Ham Radio Fills Cell Phone Signal Gap in Utah Crash

HJNews.com – The Herald Journal
by Matthew K. Jensen
December 6, 2009

Ham radio fills cell phone signal gap in canyon crash

When a semi truck and trailer rolled and crashed in Logan Canyon Wednesday morning, a passing motorist stopped to help when the rig’s wheels were still spinning and managed to notify emergency dispatchers in an area of national forest where cell phone reception is nonexistent.

But Brent Yeates of North Logan wasn’t using a cell phone; he was using a handheld amateur radio to report the incident after the semitrailer filled with 38,000 pounds of dairy products landed in the Logan River.

Another radio operator, Brent L. Carruth of Logan, heard Yeates make the call just before noon Wednesday. Carruth said he listened to Yeates give a first-hand account of the condition of the driver and the seriousness of the crash. Utah Highway Patrol officials originally reported that the call for help came from a motorist who traveled to a cell phone reception area before dialing 911. Carruth, however, explained how Yeates’ small transceiver was used to call 911 right from the scene of the crash.

“What happened Wednesday, where a radio operator happened upon an accident, was not an isolated incident,” he said. “It happens more frequently than one might suppose.”

Yeates agrees. He owns property in the canyon and travels it weekly. He says he helps a crash victim at least once a year.

“When you pull up on an accident, your first concern is to make sure the driver or passengers are okay,” he said. “I grabbed my fire extinguisher because there was smoke coming from the truck and I could hear the driver talking and he said he was okay.”

Yeates said he waded through the cold river to help the driver get out.

Using a device not much larger than a cell phone, explained Carruth, a radio operator virtually anywhere in the mountains of Cache or Rich County can broadcast a signal to a repeater that sits atop Logan Peak in the Bear River Mountains east of Logan. The cluster of communication equipment rises about 5,200 feet above the valley floor which gives the spot a strong vantage point over much of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Amateur, or ham radio as it’s often called, operates on a range of frequencies that vary between a few dozen centimeters and a few dozen feet in wavelength. As Carruth explains, it’s the wavelength of the signal that determines how far it can propagate through the air.

“The wavelength is essentially as long as the antenna it comes from,” he said. “The 2-meter and 70-centimeter wavelength frequencies are commonly used among operators because they allow for smaller antennas. Smaller antennas, however, can’t produce the longer wavelengths needed for long-distance communication. You can put a six-meter antenna on your roof but that doesn’t make your radio very portable.”

Using a ham radio to speak directly to someone in say, Brazil, would require an antenna up to 10 meters long. The signals produced by larger antennas don’t need a signal repeater to reach their final destination. Instead, says Carruth, they bounce off the ionosphere and can travel around the globe.

Portable radios are best suited for hikers, backpackers and snowmobile riders who wander around Mount Naomi or explore the wilderness near Tony Grove Lake. The repeater on Logan Peak, which is owned by the Bridgerland Amateur Radio Club, can pick up transmissions from all over the region and has an added feature built in that allows radio operators to dial a phone number on their transceiver to call local telephone lines.

The FCC requires radio users to be licensed before operating equipment that uses the amateur radio frequency band. The Bridgerland Amateur Radio Club offers monthly meetings and training assistance for residents who are interested in pursuing the hobby. The group’s Web site is www.barconline.org.