Ham radio operators provide communication backup

Field day is Saturday
Jun. 19, 2013 @ 06:17 PM

Long before cell phones and the Internet took over as the dominant sources of communication, "hams" controlled the air waves.

Until an emergency arrives, amateur radio operators or "hams" often are overlooked as nothing more than hobbyists. When natural disasters shut down cell phones and knock out power, hams remain a reliable form of communication for emergency personnel across the world.

"If it wasn't for ham radio there wouldn't be cell phones," said Gerald Robertson, a member of the Tri-County Amateur Radio Club. "Ham radio pioneered the technology cell phones use today. We've been using repeaters for many, many years. About every ham radio has emergency power and all the facilities to go on the air should an emergency occur."

The National Association of Amateur Radio designated this week as amateur radio week. On Saturday and Sunday at the Thomasville Police Academy, 1285 Jacob St., local hams will hold their annual field day, where the public can see how critical communications are made during unexpected emergencies. 

"A lot of people don't know about it," said Sgt. Tony Lewis with Thomasville Police Department. "We have hundreds of amateurs locally and thousands nationwide. The first thing that goes through people's minds is CB. It's nothing like a CB radio."

Ham operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There are more than 700,000 amateur radio licensees in the United States and more than 2.5 million worldwide. Hams provide backup communications to the Red Cross, FEMA and even the International Space Station. Ham operators in the past year have been providing important communications from recent natural disasters such as tornadoes, wildfires and snowstorms. They can message like emails without the use of phone systems, Internet or other forms of infrastructure.

"We can do voice, Morse code, we can send data, emails through the radio," said Lewis. "During a major event, a lot of time, communications gets knocked down. We work with police and fire, and we can very easily get our stuff set up and write communications for them."

During this weekend's field day, local ham operators will participate in a national emergency preparedness drill with other amateur radio operators from across the country. Operators, using nothing more than emergency power supplies, will set up power stations in parks shopping malls, schools and backyards nationwide as part of the drill. More than 35,000 hams participated in last year's event. 

A test session also will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday for anyone interested in obtaining their license or upgrading to a higher license. Three different FCC licenses are available for varying skill levels. 

For more information, visit nc4ar.webs.com


Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or duke@tvilletimes.com.