Above: Ham operators are behind the scene keeping things safe; photo courtesy of Jim Penland, DeKalb ARES.

Runners may draw the attention during big road races such as the Publix Georgia Marathon and Half-Marathon, but while they’re racing, dozens of volunteers are working behind the scenes to make sure the event operates smoothly. One important group is the amateur radio operators, known as “hams,” who help race officials communicate.

“Our volunteer ham radio operators relay health and welfare information to the appropriate public safety jurisdictions along the course,” said Michael Gaertner, the Amateur Radio Emergency Services communications crew chief for the marathon scheduled for March 18. “Every year hams play a crucial role in providing a safety net for the entire course.”

Most folks may spot a ham radio operator only now or then at a water-dispensing table or nearby, but the volunteer amateur radio operators are everywhere during a race, Gaertner said.

“Any event like this, which has thousands of participants and spectators passing through multiple counties, cities, universities, police and fire jurisdictions, will break down without efficient communication,” he said. “It’s our volunteer ARES members who bring their skills and equipment to help make the link between the public and emergency services as short as possible during the event.

“We aim to prevent emergencies before they happen by communicating seemingly small things—like a shortage of water cups, or a sudden influx of runners approaching an aid station—before they become multiple dehydration victims.”

On race day, ham radio operators assist race officials by keeping them and representatives of emergency support services up to date on the progress of the runners on the 26.2-mile course.  Ham operators, for instance, may relay to race officials the locations of the first and last runners or may call for help for runners who are unable to finish.

“The marathon and other civic events, like the Children’s Healthcare Christmas Parade, allow the hams to take an active role, communicating messages in real time,” said Jim Penland, an Atlanta attorney who heads the ARES group in DeKalb County.

It is similar to what they might be called on to do in an emergency event such as a tornado or other widespread activity.

During a race, Penland maintains contact with 50 or more ham operators along the course. They start their activity around 6 a.m. on race day and sign off when the last runner has crossed the finish line at about noon.

Along the way, runners will tire and need a ride back to Centennial Olympic Park, the location of the start and finish lines for the races. A fleet of vans is used for transportation. They are contacted by ham operators on the course who message fellow hams who ride in the vans. Generally, a ham radio operator is stationed in each medical tent, as well.

“We have several medical personnel who volunteer as ham radio operators,” said Penland. “We come from all walks of life with the spirit of volunteerism and a strong interest in communications.”

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.