In a disaster, ham radio can save lives

By Dr. Henry L. Dorkin, FAAP, M.D., President,  Massachusetts Medical Society

As an amateur (ham) radio aficionado, I’ve been reading with interest about new federal government regulations that call for hospitals to have alternative telecommunication systems in place for regional or national emergencies.  

One such alternative means of communication is ham radio, which is already deployed by many hospitals as part of their disaster response plans and was crucial in providing imperative communications in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. 

Dr. Henry L. Dorkin

In recent weeks, unfathomable and unfortunate circumstances again proved ham radio to be indisputably necessary and effective in an emergency, as parts of the United States and the Caribbean were decimated by hurricanes. 

The Federal Communications Commission reported that at one point last week more than 95 percent of cell phone towers in Puerto Rico were down, leaving millions in Puerto Rico and abroad helpless in trying to reach relatives and friends to confirm their safety. 

Enter ham radio and a volunteer group of trained and dedicated operators, including ARES – the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, and RACES – the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service.  

A recent CNN headline proclaimed “Ham radio operators are saving Puerto Rico one transmission at a time.”  Some 50 ham radio operators descended on the disaster scene to provide communications for critical services that were destroyed by the natural disaster.  

The operators operated on frequencies well above standard AM radio bands; they shared by voice, digital and Morse code communications the storm’s track and relayed to first responders information on sick residents in need of urgent medical care.  

The reason amateur radio is invaluable in an emergency is because ham radio technologies are not totally dependent on the modern grid. Emergency operation with portable antennas and emergency battery/solar power/generators can be established quickly in almost any setting. 

Of course, that’s not to say that standard technologies don’t offer tremendous promise for patient care as well as population health. From wearables to telehealth, there’s more to technology than the new iPhone, but when new technology cannot withstand the blows of natural or man-made disasters and lives are stake, we must have reliable backup, and ham radio has been just that for more than 100 years. 

The Society would like to know how many licensed amateur radio operators we have in the MMS. Please contact me with your call sign via e-mail to This may be an added facet to our Disaster Preparedness. If you are already involved with ARES or RACES, please include that in the e-mail as well 


Henry L. Dorkin MD, FAAP 

President, Massachusetts Medical Society

WM1V – Hank 

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