Excellence award: U.S. IBM volunteer powers radio waves for safety

Roberts Andrews
Roberts Andrews started in amateur
radio to help others; his journey has
taken him to the highest levels of
emergency management in the U.S.
Two disasters struck Minnesota in 2007 within 18 days of each other—first a bridge over the Mississippi river collapsed killing 13 people and injuring nearly 150. Then, just over two weeks later, heavy rain caused severe flooding that resulted in seven deaths and 4200 damaged or destroyed homes.

“On the local news there was a call for any available radio operators to get on the air to help assist in the recovery,” recalls Robert Andrews, a managing consultant for IBM in Minnesota. Robert always had an interest in radio communications, and those back-to-back disasters motivated him to take action.

Radio communications, often referred to as amateur radio, or “ham radio,” requires aspiring operators in the United States to pass a test and obtain a government license.

In September of 2007, one month after the Minnesota flood, Robert earned a perfect score on his radio exam and was officially licensed as an amateur radio operator.

Leaning on “Elmers”

Earning a radio operator’s license is just the start of what is often a lifelong hobby—there are more than 700,000 operators in the U.S.

To improve his proficiency and gain experience, Robert joined the Rochester Amateur Radio Club (RARC) in Minnesota, where several “Elmers”—as mentors and advisors are known in the amateur radio world—helped him develop his skills.

The bridge and flood disasters influenced Robert’s growth in radio communications. “I quickly was drawn into the emergency management and storm spotting parts of amateur radio,” Robert says. “I took some online and local training to get my feet wet in emergency management, focusing on communications, and moved to taking courses from the State of Minnesota to become an emergency manager.”

“I’ve had wonderful mentors coach and guide me, and now I’m pleased to be an ‘Elmer’ to others,” he says.

“When all else fails”

Amateur radio operators are skilled in using powerful equipment for two-way communications, sometimes around the world, without causing radio interference. On the surface, hams seem a thing of the past because of the global connections usually available through mobile devices.

However, during disasters, telephone and cell service can be lost for a variety of causes—disabling the most obvious form of communications. For that reason, amateur radio’s unofficial slogan is “When all else fails.”

“Ham radio is designed to be completely self-sufficient, without any one single point of failure or need for infrastructure,” explains Robert.

Often large scale events, such as marathons, rely on amateur radio to help create the best possible communications posture.

“For the 2011 Boston Marathon, we had over 250 ham radio operators on the course using over 35 different radio channels to cover everything from medical emergencies to runner tracking,” says Robert, who volunteered to support the event.

“Any place where communications are needed, hams can fill in,” he says.

From hobbyist to volunteer to professional

Robert started as a hobbyist and developed the skills to volunteer in situations that required communications support, which included becoming a certified Disaster Service Technology volunteer with the American Red Cross.

Yet in spring of 2013, while working for IBM, his volunteerism took a turn when he responded to a posting for a Communications Unit Leader with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

After an intensive three-day interview, and against tough competition, Robert was offered the position. He arranged a leave-of-absence with IBM, and embarked on what he described as a “grand adventure,” which included a national training exercise in Alaska, on-site assistance during the Colorado floods of 2013, and support for the U.S. State of the Union Address.

“I was able to use my skills gained participating in a ‘hobby’ at the local and state level, and turn that into a position where it truly was at the professional level with FEMA,” Robert says.

In 2014, Robert returned to IBM. He says his volunteer experiences have helped develop his leadership skills. As a volunteer he’s gone from working with small groups on a local storm to leading 30 people at a marathon to supervising a team of 75 managers and professionals—all of which serves him well at IBM.

Robert also observes that his volunteer work has given him the opportunity to do and see things he never thought possible.

“When I started out as a local ham, I never thought I would work in Washington, D.C. with Homeland Security at the highest levels of communications and support for my country,” he says. “One of the scariest things I did was taking that leave of absence from IBM, but looking back, it was one of the best choices I could have made to grow in my skills and dedication.”

An internal IBM databases reveals there are 4,000 IBMers registered as hams, and 36 IBM amateur radio clubs across the world—11 in the U.S. Robert’s radio call sign is KØRDA, when all else fails.

Robert was awarded a 2014 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. He has leveraged IBM community grants to help local radio clubs add equipment to serve their community in times of disasters. He is training other radio operators in a program for the Department of Homeland Security, has taught courses at the American Red Cross, the National Fire Academy and the Center for Domestic Preparedness, and used the IBM activity kit on disaster volunteering to help present basics to community groups. Robert currently volunteers as treasurer at the Rochester Amateur Radio Club.

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