Ham amateur radio operators ready to respond in Alaska

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A hobby that helped save Alaskans during the 1964 earthquake is still keeping communications online when natural disasters shut them down.

Ham amateur radio operators erect a "do-it-youself" antenna at a training session. Photo courtesy of MARA.

Ham amateur radio operators function as first responders relaying crucial information to emergency management officials in disaster situations.

Channel 2 talked with a man who has spent nearly his entire life with a radio in his hand. He talked about his passion for ham amateur radio, and why it's so important to keep the amateur radio emergency capability alive.

Don Bush is the district emergency coordinator for the Ham Amateur Radio Group in the Mat-Su Borough. For him, Ham is more than a hobby, it's part of who he is.

"It all goes back to where a lot of this started was the '64 earthquake,” Bush said. “I was in high school at that time. That's when I got involved."

When the 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck Prince William Sound, communities hundreds of miles apart were left without power or communications. Radio was the only technology capable of relaying information, and ham operators were quick to provide the outside world with the extent of the damage so emergency responders could develop a plan.

"The critical link in any major disaster is the flow of information,” Bush said as he talked about the ’64 earthquake. “Getting the status of a particular area that's in trouble back to the people that can help."

During emergency situations, Bush pools all amateur radio operators in the area onto one radio frequency, called a 'net.'

"We all meet there and say, 'Okay, what's the situation in Knik, what's the situation in Palmer?' And I start collecting this information in," Bush said.

Once the Hams determine the severity of the emergency, Bush relays that information to people who can help.

Ham amateur radio might be a hobby, but it's also a crucial lifeline for emergency management officials in disaster situations.

Bryan Fisher, the chief of operations with the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says Ham operators are integral to emergency response.

"If it were not for amateur radio, we really could not do our job," Fisher said.

Fisher took Channel 2 on a tour through the state’s mobile emergency operations center. It’s basically a decked-out RV, equipped with highly sophisticated radio broadcast technology.

“It's probably the most high-tech communications vehicle that's in the state of Alaska today," Fisher said.

The vehicle allows them to communicate at any time, anywhere in the state of Alaska -- and it has a whole station dedicated to amateur radio operations.

"I consider them first responders, just like law enforcement, EMT's and firefighters,” Fisher said. “Their ability to communicate in real time and provide the picture, the situational awareness of what's happening in a disaster area is vitally important."

Don Bush says there are about 4,000 Ham radio operators in Alaska. Many of them, like him, are phasing out.

"The members are getting pretty long in the tooth,” he said. “That's why we're so avid on getting new hams into the hobby."

Bush is working to pass on his knowledge to younger generations, keeping the amateur radio emergency capability alive. The Matanuska Amateur Radio Association teaches classes on how to operate radio equipment, as well as provides FCC certification testing once a month.

Bush says recent natural disasters, like Hurricanes Florence and Michael, have prompted action from locals who want to help.

"Folks seeing what happens on the flooding and the hurricanes and the stuff like that down south, see what happens and where the hams have been coming forward, and they want to get involved," Bush said.

For more information on classes and FCC certification testing, visit the Matanuska Amateur Radio Association's website, or find them on

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