Ham radio operators have fun, help keep communities safe
You still have options.
No electricity and no phone line?
Well, there’s still ham radio.
Much of the ham radio’s appeal is its independence, said Dennis Rybicke, a member of the JefCARES, an Amateur Radio Emergency Service in Jefferson County.
Ham radios aren’t dependent on commercial electrical power or telephone services. They can be operated on batteries and generators.
Whether ham operators prefer communicating in Morse code on old brass telegraph keys, talking on hand-held radios or sending computerized messages via satellite, they all share an interest in global happenings and reaching out to help others in times of need, Rybicke said.
Rybicke is one of many dedicated hobbyists still clinging to the time-honored and respected tradition of being an amateur ham radio operator in an age when a myriad of technological advances offer communication access to a global community.
Within that world of radio frequencies, ham operators are filling a variety of roles, including providing backup during emergencies, weather monitoring services and enhancing international goodwill.
Although the main purpose of amateur radio is fun, it is called the Amateur Radio Service because it also has a serious face, Rybicke said.
“Countless lives have been saved where skilled hobbyists act as emergency communicators to render aid, whether it’s during an earthquake in Italy or a hurricane in the United States,” Rybicke said.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast, a Brodhead woman asked for help from the local ham operators in contacting a relative who lived in one of the states hardest hit by the 2005 storm.
As a section traffic manager in Wisconsin, Rybicke relayed the woman’s message to the National Red Cross working in that area.
“We pride ourselves on getting the message exactly right,” Rybicke said.
Every word in the body of a message is counted before and after it’s sent, he said.
In Wisconsin, it’s ham radio operators that report weather conditions statewide. Every day from 4 to 7:15 a.m., ham radio operators are busy collecting weather data for the national weather service, Rybicke said.
About two years ago, one of the local ham operators spotted a tornado out of town on Highway 106 and immediately informed the Sullivan weather station, Rybicke said.
That tornado hadn’t shown up on the weather services’ radar screen, Rybicke said.
“It’s a neat feeling to provide this service,” Rybicke said.
Since Rybicke first received his ham radio operator’s license in 1958, the 64-year-old retired New Holstein High School teacher has taken many advanced classes to become a skilled operator.
He also has seen many technological changes in ham radios.
“When I started, the radios were huge,” Rybicke said. “Now, they’re 100-watt transmitters in a little box.”
Operators also now have access to pocket-sized hand-held radios, he said.
Rybicke’s home-based radio antennas are unobtrusive, buried in his backyard and strung among tree limbs outside his home.
Communicating on the ham radio also can be considered a trip down memory lane.
“It’s a big party line,” Rybicke said. “You can call one person and everyone can listen to the conversation on their radios. You might have 25 or more people talking together. It would take one heck of a party line on a cell phone to do that.”
HAM RADIO Q&A
Q: Who are the people operating ham radios?
A: They are from all walks of life and three or more generations. They are volunteers involved as emergency responders, weather monitors and global neighbors.
They even can communicate with astronauts on space missions by radio frequencies called amateur bands.
The bands are reserved by the Federal Communications Commission for use by hams at intervals from just above the AM broadcast band all the way up into extremely high microwave frequencies.
Q: Why do ham operators need to be licensed?
A: The FCC created the service to fill a need for a pool of experts who could provide backup during emergencies and acknowledges the ability of the hobby to advance the communication and technical skills of radio and enhance international goodwill.
Q: What are the amateur radio bands?
A: Look at the dial on an old AM radio and you’ll see frequencies marked from 535 to 1605 kilohertz. That is one radio band. Other bands exist for amateur, government, military and commercial radio uses. Amateurs are allocated 26 bands spaced from 1.8 megahertz, which is just above the broadcast radio frequencies, up to 275 gigahertz. Ham operators can talk across town, around the world, to space satellites and even bounce signals off the moon.
Q: What are the costs of becoming a ham operator?
A: Basic study materials for passing the FCC test to get an initial license cost less than $40. Classes also are offered by many local groups for people who want more interaction. A ham radio can be bought for less than $200. Used radios also are available for sale at flea markets across the country.
Q: Where can you find additional information?
A: The best ways to learn about amateur radio is to talk to hams face-to-face. Hams take pride in their ability to “Elmer” (teach) newcomers the ropes to get them started in the hobby.