‘Hams’ are handy in emergencies

Amateur radio enthusiasts learn about radio communications technology and also can be helpful during emergencies or natural disasters.
Joe DeAngelo, local ham radio expert, teaches at an introductory workshop on packet radio, which started erecently for people who are new to the technology. DeAngelo is on the board of directors of the Berryessa Amateur Radio Klub, and the local branch of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, whose trained volunteers throughout the United States and Canada dedicate their time to helping with emergency communications. Photo by Wayne Tilcock/McNaughton Newspapers

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By ANDREW WARNER/McNaughton Newspapers

Winters resident Joe DeAngelo became curious about radio communications as a child, after hearing people speak in various foreign languages on his grandparents’ console radio system.

“I would listen to the shortwave radio and hear stations coming in that were speaking in different languages and I was curious about where these transmissions were coming from and why I was able to hear them so far away,” he said.

He made his first forays into amateur radio — also known as ham radio — when he was 14 years old after reading about it in various electronics magazines. Today, DeAngelo is part of a large network of amateur radio enthusiasts in Yolo County who use ham radio for emergency services and as a means to experiment with radio and electronics technology.

Amateur radio was born during the early 1900s, when people were first commercializing radio as a means to communicate across long distances, DeAngelo explained. Although some early amateur radio enthusiasts were scientific professionals, many were simply curious to learn about how radio works.

“Amateur radio was really just people from all walks of life who were interested in the science of it,” he said.

Jay Ballinger, the club coordinator for UC Davis Amateur Radio Communications, said that when amateur radio was first defined by the government, part of the charter was to make different radio frequency bands available to amateurs so they could help to develop this burgeoning technology, and to provide communi-cations where none existed, at a time when telegraph wires were the main long-distance communication medium.

Emergency services during natural disasters remains one of the major uses of ham radio. During Hurricane Katrina, DeAngelo said many amateur radio operators — or “hams” — were stationed in shelters where they served as the main means of communication because commercial services, such as phones, were not working. Recently during the Napa/Sonoma fires, radio amateurs manned shelters and coordinated communications for both shelter workers and victims.

DeAngelo himself is involved in Yolo Amateur Radio Emergency Service, a local branch of ARES, an organization of trained volunteers throughout the United States and Canada who dedicate much of their time to helping with emergency communications.

Doug Hollowell, the emergency coordinator at Yolo ARES, said he and the organization work with local emergency agencies such as fire departments and hospitals as backup communicators during emergencies.

Hollowell added that ARES volunteers are also encouraged to help out during emergencies in other ways, such as with basic cleanup around the locations to which they’re assigned.

“When you’re looking at hospitals, skilled nursing facilities … you’re talking about some pretty fragile human beings,” he said. “We need to really be aware of that and give a little extra for them.”

DeAngelo said ham radio is also a particularly appealing hobby for people who are interested in the science behind how radio technologies can improve.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well radio is so old, there’s nothing to do,’ but that’s so far from the truth,” he said. “The reality of it is, radio continues to evolve. We have things like Bluetooth and cellular phones that 40 years ago did not exist for the general public, but now they’re commonplace. Another example, is software defined radio, a good example of how radio technology continues to evolve in the 21st century”

Ballinger also said that while emergency preparedness services are a major part of ham radio culture, not all hams volunteer in disaster and crisis situations. Many ham radio operators use their radio setups to establish casual connections with people all over the world.

Many hams compete for awards, like most-countries-contacted, and others prefer to have casual conversations with friends near and far, disconnected from inter-net and telephone networks; connected only by radio waves through the atmosphere and beyond. Some even bounce signals off the moon, and communicate with the international space station.

Others get involved because of the appealing challenge that comes along with learning about electronics and technology, required to become a licensed amateur radio operator, he said.

Hollowell said that for him, ham radio was more of a side hobby until he moved to Dixon, where he met other hams through his church and became more involved with the amateur radio communications community in Yolo County.

While some modes of communication such as radio-telegraph are considered outdated , ham radio continues to live on, not only  because of its usefulness during emergencies, but also due to the interest in preserving the history of commu-nications, DeAngelo said. “There are many avid morse code operators will tell you that it is the most reliable form of radio communications, and that’s why they do it. I would have to agree that it has a functional place.”

“(Ham radio has) persisted mainly because… there’s a major group of people who are interested in the base technology,” DeAngelo said. “But even more than that, in today’s time people get into it because they realize that in times of disaster… people need help… when normal avenues of communication are not available to them.”

Fore more information about local amateur/ham radio activities, visit the Berryessa Amateur Radio Klub (BARK) website,  www.barkradio.org.

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