by Matthew Artz
March 12, 2010
Ham radio: Nerdy until there’s an emergency
FREMONT — The first Saturday of every month, Bernhard Hailer and his ham radio buddies go on a hunt.
With antennas made mostly of plastic pipes and metal tape measurers pointing out of car windows, they set off from Warren Avenue in Fremont and traverse Tri-City area streets trying to locate the signal emitted by a hidden transmitter the size of an envelope box.
The team that takes the shortest path to the transmitter gets bragging rights, but, in this game, everyone in the Tri-City area is a winner.
When the Hayward fault finally jolts the East Bay, the folks with the ham radios and the makeshift antennas will be eyes and ears for local police and fire departments.
Newark requires its Community Emergency Response Team leaders to get certified as ham radio operators and provides them with radios, said Mike Berke, an engineer and Newark response team leader.
In a disaster, Berke and his teams will fan out to schools, hospitals and fire stations helping police and firefighters prioritize rescue missions and determine which roads are passable.
There are about 100 members of a Tri-City area ham radio emergency response team, which communicates weekly. Local operators are always looking for new recruits, whether it means a new team to play “Find the Transmitter,” or new volunteers to help in a disaster.
On Saturday, prospective ham radio operators can take the federal licensing exam in Fremont. The South Bay Amateur
Radio Association, which is helping sponsor the event, also will hold Fremont licensing exams in April and May, as well as an all-day class in July.
In a major disaster, decentralized ham radios are a surer bet than cell phones and Internet cables, which all go through a central control center, said Al Rendon, who’s been a ham operator for more than 50 years.
“That’s the reason why ham radios will work,” he said. “It’s not dependent on anyone else. It’s just a bunch of human beings networking together.”
Federal officials several years ago stopped requiring ham radio licensees to be proficient in Morse code, in hopes of getting more enthusiasts to take the test and become emergency service volunteers, Berke said.
That has worked locally as the South Bay Amateur Radio Association has increased its ranks to about 100, members said.
The Internet actually has helped ham radio.
Even though it offers people a much easier way to talk to friends and strangers far away, for ham radio operators, it provides free software that helps them unravel Morse code and confirm contacts made abroad.
Dan Curtis, who operates his ham radio through his computer, said he likes the challenge of communicating through radio waves.
“It may be a little more work, but it’s also really fun to learn how to use the equipment,” he said.
For Hailer, a 45-year-old chemist who volunteers on the Fremont emergency response team, the joy comes in building new toys. His 1979 Mercedes-Benz has eight antennas mounted to the roof, and a dashboard that looks like something out of James Bond film.
Where most cars have an AM/FM dial, Hailer’s has a round screen with flashing blue lights that point him in the direction of the hidden transmitter. To no one’s surprise he had a little more fun at last Saturday’s competition.
“I was the winner,” he said.
Saturday’s licensing test is scheduled from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at Hurricane Electric, 48233 Warm Springs Blvd. For more information on ham radios, go to www.sbara.org or call 510-703-7090.