Hamming it up: Amateur radio operators do more than most people may think
“When all else fails: ham radio.”
This old, simple saying among amateur radio enthusiasts, said Perham ham operator Rich Luth, pretty much says it all.
It explains why there’s still a need for amateur radio, even as the modern world relies more and more heavily on cell phones and the internet; and it explains why a century-old hobby continues to survive in the midst of this new technology, maintaining its reputation as an indispensable form of communication.
It’s because, in times of disaster, “when all else fails” and every other form of communication is lost, ham radio is there, like a trusty old friend.
Take the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an example: “When telephone and emergency lines failed, ham radio did not,” according to Clyde ‘Bud’ Stephens, a ham radio operator in Perham.
Natural disasters are another common example.
When an earthquake took down communications in California, Stephens was able to check on the welfare of an elderly woman who lived in the disaster zone – a relative of a Perham resident – within two days. Without ham radio, he said, it would have taken two weeks to receive any news of the woman.
That would have been two full weeks of worry for the relative.
Hams as heroes
Their ability to communicate – fast – in times of trouble is one reason why ham radio operators are often among the first to arrive at the scene of an emergency, alongside police officers, other emergency responders and volunteer groups like the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
It’s also why they’re considered a vital resource by the U.S. military, and, according to Stephens, are required to agree to be called into service at any time before they can get licensed as ham radio operators.
Adding to their usefulness, many know Morse code and have self-sustaining backup power sources for their equipment. They’re knowledgeable about the airwaves and, at times when most people would be fruitlessly fumbling with dials, they know how to pick up a signal.
Others are SkyWarn-trained weather observers, chasing storm systems and reporting what they see to the National Weather Service. The warnings that come through local radio and television stations, and that pop up online, often start with a ham radio operator.
In Perham, one of those trained storm watchers is Luth. He’s been taught to accurately identify clouds and cloud formations, and knows how to measure hail and wind for reporting purposes. He said the weather service relies on eyewitness reports like his to determine which way the clouds are rotating, and what kinds of clouds they are.
The SkyWarn volunteers basically pick up where the Doppler radar leaves off, Luth said: “Without the people to tell you what’s happening, that Doppler radar is no good.”
Though for safety’s sake the weather service doesn’t advise hams to go out storm chasing, it does tell them where their radar has located storm cells, so that those living in the area can keep their eyes on the sky.
Luth said the weather service communicates with local hams through what’s known as the “Barnville superlink,” which connects most of northern Minnesota. His storm reports go to the nearest National Weather Service office, in Grand Forks, N.D.
Untrained hams often help out during storms as well, simply by being aware of their surroundings and reporting what they see to other amateur radio operators.
Stephens once watched a tornado forming right over his house, for exaple, which he reported on the radio as a warning to others. That tornado later touched down in the Park Rapids area.
Perham to get a repeater
Ham radio storm reporting is expected to be enhanced in Perham in the near future, with the likely addition of some new equipment in town.
The Lake Region Amateur Radio Club of Fergus Falls has gotten the city’s approval to install a new repeater on the south side water tower.
The repeater will make it easier for hams to communicate over long distances using lower-powered hand-held devices.
This will make ham radio operation and weather watching available to a wider audience, said Stephens. He guessed that there are currently about 15-20 active amateur radio operators in the Perham area, but he predicts an increased interest in the hobby once the repeater is installed – likely leading to the formation of a new ham radio club in Perham.
But the repeater is good news even for long-time hams who are already doing regular storm watching. Luth said he’ll be able to operate at a lower wattage, using less power, “which is more ideal.”
“It’s the idea of getting the most amount of communication with the least amount of effort,” he said.
In a meeting with city leaders at the end of July, Lake Region Amateur Radio Club members said the repeater would be installed as soon as funding for the equipment is secured.
WiFly, an internet company that plans to install its own equipment on the water tower as soon as the tower’s repainting project is done, has agreed to install the repeater for the club.
The second phase of the project, scheduled to occur sometime in 2014, will be to “hot link” the Perham repeater with other ham radio equipment in Otter Tail County.
The Perham repeater will fill a current coverage void in the county, club members said, and it’s expected to greatly improve ham radio communications in the area, which will be especially beneficial during storms and in times of emergency.
In their presentation to city leaders, Lake Region club members explained the importance of the repeater with this quote: “In the close-knit community of amateur radio, the one asset that unifies the ham operators is a repeater; the one asset that unifies public service and volunteer service during natural disasters is a repeater.”
Ham radio in everyday life
Most ham operators keep their equipment right in their homes, with a workstation set up in a place where the radio can be easily accessed and heard.
Some of the operators love to talk over the airwaves, Stephens said, while others will only use Morse code or will type in communications through a computer. Even photographs can be sent via the radio.
Stephens is on his radio every day, checking in with other ham operators from all over the world. A ham since the 1980s, he’s connected with someone from every continent by now, he said, most often talking about things like signal strength and the weather.
Over time, he’s come to recognize some of the other hams simply by the sound of their voices, but also recognizes many of their “calls,” an identifying series of numbers and letters.
Because he’s been operating out of Perham for so many years, Stephens has been deemed “The Voice of Perham” within the ham radio world. His voice is recognizable to many outside of that world, as well, as he’s been the announcer at Perham’s parades, demo derbies and other public events for years.
Luth, too, has talked to people from around the globe through his involvement in amateur radio. He came from a “ham family,” he said, and has been a licensed operator for more than 30 years.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s really tremendous.”
“The ham radio world is really huge,” Stephens said. “It’s funny. It’s an interesting hobby... A lot of it is building friends.”
Many of those friendships happen over the airwaves, while others happen face-to-face through involvement in various ham radio clubs and organizations, which give the operators a chance to meet in person.
Stephens, for example, is a member of PICO Net, a network of ham radio operators from around the upper Midwest. Every year since 2009, he has brought a group of these operators to Perham for an annual social gathering and luncheon.
In other cases, the hams do volunteer work together, not only at the scene of emergencies but also to help with communications at community events and fundraisers.
Luth said they also willingly support one another, often sharing equipment and offering to help out other radio operators in need.
“I would say ham radio operators are some of the most generous people in the world,” he said.
A meeting of the hams
PICO Net, a network of area ham radio operators, will be meeting in Perham at The Cactus on Sept. 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A buffet-style lunch will be served around noon.
The meeting is open to all amateur radio operators, but will be focused on High Frequency bands.