A Brief History

Since the early days after the invention of radio (in the 1890s), there have always been those who were intrigued by this new "magical" way of communicating without wires. As radio matured into its different applications such as broadcasting, ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, military, government, radio-telephone and so forth, these "amateurs" (also called "hams") continued experimenting and building their own equipment in order to communicate with one another. When radio became regulated by the government in 1912, amateurs were licensed, issued unique callsigns and were assigned their own frequencies to "do their thing". One of the earliest organizations formed to bind the interests of Amateur Radio was the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). Founded in 1914, it survives to this day with is own monthly technical publication, QST magazine.

Because of the examination requirements and licensing procedure, the hobby is a well disciplined one (unlike some of today's unlicensed radio services). The hobby has been so successful in self-policing that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authorized Volunteer Examination Coordinators (VECs), selected from the ranks of amateurs themselves, to conduct the required examinations for licensing.

Radio Amateurs have a wide variety of avenues by which to communicate. They can operate on a wide range of frequencies from high frequency (HF), VHF, UHF to microwave. They have their own orbiting satellites through which they can communicate. Digital communication, such as Packet Radio and PACTOR, is another exciting way to communicate worldwide. Even amateur television (ATV) is allowed.

Although Amateur Radio has a long history as an electronics and communications hobby, it also has a long history of public service communications. The FCC has recognized this fact and has taken it into account when commercial forces compete for radio spectrum. Public service communications have been a traditional responsibility of the Amateur Radio Service since 1913 when amateurs at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University, in conjunction with numerous individual amateurs in and around the region, successfully bridged the communications gap surrounding a large area left isolated by a severe windstorm in the Midwest.


In those early days, such disaster work was spontaneous and without previous organization of any kind. In today's Amateur Radio, disaster work is a highly organized and very worthwhile part of day-to-day operation, implemented principally through the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the National Traffic System (NTS), both sponsored by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). The Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) and other amateur public-service groups are also a part of ARRL-recognized Amateur Radio public-service efforts.

ARES now consists of over 80,000 licensed amateurs who have registered their availability for emergency operation in the public interest. The operational leadership of ARES consists of over 2,200 local Emergency Coordinators (ECs), District Emergency Coordinators (DECs), and Section Emergency Coordinators (SECs). The primary purpose of ARES operation is to provide emergency communications for local government agencies and non-governmental service organizations (public and private) in times of non-declared emergencies or disasters.

The NTS operates daily to handle local, medium and long-distance written message traffic in standard ARRL format. NTS consists of nets at four levels, with lines of liaison connecting them for the systematic flow of message traffic from point-of-origin to point-of-delivery in the shortest possible time consistent with organization training objectives and mass handling.

A separate subpart of the U.S. amateur regulations (CFR 47, $97.407) provides for the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. RACES is a special phase of amateur operation sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and applies to U.S. amateurs only. The primary purpose of RACES is to provide amateurs with a special opportunity to serve governmental and civil preparedness agencies during "declared" emergencies and disasters. ARRL has signed a memorandum of understanding with FEMA to enhance the coordination of ARRL and FEMA resources.


Every licensed amateur, regardless of membership in ARRL or any other local or national organization, is eligible for membership in ARES®. The possession of emergency powered equipment is desirable, but is not a requirement for membership.