of thousands of people that would never know of their efforts.

As cell phones and the Internet siphon off much of what once attracted people to amateur radio, the nation's ham radio population is graying rapidly. Given the cash value of the radio bands allocated to amateur radio, there will be relentless pressure on the government to take back those bands so they can be sold. All these elements speak to a long, slow diminishment of a pastime that began with Marconi.

When amateur radio as we know it disappears, it won't be the radios we'll miss. We'll miss the operators. 73's to a national treasure.

Tom Barlow, N8NLO

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