‘Ham” Radio no laughing matter

Story by Jeannie Stone

September 11th will be a day for mourning as the country remembers the heinous attacks eight years ago that ushered us into a brotherhood of disbelief and shock. There are those, however, who voluntarily train for those unthinkable days when everything goes wrong. They are the members of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES.) They call each other, ‘Hams.’ 

The members of the local RACES group volunteer for the Pope County Office of Emergency Management. They provide storm spotting assistance reporting to the 911 operator and alerting residents of impending danger. They also participate in the annual nuclear plant evacuation exercises and work at the reception centers at schools in Atkins, Hector, Morrilton and Clarksville.

“We help whenever and wherever we’re needed,” Emergency Coordinator Dennis Schaefer said.

RACES was established under the Federal Communications Commission Rules and Regulations with the purpose of establishing and maintaining the leadership and organizational infrastructure necessary to provide amateur radio communications in support of emergency management entities throughout the United States and its territories.

Members are ready at a moment’s notice to scuttle the countryside assisting in natural disasters, technological disasters, nuclear/chemical incidents, or acts of terrorism or enemy attacks.

Recently, the group participated in a statewide medical disaster drill coordinated by the State Health Department and the Office of Emergency Management. They were involved with establishing communication with hospitals all over throughout the state.

“Whenever a situation hits the community usually ham radios are the first to get out because the infrastructure has been destroyed,” ham Sergio Picado said. “It happened in Atkins with the Katrina refugees. We helped with the transportation needs, the medical supplies, and everything that was needed. We’re who you call when the chips are down.”

“Wherever we go – in the car, in the house – we practice turning everything off and just running on batteries,” Picado, a self-employed electrical engineer, said. “With repeaters we can actually hit two or three counties away.”

Unlike citizen band (CB) radios which hit the mainstream in the 70s, ham radios can wield a lot of power thanks to strategically placed repeaters. CB radios, on the other hand, have a maximum output of about 10 miles, and have no restrictions on who operated them.

Repeaters are electrical devices which act as frequency boosters to receive and retransmit signals at higher levels, higher power or onto the other side of an obstruction, so the signal can cover longer distances.

Annual Field Days offer hams the chance to hone their post-disaster communication skills in a real and concerted way. Clubs and groups meet at parks and other locations and operate entirely on emergency power for 24 hours.

Schaefer once received a phone call to work in the Virgin Islands at the onset of an expected hurricane.

“It only took 30 minutes to set up and start communicating back to the states,” he said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to experience a Field Day for real over there. With a little bit of know-how and some ordinary stuff you can communicate worldwide.”

With the island experience in mind, Schaefer adds that it’s wise to carry a travel bag.

“I carry deodorant, rain gear, a first aid kit, MRIs, toilet paper, money, and I never travel anywhere without water and granola bars,” he said.

“We were in Connecticut working with 9-11, and we couldn’t call out,” Picado said. “We could receive calls but couldn’t transmit out.” Landline and cell phone networks often become overloaded after a disaster.

RACES participants are members of the Arkansas River Valley Amateur Radio Foundation, a club based in Russellville. The club has over 100 members who enjoy different aspects of the hobby. All members of the local club are licensed by the federal government. In addition, many hams take classes, such as FEMA courses and the Severe Weather Spotters Course.

“Those classes are important so that operators can learn to make accurate reports such as properly labeling types of tornados and storm clouds,” Schaefer said. “We report directly to the National Weather Service as well as local authorities, and they have to rely on the information we give them.”

One of the members has brought a junction box to the meeting. Safety concerns are always a hot topic among hams because they regularly work with electrical equipment.

“There’s only supposed to be three cables in this box,” Aulton White, retired from Public Broadcasting Service in Washington, D. C., said. “This one had nine. That’s a fire hazard waiting to happen.”

Members of the ARVARF club participate in events called fox hunts. The “fox” is a ham who hides somewhere and transmits a signal while others try to locate him with direction-finding equipment. This is done for fun, but the skills can be used for finding downed aircraft. In other areas, hams have used their fox hunting skills when someone stole a hand-held police radio and used it to interfere with 911 calls.

“We have used our skills to help locate a child lost in the mountains before,” Schaefer said.

In fact, Schaefer retains a skill almost unknown to most people. He knows Morse Code.

“He not only knows Morse Code, he’s one of the top coders in the nation,” Picado said. “Dennis has been a ham for an astonishing 46 years. He’s the key to our organization here, and we’re lucky to have him.”

Hams use similar frequencies to EMS and public service units, but only volunteer activities are permitted on ham frequencies. They cannot be used by agencies or businesses, but volunteer hams support many agencies, such as the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, National Weather Service, Civil Air Patrol, and the state Health Department.

“We don’t have emergencies all the time, but when we do we’re prepared,” Picado said.

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