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Ham radio more than hobby

Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2008

After a natural disaster or other emergency, amateur or "ham" radio operators are often the only line of communication.

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Ham radio doesn't depend on the infrastructure of cell phones, telephones or the Internet. That infrastructure can be disabled during storms or other emergencies.

"The motto is, 'When all else fails, ham radio works,'" said Pete LaPierre, the vice president of Columbia County Amateur Radio Club.

Club members will be showcasing their capabilities Saturday at their annual Field Day. Field Day is the end of national Amateur Radio Week, sponsored by the National Association for Amateur Radio.

The free demonstration will run for about 24 hours beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday at Pointes West Recreation Area, Cabin 4.

J.C. Crawford, the club president, said there will be a voice and a Morse code station set up for demonstrations at the cabin and a station using satellite links.

He said the demonstration is a great way for newcomers to learn more about ham radio.

"We're going to have a station outside, GOTA Get on the Air," he said. "That is going to be for people who have never talked on ham radio and they just want to try it."

The club also will be administering tests for the different levels of amateur radio licenses, which are required by the Federal Communications Commission.

LaPierre said he got his license at age 13, shortly after receiving his first ham radio in 1959 from his father. He and his friend quickly found if they had a bigger antenna, they could broadcast their signal even farther. They used a neighbor's chain-link fence as an antenna.

"Lo and behold, we picked up Radio Moscow," LaPierre said. "We're talking 1957. Honestly, we thought we were going to go to jail because we were listening to them."

Through a mentor, LaPierre said, he learned about morse code and electronics which led him to a career in the field and running submarine nuclear reactors for the Navy, from which he retired after 25 years.

Ham radio operators need only power to speak to other operators locally, though antennas, amplifiers and repeaters help spread their signal on frequencies worldwide.

LaPierre is one of 650,000 ham radio operators nationwide and 2.5 million around the world.

Many of those users volunteer their services during emergencies, such as hurricanes or tornadoes when other types of communication are disabled or are clogged from overuse.

Crawford said his group mainly monitors weather for the National Weather Service, and LePierre is part of a hurricane information network.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the only communications for emergency responders was through the city's only standing repeater owned by a New Orleans ham radio operator.

"Most of us have either backup power or a generator, so even if we lose power, if our antennas haven't been blown over, we can operate," Crawford said.

For information, visit hamradioman.com.



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