• Weekend event explains how older technology works when other systems fail
By Naomi Klouda
When Hurricane Katrina struck, phone lines went down, cell towers toppled and Internet connections were nonexistent.
But the ham operators kept going.
This band of men who make earnest practice keeping their citizen’s band radio tuned, were able to communicate with the outside world.
Telephones, cell phones, Internet, trunk lines, satellite phones – they all have to go through many “vulnerable choke points” and need electric power to operate, said Richard Strand, a radio astronomer operating KL7RA out of Nikiski. “Ham operators are the only ones who can get through when those other communication systems are down,” he explained.
One of the oldest communication systems still in operation is therefore its most reliable. Yet, that detail in a Web-dependent world doesn’t often get a chance to be known, the operators say.
Over the weekend, about a dozen ham radio operators set up a KL1YY Special Event Station at the Alaska Maritime headquarters in the parking lot of the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center. The plan was to accept contact with as many other operators around the country and the globe as they could reach.
The men took turns manning a radio set up by the Moose Horn Amateur Radio Club’s special communications trailer for two days and nights. In the end, they had heard from about 1,000 operators. Most of those came from the continental United States, with signals also received from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Cuba and Canada. Some 14 other refuges were on the air at the same time.
When an emergency comes along, ham radio operators are the people to count on. The refuge counts on radio operations when they are out of communications range in remote corners of Alaska. The National Weather Service depends on ham ground weather reports that are missed by Doppler radar. During the 911 terrorist attacks, ham operators communicated from emergency operations centers while other systems failed.
In fact, for their efforts during Hurricane Katrina, the hams received commendations from President Bush and Congress, and posed an embarrassment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that hadn’t anticipated such wide-spread failure on the part of modern technology, Strand pointed out.
After the equipment was all set up at the refuge on Friday, operators visited with the public from their communications trailer. They were eager to answer questions about how ham radio works and how it can be used.
“This is a technology that will not become obsolete, but the hobby is aging,” Strand said. “We’re happy to pass this information along because, once we’re gone, who’s there going to be to operate it?”
The youngest operator on board Friday was Kris Kerce, AL2F, from Anchor Point, at 32 years old. Most of the other men were of retirement age. At introduction, the ham operator tells his name, then his call letters. The “handle” is as important to the men as their personal names, because it is a descriptive code that tells other operators where they are located down to their exact position on the planet and it provides license information that can then be accessed.
Ed Back, VE6NH, from Soldotna, tells of growing up in Saskatchewan more than half a century ago. He learned to build his own radio as a teen and grew up operating it for a hobby and for serious use. If pressed, he figures he could build one today from scratch.
Most of the men there agreed that, if times warranted it, they could cobble together a radio – they are generally experts in technology, science, communications and even astronomy. By selecting the right frequencies, ham operators can talk across town or across the world.
The events organizers, Homer’s Sharon and Marvin Baur, along with Larry Plessinger of Nikiski, said they wanted to put on this event to bring publicity both to the refuge and to ham operations. Friends of the Refuge wrote a grant to help make the weekend-long event possible. “We thought this would be important for the refuge, and it’s good publicity for the ham operator volunteers,” Baur said.
Plessinger gathered up volunteers from throughout southcentral and the Kenai Peninsula.
“We had a lot of visitors during the weekend,” Plessinger said. “People in to look at the station who showed an interest in maybe pursuing a license.”
Dale Hershberger of Soldotna, KL7XJ, said they are willing to teach young people in any group or individually in order to help ensure that next generations will be able to use radios.
“We really feel this needs to be passed along,” Hershberger said. For starters, learning how the system works and what it takes to operate can be learned by any age group.
To join the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, volunteers need a ham radio license and attend practice regularly in order to keep their skills. ARES members constantly learn more about emergency operations by volunteering at non-emergency events like parades, marathons and drills. If you want to know more, contact George VanLone, president of the Moose Horn group, at KL7AN@alaska.net or Kris Kerce at Anchor Point, AL2F.
Comments are closed