Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Best Practices

By Audrey Fraizer

Way before the days of protocol, certification, training, and quality assurance, it was amateurs running the emergency dispatch show.


Some of the greatest railways in the United States organized emergency radio dispatching systems with amateurs all along their lines. Henry Ford was, again, ahead of his time in establishing a permanent radio dispatching system staffed by amateurs on his Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton Railroad. The first step in the system had been so successful that plans had been made to cover the entire line.

The dispatch system wasn’t solely for coordinating the rolling of trains on tracks.

In an emergency, radio dispatching was particularly beneficial to a line like the Santa Fe, which ran through some of the most hazardous territory in the U.S. Terrific sleet and snowstorms in the mountainous region of the Southwest and the ever present danger of landslides in the canyons through which the Santa Fe lines passed made this emergency protection necessary.

The Santa Fe had already enlisted between 15 and 20 amateurs for the emergency service. All could send and receive, making a two-way service possible.

Along the Pennsylvania system and some of the smaller railroads, amateurs were ready to step into the service of the roads on the first call, day or night. In the earliest stages some had already exhibited the efficacy of the system when wires came down or other means of communication were destroyed.

Amateur radio dispatchers were the backbone of sending help in severe cold and blizzard conditions throughout the 1920s.

Sub-zero and near-zero temperatures reigned as far south as southwestern Missouri, while Southern states reported low temperature records two days before the spring solstice in 1923. In the Upper Mississippi Valley and the Rocky Mountain regions train service was decimated, with many trains stalled in snowdrifts, 6 to 10 feet deep. Near Rawlings, Wyo., the vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad turned his private car into a diner to feed passengers while awaiting radio dispatch to bring rescue teams to the snowbound Oregon limited.

In February 1924, Soo Line officials reported that the early morning train due to arrive in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., was held up some time awaiting word from radio dispatchers whether the snowplow sent to clear the track had arrived. Hours later they had their answer. The snowplow was stuck in the same 12-foot snowdrift imprisoning the giant engine. Plow crews were busy digging their way out, while passengers on the train were reportedly content to stay where they were. It was expected that the plow and train would be running after the wind died down and the drifting ceased.

Twenty inches of snow, driven by 35 mph winds out of the northeast, gave the prairie states one of the wildest winter nights in its history in December 1927. Sleet storms damaged the majority of telephone and telegraph wires in southern Wisconsin and stranded hundreds of passengers relying on electric train services in Chicago, Ill.

Two trains that left Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, for the Twin Cities (St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn.) to the south on Dec. 8 had not arrived at a late hour the next day, and the only news of them that railway officials in Winnipeg could secure was that the Great Northern Train had passed through the Staples, Minn., station. It was believed to be snowbound in the blizzard between Staples and St. Paul. The possible location of the Soo Line train came in from a radio dispatcher in Waupaca, Wis., who reported that the fires were out and the water supply exhausted in two snowbound Soo Line passenger trains, leaving passengers in dire danger from the cold. A relief train with food and blankets was sent from Chicago.

A cold wave that swept into the Northwest in late January 1929 pressed horses, sleighs, tractors, plains, and trains—guided by radio dispatch—into practice to bring people affected by the cold or suffering from unrelated medical problems into care.

Horses, a toboggan, an ambulance, and a special train were used in Yellowstone National Park to rescue an 11-year-old Idaho girl, suffering from acute appendicitis, and the Old Faithful Inn winter keeper. With phone lines down, the innkeeper’s wife and a ranger followed what may have been a first in pre-arrival instructions given over the radio to treat the man’s heart ailment. When his condition worsened, a team arriving on a toboggan hauled him to a waiting four-horse team and tractor, which brought him to an ambulance for the remaining 52-mile journey.

A small band of cowboys and stockmen pushed through 10-foot snowdrifts and a blizzard, driving a band of horses before them to break trail in Yellowstone and clear the path for a sleigh carrying the girl to safety.

Advancements in train technology and communication, however, haven’t kept the railways free from snow danger.

On Sunday, Jan. 13, 1952, the City of San Francisco, Calif., hit a snowslide 20 miles west of Donner Pass. When engineers put the train into reverse to escape, the steel wheels slipped on the icy track.

When the storm broke three days later, relief parties mushing dogsleds, driving over-snow track vehicles, and Southern Pacific trains rushed in for the rescue. Passengers able to walk hobbled to safety along the tracks; the sick and wearier passengers were tobogganed or carried on stretchers. All 226 passengers and crewmembers survived their three-day ordeal on the snowbound train.

And, of course, the days of amateur radio haven’t been lost to the past. The valuable resource is still available to provide reliable emergency communication when all other means of communication give out.

Amateur radio operators assist public safety officials with on-scene situational awareness during emergencies. For example, when blizzards blanket Delaware, it’s not unusual to find amateur radio operators posted at ham radio stations at the Sussex County EOC, and others driving around the county reporting what they are seeing and confirming reports from the National Weather Service.

“While [the police and emergency medical services] were moving around, they had better things to do than stop and measure the snow,” said Walt Palmer, public information officer for the American Radio Relay League in Delaware. “So that’s where amateur radio’s guys were coming in.”


1Amateur Radio Operators Provide a Critical Communications Link During Emergencies, Emergency Management,, June 23, 2010, accessed Dec. 13, 2013.