Even if all communications is out of service in your area, ham radio operators can send personal messages by radio.
Hams make use of two primary systems for sending messages to distant locations: Radio Relay International and the Winlink radio-email service. Sometimes, both may be used.
RRI is comprised of a full-time network of operators who handle personal messages through what is termed a traffic network. There is also the National Traffic System (NTS) and both networks work cooperatively. RRI is radio only with no dependence on the internet. Routing through the network is by postal code.
Messages are routed to an operator who lives near to the addressee and may be delivered by a number of methods including telephone, postal service, email or in person. A special format is used by RRI operators and messages should be 25 words or less. Since RRI relies on manual processes for delivery, the time for a message to reach a recipient is about comparable to sending a letter through the Post Office.
Since the system is address based and humans are making the final delivery, the system is very forgiving of minor errors in addressing.
Personal messages that are sent from a disaster area are termed "Health & Welfare" (or simply "Welfare" messages. These have a higher priority through the system than do Routine messages. As an example, if someone in Knox County is sending a message to someone in Arizona, the first station in the network that has an operating telephone will usually call the party to deliver the message. This speeds up the delivery for higher priority messages.
Below is an example of a formatted message. These are called Radiograms and they adhere to a standard format so that the message may be sent by any radio communications method including Morse code, voice or digital. The system is efficient and resilient.
148 W HXC KB1TCE 16 OWLS HEAD ME 0950 JAN 24
Most of the above is self explanatory with the exception of the first line, the preamble. This has the message number, indicates that it is a Welfare message, asks for a confirmation of delivery (HXC), has the sending station's call sign, the number of words in the message body (16) along with the place of origin, time and date. The OP NOTE at the end indicates that KB1TCE will get the delivery confirmation (or reply message) to the sending party.
The other method for sending messages by radio is the Winlink radio-email system. This consists of specially equipped client stations that send email-like messages to relay stations that have internet access. This is the fastest method of transmission and, to the recipient, it looks like a regular email. It requires that the recipient has a working email account and the sender knows the email address of the recipient.
You don't need to be concerned with how the message will be sent but you do need to provide the ham radio operator with a sufficient amount of information. Details include the addressees name and address, phone number and, if known, an email address.
The message text should be limited to 25 words with no contractions. You should also provide your address and phone number. The radio operator may ask some other questions to ensure that the best route for the message will be used. Please note that messages sent by ham radio can not contain confidential information (Think of what you would put on a postcard) or be business related.
Knox County is fortunate as we have a good number of hams who are experienced and active in sending messages by radio.
Pen Bay Pilot article on Welfare messages during the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico: Knox County ham radio operators relay messages when all else fails
Learn more about Radiograms: RRI FAQ on Radiograms