The Fellowship of the Hams

Published Saturday, January 6, 2007
By Amanda Pennington
The Daily Pilot

Amateur radio operators can ham it up, but they’re quick to help in an emergency, as a local sailor found when he was stranded.

Gordon and Suzy West have made friends all over the country and all over the world, but not necessarily because of extensive world travel.

The Costa Mesa couple are “hams.” Antennae jut out from the roof of their house, and there’s a room dedicated to two-way and worldwide radios, screens, transceivers and other gadgetry. Gordon West has been a licensed ham radio operator for over 40 years, his wife for about 30 years.

Ham radio is more than a hobby for the Wests and their fellow hams — a fellowship they called a fraternity. It’s a way to stay connected in times of crisis.

On Friday, Newport Beach resident Ken Barnes was rescued about 500 miles off the coast of Chile by a nearby fishing boat. He had lost both his masts, was injured and had been stuck in extremely rough seas and freezing temperatures. A Riverside ham operator reportedly had become a bridge between Barnes’ family members and some rescue operations as he listened to messages he heard on his radio from Chilean officials and others who were attempting rescue, according to published reports.

Costa Mesa resident Bob Hammond has been a licensed ham for about eight years — Gordon West was his instructor — and said he enjoys the fun parts of having a call signal, like talking with friends and meeting new people, but he’s also ready to help his community if a disaster should arise.

“Ham radio represents the last and failsafe link,” he said.

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, Hammond helped someone local get news from family who lived in the region. In about 24 hours, the family in California heard good news from family members in the South.

Gordon West has similar stories, some that go back to his early days as an operator. In 1964, a major earthquake rattled Alaska. Gordon West remembered hearing one of the first calls come in from Anchorage. What he heard surprised and alarmed him: buildings and towers coming down, roads sinking and other disasters.

“I just thought, ‘Who do I call?’ ” Gordon West said.

Eventually he was able to get through to Washington, D.C., so he could relay the Alaskan’s message.

These days, it’s easier to get emergency response as the United States Coast Guard and police and fire departments generally are all patched in to frequencies as well.

Gordon West is a writer and also teaches ham radio classes for people who go through Costa Mesa’s Community Emergency Response Team. That way, the local hams can relay information about what’s happening in their communities to the response team members.

The College Park resident can also communicate with the police helicopter.

Last year, he remembered ham radio operators helping the Costa Mesa Fire Department identify hot spots on the roof of the blaze in the industrial area off Superior Avenue.

Costa Mesa ham operators can communicate with the police helicopter’s licensed amateur radio operators, but the help came when the officers in the helicopter were able to send a photo of the roof to the amateur operators, who were then able to get it to the battalion chief.

But even after crises are averted, Gordon West still is constantly checking the frequencies, chatting with friends or finding out what the weather’s like in other areas.

“It’s a huge social fraternity,” Suzy West said. “It’s a social club. Everyone knows everybody on the air. There are no borders.”

During their travels, the Wests make sure to bring a ham radio with them, which has helped when searching for hotels in areas they are unfamiliar with. They’ve also made friends with people as far away as England, and both they and Hammond have spoken frequently with people in New Zealand.

“We’ve made lifelong friends all over the country, and even the world, with whom we’ve stayed in touch for years,” Suzy West said.

Contrary to popular belief, ham radio is not a dying art, Gordon West said. It’s no longer necessary to know Morse ccode in order to pass the licensing exam, which has opened up the activity to many more people, he said.

These days, gadgets can integrate the Internet and other contemporary technology with ham radio, which is making it exciting for a younger generation, Suzy West said. A young woman recently graduated from Gordon West’s class and has taken up ham in a big way, which excited Suzy West.

“We do need more girls, but most people think its just for old geezers, but it really isn’t,” she said.

For more information about ham radio or how to become licensed, call Gordon or Suzy West at (714) 549-5000. To reach Gordon West on the airwaves, use his call signal, WB6NOA.