When other means of communication can fail.

In an emergency incident, the internet, telephone and cell phone lines soon become overloaded or can fail altogether. While local Emergency Management is often well equipped to handle the communication needs between their own people, the average citizen is not.

Since the early days of radio, before telephones were in every household, American hobbiests would relay messages across the US and the world for members of their communities. One story goes that the professional wire telegraphers called these amateur radio operators "ham fisted" on their Morse Code keys and the hobbiests began to affectionaly call each other "Hams". Their message relaying practice became so widespread that in 1914 the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was formed to organize the handling of this message "traffic". The ARRL developed a standardized form to maintain accuracy and created numbered shortcuts for common messages such as "Happy Birthday..." and "Arrived safely at..." so only the proper "ARL" number and the information specific to it need be sent.

With the outbreak of WWI, the US government ordered the silencing of all Amateur Radio activity. Afterwards the ARRL became the prominent advocate for the Amateur Radio hobby in lobbying efforts before Congress, reorganized, created a Public Service division and named the message handling tasks the National Traffic System (NTS). Within the same division the ARRL Emergency Corps (now called ARES) was formed after numerous local disasters showed the value of having stations organized to relay emergency messages for local governments in addition to the health and welfare traffic for their fellow townspeople.

Now that almost everyone you know has an unlimited calling plan and internet access, the routine traffic handled for years by NTS has slowed down considerably. Today, many people may not know it ever existed or its rich history and wonder what's the big deal with Ham radio and emergencies. The fact is, even if we Hams have to send the messages between ourselves just to stay in practice we do so because we realize that someday the skill may be needed to help our neighbors.

Weakley County ARES operators are trained in NTS traffic handling. Along with phone (short for microphone, meaning voice), we place an emphasis on digital modes, where the transfer of a small file can replace minutes, even hours of talk. The standardization of the software application being used between ARES groups in other counties and the familarity of all operators with its use is of utmost importance. If two computers don't "speak the same language", the message won't get through.

Narrow Band Emergency Messaging Service (NBEMS) provides point-to-point "chat" and file sharing between stations. PA-SitRep, created as a comprehensive website for Emergency Communications information for the citizens of Pennsylvania, is a premier site for NBEMS with links to the software, set-up tutorials and more.

Winlink 2000 (WL2K) provides email over Amateur Radio using a standard mail client such as Outlook. SMS texting to cell phones can also be acomplished. On a local level, Weakley County ARES has a Radio Mail Server (RMS) connected to the internet at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Should this RMS fail, attempt to a RMS location outside the county would be attempted.

The WL2K client program Paclink requires a Terminal Node Controller (TNC), normally a hardware device. KC2RLM created the Sound Card Packet website which details the download and setup of the AGWPE software TNC.

All of the software programs above are free to licensed Amateur Radio operators.


The national association for Amateur Radio in the USA is the American Radio Relay League. Their website covers all aspects of the hobby and provides information on licensing, education and training.

FEMA's Emergency Management Institute offers self-paced courses designed for people who have emergency management responsibilities and the general public. ICS-100, ICS-700 and IS-802 are required for ARES members, but the ISP Course List is filled with subjects for many interests.

The American Heart Association offers local instructor training in first aid, CPR, and the use of automated external defibrillators (AED).

SKYWARN is a volunteer program with nearly 290,000 trained severe weather spotters. These volunteers help keep their local communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service.
The Citizen Weather Observer Program (CWOP) is a public-private partnership with three main goals: 1) to collect weather data contributed by citizens; 2) to make these data available for weather services and homeland security; and 3) to provide feedback to the data contributors so that they have the tools to check and improve their data quality.