From the ARRL ARES Letter of March 15, 2023:
In the early days, amateur radio and hams were considered irritations and nuisances to the "real" communicators -- the commercial sector and the military. We were almost outlawed, and ultimately relegated to the "useless" frequencies of "200 meters and down." That was until it was demonstrated that we could actually be of use as a service. In 1913, college students/hams in Michigan and Ohio passed disaster messages when other means of communications were down in the aftermath of severe storms and flooding in that part of the country. A Department of Commerce bulletin followed, proposing a dedicated communications network of radio amateurs to serve during disasters. Five special licenses were reportedly issued. A magazine article noted that amateurs were now considered to be essential auxiliary assets of the national public welfare.
ARRL was formed in 1914, and disaster response communications as provided by radio amateurs became organized and useful. In 1920, amateur radio was used to help recover a stolen car, of all things! Soon, the use of amateur radio for natural disasters that we traditionally think of now emerged with hams active in responding to deadly flooding in New Mexico and an ice storm in Minnesota.
More organization followed, with a memorandum of understanding emerging with the American railroad system for amateur radio support when the railroad's wire lines were down: There was an ARRL Railroad Emergency Service Committee. There was even a Q-signal designated: QRR, a kind of land SOS. More reports of disaster response communications provided by amateurs appeared in QST, much as they do there and here in this newsletter today. A major New England flood had amateurs supplying the only efficient means of communications from the devastated areas to the outside world, prompting the chairman of the Federal Radio Commission to say the future of radio depended on the amateurs.
Hams worked with the Burgess Battery Company for emergency radio power. Many of us old-timers, including myself, used those batteries when we were kids for our electrical experiments and kits. They looked like tall, thick candle columns! We learned our electrical principles from them. More organization followed, and traffic handling was recommended as the best way to gain discipline and proficiency to prepare for the efficiency and effectiveness needed in response communications situations.
ARRL Field Day was started to prepare amateurs for portable operation, as was necessary in disaster situations when commercial power and means of communications were down. In 1935, the ARRL Emergency Corps was formed with the goal of having an Amateur Radio Emergency Station in every community -- a goal that remains just as urgent today as it did then! To wit, just look at today's emphasis on the neighborhood and community as "first responder" and on self-reliance in the post-disaster survival chain. More "served agencies" emerged as potential partners, including the Red Cross. In 1936, major flooding across a 14-state region served as the ARRL Emergency Corps' first major testing, serving well, and solidifying amateur radio's status as a critical disaster response communications asset and public service. Communications operating protocols and the appointment of Emergency Coordinators followed.
Technical advances supported this evolution. Spark-gap transmitters gave way to the vacuum tube, making portable operations more viable. Articles on portable transmitters and receivers appeared in QST. Exploration and experimentation in the VHF region also spurred more development of portable equipment. The development of the variable frequency oscillator, or VFO -- something that modern generations of hams take for granted -- was at the time a liberating breakthrough offering more versatility and flexibility, and of course more efficiency in meeting the demands of a disaster response communications situation.
World War II meant a shutdown of amateur radio, but many hams joined the War Emergency Radio Service, which did provide some communications during the war period for natural disasters. After the war, ARRL reconstituted its disaster response communications programs and networks, and the first Simulated Emergency Test was run in 1946. The Cold War followed, and the government formed the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) for civil defense (CD) purposes. It served as the forerunner of the modern emergency management model that we know so well today.
Throughout the 1960s and later up to today, the role, procedures, protocols, equipment, and techniques of amateur radio in public service, disaster, and emergency communications continue to evolve, ebb and flow. This evolution is fueled by advances in Amateur Radio technology and its application, lessons learned from each and every incident that involves amateur communications support. - Rick Palm, K1CE, based on an excellent article titled "QRR: The Beginnings of Amateur Radio Emergency Communications" by Gil McElroy, VE3PKD, that appeared in the September 2007 issue of QST