Ham Radio Operators Stand Ready – Just in Case

By Sarah AuBuchon
Suburban Journals –
St. Louis, MO

Picture this: A massive tornado touches down in Jefferson County, whipping its way through Cedar Hill, Hillsboro, Festus and Crystal City. Power lines are down for miles and cell phone towers crumble in its path. Police and fire departments radios are off the air. Jefferson County Emergency Services Director Brian Counsell declares a state of emergency.

Enter the amateur, or “ham,” radio operator.

Members of the Jefferson County Amateur Radio Club have developed a plan to aid emergency services in the event of a disaster.

During a storm, ham operator Paul “KC0BGD” (hams refer to themselves by their first name and call sign) said some of the operators head for the emergency command center in the Jefferson County courthouse.

“We have people who are in the control center,” he said. “Various people around the county, and St. Louis County, check in with them to report weather as it happens.”

The amateur radio operators also communicate with the National Weather Service (NWS).

“We give the National Weather Service hail reports,” Bill “KA0RGI” said. “The NWS follows that track. They see it on the radar, but want to know if it’s the same on the ground.”

Operators are also standing by at the 911 command center off Route MM near Barnhart.

“We are communications for any emergency–tornado, earthquake, homeland security issues,” Paul said. “If cell phones go out, individual fire departments may not stay on the air.

“An example is several years ago there was a flood and operators rode with the county building inspectors to direct them. They didn’t have communication, but we had them (through hand-held ham radios).”

According to the National Association for Amateur Radio, ham radios are as diverse as the operators who use them. For example, a housewife in North Carolina could have a radio capable of reaching another ham in Lithuania. A teenager from Ohio could use a computer to upload a digital chess move to an orbiting satellite, where it’s retrieved by another chess enthusiast in Florida, or a doctor in Chicago could use a pocket-size hand-held radio to talk to friends in New Orleans. Ham radio operators can even communicate with a space shuttle.

The term “ham” originated in G.M. Dodge’s book “The Telegraph Instructor” and is defined as a “poor operator.” In the early days, telegraph operators on ships or at government or coastal stations operated on the same wavelength. Amateur telegraph operators would talk to one another, jamming the airwaves. Frustrated commercial operators referred to them as “hams,” and the term transferred to amateur radio operators.

Chuck “KC0QKS” said ham radios have been around since the 1950s and some have become very high tech, although they can be relatively inexpensive, starting at around $150. The average radio can reach about 25 miles to a repeater tower, where the signal is picked up and transferred another 25 miles. Radios that reach around the world can cost up to $7,000.

Before going on the air, a ham operator must obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Although the license is free, there is a $14 fee to take the required test. The FCC can provide study materials for usually less than $40. All operators are required to follow FCC regulations.

Members of the Jefferson County Amateur Radio Club come on the air 8 p.m. Mondays to practice for emergencies and relay information about club meetings and activities. People with emergency scanners can catch them on channel 147.075. The club also meets 9 a.m. the first Saturday of the month at the Windsor branch of the Jefferson County Public Library in Barnhart. Anyone interested in joining is welcome to attend.

The radio club is having a field day where club members will demonstrate their equipment 11 a.m. June 23-24 at Sunridge Park on Tower Road off Old Route 21 north of Hillsboro. The public is welcome to attend.