Surfing the Airwaves
By MARGARET SHUSTER
They can bounce radio waves off the moon to talk to people in Antarctica, or they can bounce them off a local repeater to provide emergency communications or up-to-the-second weather information.
They are "hams" -- amateur radio operators who use radios that both send and receive messages like walkie-talkies do, but at much greater distances.
They accomplish this by relaying the signals through a "repeater," which is a large antenna at a high elevation that is able to pick up a signal from a radio at one frequency and at the same time retransmit it at another frequency that will carry further.
"The Cookeville Repeater Association is an organization here that supports a 2-meter repeater up on Phifer Mountain," said Bill Shipley, Cookeville Repeater Association trustee. "That can make your little portable radio, such as a police radio, have a range of 70 to 80 miles."
While the Cookeville repeater can reach most of middle Tennessee, there's also a repeater on top of Prescott Hall at Tennessee Tech University that can reach most of Putnam County.
Though amateur radio may seem obsolete in the age of computers and cell phones, ham radio communications can continue when power is down and cell phone frequencies are jammed, as was the case in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
"There were about 1,200 hams, all volunteers, from just about every state in the union who helped during 9/11, because they had telephones knocked out and power out, and what cell phone systems they had left were completely overwhelmed with people trying to find out what happened to whom," said John Byrne, president of the Cookeville Repeater Association.
Ham operators help with local disasters, too, as they did in the aftermath of a recent wave of tornadoes.
"We sent people in after the 1993 tornado," said Billy Tindall, assistant emergency coordinator for Putnam County Amateur Radio Society. "Burgess Falls Road was blocked by downed trees, and emergency people could not get through. We sent ham operators in on foot -- they parked their cars on the side of the road and went in with their radios and gave initial reports of damage. They could go in and find out who was hurt and where people were trapped and tell what kinds of supplies were needed. They did that until their batteries were exhausted."
The local ham organization has a strict code of organization during an emergency, with Tindall in charge of dispatching 54 ham volunteers. He orchestrates a weekly "net," a check-in process in which Tindall calls each operator in turn and that operator answers. This is done to keep everyone familiar with protocol in case disaster strikes.
"If there was a disaster that wiped out communications here, one of our primary responsibilities would be moving information to wherever it needed to go," said Tindall. "The first thing is to take care of life and limb, and then you start looking at property, then as the emergency subsides, usually several days out, you can deal with more routine requests coming in about whether Mom and Dad are okay. Part of our job is to prioritize what information needs to move when and know what is a life-and-death situation and how to get that message through to where it needs to go. During an emergency, we can get messages from coast to coast. It wouldn't be instantaneous, like a telephone -- it may take several hours, but the message would get across."
One local ham operator found the technology handy in getting help for the victim of a rural car accident.
"I was selling insurance and was in Clay County in an area called Moss around Thanksgiving of 1986, and it was really cold," said Joel Poston. "I noticed this guy was weaving really badly on the road in front of me, and he passed a couple of cars, and I was afraid he was going to get hit head-on. But finally he met the curb and went straight off the road over the hill, went completely out of sight, went down in the ravine and hit a tree. And when he hit the tree, all the lights on his vehicle were knocked out."
Since it was dark and in a remote area, Poston was concerned the man would not be found, so he used his radio to contact Bill Shipley through the Cookeville repeater, who patched him directly into the phone line to talk to the Highway Patrol.
"My radio also scanned, so I could scan other frequencies, and I listened to the Clay County Sheriff's Department report that there was an accident. They gave the location and everything, and in about four or five minutes, here came the patrol car, but it just passed us by," said Poston. "So I got back on there and told them that they passed it up, and they relayed that information, and when the officers came back, they drove really slowly, but they still never did stop, because the man who wrecked never hit his brakes or left a mark, so you couldn't tell where he left the road. Finally, I called and told them to meet me, and I got out of my vehicle and showed them where he left the road."
The officers found the man had a massive head injury and was barely conscious.
"They took him to the hospital and said that if I hadn't called, in the condition he was in and where he was at, he could have frozen to death," said Poston.
Ham radio is also especially useful in providing late-breaking information about developing weather conditions.
"If we have what looks like a dangerous weather front coming through, we have a link on our local repeater with the National Weather Service and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, and we send out hams to different points in the county just to watch," said Byrne. "A lot of the information you get about tornado touchdowns or the presence of tornadoes or hail came from an amateur radio operator linked up with the National Weather Service in Nashville."
Putnam County was the first county in the entire Middle Tennessee area to have a direct link to the National Weather Service in Nashville by amateur radio.
"If it's a storm that's localized mostly to this area, we'll be talking to the National Weather Service directly on the radio, and stations all over the state will be seeing reports," said Tindall. "The radar beam from the Old Hickory site passes nearly a mile over our heads. You could have a small tornado develop that they wouldn't even pick up on their radar because it's so far away. And because of that, they rely heavily on spotters for their fringe areas."
The FCC has reserved a group of bandwidths for sole use by ham operators, though the government agency is at liberty to sell them off at any time to cell phone companies and other interests that may be willing to pay a pretty penny for a piece of the frequency spectrum.
"Amateurs have 18 different bands available to transmit on, and they range from right above the AM broadcast bands all the way up past where the 900 megahertz cell phones are," said Byrne.
Ham operators consider it a privilege to be granted the frequencies and therefore use them for the public good as often as possible.
"It's a hobby, but we do a lot of public service, too," said Tindall. "That kind of goes with it. There's almost an obligation there that it be used for public service work. And it's also good, too, because a lot of the technology that drives the Internet today was developed by ham operators."
But the fact remains that ham radio is a hobby that is just plain fun, especially for gadget enthusiasts.
Byrne loves to fix up and operate ham radios from the old Heathkit kits that used to be available. He has an entire "ham shack" full of them behind his house, and when he's not talking on them, he's working on them.
"He'll buy an older one that perhaps doesn't work or has something wrong with it, and he has been known to take every component out of it and solder it back and rebuild it completely," said his wife, Rebecca.
Many ham operators enjoy making contacts abroad, exchanging cards with them and filling in the corresponding parts of their grid maps so they can see at a glance where they have made contact.
"The world is divided into grid squares, and they all have numbers," said Byrne. "People see how many grid squares they can contact and talk to, then they collect cards -- I have a box full of cards. These cards are just to confirm the contact that you've talked to people."
But making contact around the world is more than a mere local repeater can accomplish. For nationwide and foreign communications, hams bounce their signals off the atmosphere, satellites -- even off of scattered meteor debris or the aurora borealis. But it takes a bit of coordination.
"Different bands at different times of day and different seasons operate in different ways," said Byrne. "So where you can talk depends on the season, the time, the weather conditions, even solar flares. You learn to read all this stuff and keep up with it, and you can pretty well predict what's going to happen on certain bands. You pick the band that works with particular conditions."
It seems ham radio is a hobby that offers something for everyone, and it can easily become a family hobby.
As a child, Byrne fell asleep many nights watching his father work with radios, and early in his marriage, his wife, a fourth-grade teacher at Jere Whitson Elementary School, got her license, too. In fact, when the couple bought the property where their house and family business now stands, they built their ham shack before they built anything else.
Poston's wife has a license, too.
"My wife got her license a few years after I got mine because she got tired of me having to call her on the phone, and I told her that was what I wanted for my birthday one year was for her to get her ham radio license. She passed her test on the first try," he said.
Poston says ham radio is especially suited to family use, because the FCC does not allow profanity, and the local ham group polices airwave usage carefully to make sure FCC regulations are followed.
"I'd like to get my children licensed, because that would be handy, too. They're 11 and 15. We do a lot of motorcycle riding, and you can get into areas where a cell phone won't work, but ham radio will, so ham radio still has advantages in some parts of the territory."
For more information about ham radio, visit the Middle Tennessee Skywarn Homepage at www.mtsh.org/mtears.html or the Amateur Radio Relay League Web site at www.arrl.org.
Published February 07, 2003 1:51 PM CST
Note: The Link above is for the old MTEARS page which is now mtears.org