GUY RAZ, host:
Across Alabama this week, emergency communications systems went silent when the tornadoes knocked down antennas and cell phone towers. So amateur radio operators stepped in and they're now helping to restore emergency communication in some of the hardest hit areas. But those volunteers say their ability to provide that help is actually under threat because of a new bill in Congress.
NPR's Joel Rose has our story.
JOEL ROSE: When Hurricane Katrina came ashore in 2005, it destroyed cell phone towers and electrical infrastructure. That left law enforcement and relief agencies without a viable way to communicate until amateur radio operators stepped in.
Unidentified Man #1: Right now, just so you all know, we got about 250 hams in Louisiana. They're well organized. They're doing a good job, but they can't do it forever.
ROSE: Hundreds of amateur radio operators - or hams, as they call themselves -poured into Louisiana and Mississippi from all over the country, bringing their own portable antennas and amplifiers to temporarily replace what the storm had wiped out.
Kay Craigie is the president of the American Radio Relay League, an advocacy group that represents hams.
Ms. KAY CRAIGIE (President, American Radio Relay League): They set up communications for the agencies, both governmental and the relief agencies that were trying to help people there, and they stayed there for weeks under very, very difficult conditions.
ROSE: Craigie says Hurricane Katrina is just one example of how volunteer ham operators have responded to emergencies all over the country. But she says their ability to provide that help is being inadvertently threatened, in the name of improved emergency communication.
Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York; Chairman, House Homeland Security Committee): Good morning. The Committee on Homeland Security will come to order.
ROSE: Peter King is a Republican congressman from New York, and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. At a hearing in March, King lamented that police, firefighters and other first responders have trouble talking to each other during emergencies.
Rep. KING: As we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, public safety must be allocated sufficient spectrum so that a national, interoperable public safety wireless broadband network can finally be built.
ROSE: King is sponsoring a bill called the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011. The bill would take some of the broadcast spectrum that was freed up by the transition to digital television and set it aside to build a new emergency communications system.
That idea has wide support in both parties and both houses of Congress. To pay for it, King's bill proposes auctioning off another band of broadcast frequencies that are sometimes used by first responders. The problem is, those same frequencies are used by ham radio operators too.
Mr. JOSEPH TAYLOR: K2JJZ, this is K1JT. Do you copy?
Unidentified Man #2: Okay. Very good. So you have good audio. Great (unintelligible) on the South Carolina...
ROSE: K1JT is the call sign of Joseph Taylor. His house in Princeton, New Jersey, isn't hard to find. It's the only one on the block with a giant radio tower in the backyard.
Mr. TAYLOR: Ham radio operators have a long history of being very useful in emergency situations. The training of amateurs has been a national resource for many decades now.
ROSE: Taylor says his early radio training led him to a career in physics, and eventually, a Nobel Prize. There are other frequencies besides those targeted by the House bill that hams can use. But amateur radio advocates worry that this bill could be just the first step.
Mr. VINCE KOLAR (Emergency Manager, Cascade County, Montana): They start taking these frequencies away now, and then down the road, they take a few more. And pretty quick, it becomes a major problem instead of just a minor issue.
ROSE: Vince Kolar is the emergency manager for Cascade County, Montana. He says hams routinely help the county with traffic control and with its emergency response in case of wildfires and severe weather.
Ms. KOLAR: Those people are all volunteers. They all volunteer their time and their equipment, mostly. And if it makes it harder for them to do what they need to do, then I'm certainly opposed to it.
ROSE: Across the country in Virginia, state emergency coordinator Michael Cline doesn't dispute the importance of hams. But he thinks the House bill can be changed.
Mr. MICHAEL CLINE (State Emergency Coordinator, Virginia Department of Emergency Management): They really are an integral part of emergency management and public safety. But I think now that a lot of folks are realizing that there is a potential harm to the amateurs that we'll be able to make accommodations for them.
ROSE: The author of the House bill, Representative Peter King of New York, declined our requests for an interview. In a written statement, King says he's working to address the concerns of the amateur radio community, while still moving forward with a new public safety network. And when a future disaster knocks that network offline, hams hope they'll still be in a position to help.
Joel Rose, NPR News.