Amateur radio operators keep communication lines open during disaster

Updated: Jul. 26, 2018 at 9:48 PM CDT
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JEFFERSON PARISH, LA (WVUE) - These days, high tech communications device refers to the latest smart phone or tablets with its predecessors generally headed to the junk pile or recycling bin.

In a world where we have access to the the world, it's easy to forget that ease of communication is fairly recent.

"It's the magic of contacting someone without any wires in between," says Chuck Sanders, an amateur radio operator.

Before cell phones and Facebook, to make friends around the world, you had to go "HAM".

"There was no internet and telephones were still rotary dial," says Sanders.

I know you had something else in mind. But we're talking about high frequency amateur radio.

Chuck Sanders went HAM in 1957. He was 14 and inspired by his uncle. Also, his high school principal.

"He would sit there and have someone call in from Australia or New Zealand and I thought, wow this is something else and that's kind of how I got hooked."

But amateur radio isn't a dying relic of the past.

The Jefferson Amateur Radio Club is going strong.

"We've tested people as young as 7-years-old. It's not exclusive to any one level of intelligence or any one class of people," says Don Olson of the Jefferson Amateur Radio Club.

For 24 hours this past June, members staffed their club house at Pontiff Park trying to make contacts throughout North America.

"We have another station over here in the middle they are operating on a digital mode called FT8," says Chris Miltenberger, President of the Jefferson Amateur Radio Club. "It's a new mode. Only came out back in October."

It's like a text message between computers sent over the radio signal.

"It's not a hobby," says Miltenberger. "It's a collection of hobbies and all you have to be is curious."

While most do it for fun. It can also put its practitioners in position to be life savers in an emergency.

"You lose your cell provider or your internet provider, we could still have something in place to communicate with."

In disaster with limited electricity and networks dependent on it, the airwaves are at times the only way to go.

"You can have a set up in your car and as long as you have gas to power your battery you have connectivity."

Locally, many remember how difficult it was to get information during Hurricane Katrina. More recently, members of the National Amateur Radio Organization went to Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico to help.

"We have some digital modes that we are able to fill out forms that are used by emergency responders to get information like I need a certain kind of medication or we've got specific kind of situation here. We need help with this. You are able to go ahead and get that information to them that you really can't do it even with a cell phone. You would need a computer and email to do that. We can do it without and internet backbone."

Club member Don Olson believes two things make amateur radio more reliable even than those used by emergency responders and the military.

"One of which is the fact that our radios are open meaning that anybody can listen in. Anybody can talk to anybody," says Olson. "The other thing is even though they call us amateurs we are the type that when our radios go down or our antennas are broken or whatever. We pull out our screwdrivers and we fix them."

Every exercise is like practice in case those skills are needed in an emergency.

Some operators take it to the extreme taking expeditions to some of the most remote islands in the world just to send radio transmissions.

The ability to set up a communications network with batteries, generators and mobile antennas sets this group apart.

"We actually provide something that nobody else does. We're pretty proud of that. We feel like it's our duty to provide that service," says Miltenberger.

Some areas already have an emergency digital network in place.

"We could build a fully amateur radio based mesh network in this area," says Miltenberger. "California has some up around the San Francisco area that would act as a complete backbone for communications."

The club is one of 14 volunteer examiners recognized by the Federal Communications Commission. It provides all of the study materials and you can get licensed with just a one day class.

"You just have to have a license," says Sanders. "That's the price for entry to get licensed by the FCC."

Compared to hefty mobile and internet bills, less than $20 and a little time and effort sound like a good deal.

The club is offering it's one day class Saturday, July 28.

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