HAM Operators Practice for the Times they’re Needed

Saturday, January 6, 2007
By Curt Hodges
The Jonesboro Sun

JONESBORO — While the Internet, cell phones and other modern means of communications are the hot things today, amateur radio is still the old standby.

During disasters, when all electricity is gone, ham radio operators are still the first-line crew — after practicing for the time they will be needed.

They’re all volunteers, giving of their own time, equipment and other things, said Jack Richardson of Jonesboro, a longtime amateur radio operator and retired as Craighead County’s director of emergency services and preparedness.

“All of the radio clubs in the county do regular weekly network checks,” Richardson said. “They all report and check in and then check out.”

Local operators also have an annual field day at Crowley’s Ridge State Park at Walcott where they test their capability of communicating using battery power and generators. Weekly “sets” are also held where operators further test their capabilities.

Statewide disaster drills are held periodically in which hams respond to various scenarios. This sharpens their skills at not only transmitting and receiving information, but also in making appropriate decisions based on a mock disaster plan.
The practices also let the ham radio operators ensure their equipment is working as it should, said Scott Spurlock of Jonesboro, assistant president of the Northeast Arkansas Radio Club. He said that, during the statewide drills, hams don’t know what kind of mock disaster they will be facing, so they have to respond just as they would in a real emergency.

Both Richardson and Spurlock said local operators are not strangers to emergencies. They go on the air when tornadoes, ice storms and floods hit, even during Hurricane Katrina — any time they believe their services are needed.

If an earthquake were to occur, local officials say, all communications could be disrupted for unknown periods of time. Amateur operators would be ready to relay and provide communications for emergency services and other agencies working together during that time.

There are three clubs here, Richardson said. They are the Northeast Arkansas Amateur Radio Club, Northeast Arkansas Respond and the Jonesboro Amateur Radio Club. The local Skywarn organization also participates in some communications during disasters, and watches the skies for possible tornadoes.

Besides the weekly network checks, many local amateurs check in with regional, national and even worldwide networks just to make certain they can, if needed, contact someone somewhere. The American Radio Relay League is a national organization that links hams together, Richardson said.

Years ago when equipment was not as good and as powerful as it is today, hams actually did relay messages through each other around the state, nation and world, Richardson said. But with the right antenna and setup, today’s equipment has the capability to get out much farther, so the relay part of the organization is not as critical as it once was, he said.

They are called “amateur radio” operators, but hams have been at the forefront of developing technological advances. In many cases hams were using the new developments, including FM radio and television, years before the general public.

Amateur radio operators are highly motivated, technologically savvy and willing to help when disaster strikes, Spurlock said.

He said anyone who is interested in ham radio and becoming an operator will find getting into the hobby a little easier under new relaxed requirements. Gone is the need to learn Morse code in order to pass the test to become a ham, he said. Instead, one must read and learn a manual and pass an examination to obtain a license.

“It’s a fun hobby,” Spurlock said. “How else can you sit here in Jonesboro and talk to people all over the world?”