In times of emergency, when communications lines are down and power is out, when a natural disaster disrupts telephone and cell phone systems, amateur radio operators, or hams, take to the airwaves to provide vital communication.
The true origin of the term "ham" seems to have been lost, but there are several theories. It might simply be a shortcut way of saying the first syllable of amateur radio, or it may have originally been used as an insult.
Hams use their basic knowledge of radio technology, regulations and operating principles to serve the public in times of emergency and simply to communicate with people across the globe and beyond.
"You can talk to the people in the international space station. A friend of mine, on his way to work, was able to do that with a radio in his car," Tyler Harpster of Shrewsbury said.
Harpster is a ham and a member of the Southern Pennsylvania Communications Group.
Being a ham offers "a chance to help your community," he said.
They might travel to areas affected by a disaster to provide communications, or they might serve closer to home.
"We have a lot of guys in the club, myself included, who volunteer to go to emergency operations centers in and around York County for TMI and Peach Bottom nuclear power plant drills," Harpster said. "Our radios provide backup communications, but in at least a few instances, the main radio system has had an issue and amateur radio then becomes the primary communications system."
The recent earthquake was an illustration of how much we depend on cell phones to communicate, and how short-wave operators can step in when cell phones are overwhelmed.
"Cell phones and the Internet all depend on a massive infrastructure to operate. Pushing the send button on the email or making a call on your cell phone causes hundreds of computers to start processing tasks in order for your communications to make it to the intended recipient. Amateur radio is communicating from your radio directly to the other person's radio," Harpser said. "It's really neat to hear someone replying to you from the other side of the globe."
SPCG members often work with local Scouts to teach them about ham radio and to help them meet requirements to earn badges. It also serves as a way to interest young people in the hobby.
"Hams also know something about the original texting method. Kids today might think they have invented shortened words for texting, but Morse code has been around for a very long time and was the original texting method, complete with shortened phrases and words referred to as Q codes, which are blocks of three letters, starting with the letter Q," he said.
Shrewsbury Borough provides space in the municipal building where SPCG members can set up and operate in an emergency. A generator provides electricity in the event of a power failure and antennas to be installed on its water tower provide a wide range of coverage.
Gary LaBarre, former president of the SPCG, recalled that the system was ready for the turn of the century, Y2K.
"At time we were under the gun, because we really wanted to be ready for Y2K. We put the new system online in December of 1999, just in time. I remember sitting up on New Year's Eve that year, just waiting to see what was going to happen. Thankfully, nothing really did," he said.
The center was also operational on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Since no one knew when it was going to be over, and no one knew if the phone system was going to hold up when everyone started calling home and started calling family and friends to talk about it, we opened the EOC early that afternoon," LeBarre said.
He said the center went into action two weeks later, on Sept. 24, when a bad storm and a series of tornadoes went through the area and again on Jan. 5, 2003, when the area experienced a widespread telephone outage.
"The primary purpose for the radios at the EIC is to provide communications when everything else is broken. They allow us to manage a situation locally. In an emergency we can send people out to the location, or anywhere we need communications," he said at that time.
The center is open when a snowstorm hits and people might be stranded in their homes or on Interstate 83, and more recently hams were on duty when Hurricane Irene was headed our way.
FOR DETAILS on the SPCG, call Tyler Harpster evenings at 235-8953.
What is ARRL?
THE AMERICAN RADIO RELAY LEAGUE is a national organization for amateur radio with more than 156,000 members. There are more than 650,000 licensed amateurs in the United States and more than 2.5 million worldwide.
A LICENSE IS REQUIRED. Study guides are available, and hams volunteer to administer the test, Harpster said.
Information is available from the American Radio Relay League online at www.arrl.org, Harpster said.
"The ARRL prints a book that tells all about ham radio and how to get your license, including the study guide. Our club donated that book and a few other ham radio books to the library here in Shrewsbury," he said. "Knowing Morse code is no longer a requirement for getting a license. That used to be a big hurdle to a lot of people. Getting an entry level license now involves taking a 35-question multiple choice exam."
The AARL book is available online at www.arrl.org/shop/Ham-Radio-License-Manual-Revised-2nd-Edition and through Amazon, he said.
Hams often hold events that give people a chance to learn more about amateur radio. Members of SPCG participate in the annual Field Day, an emergency preparedness exercise held at Codorus State Park. For 24 hours, hams set up and use emergency power to contact as many other amateur stations as possible. They usually make contacts throughout most of the United States and Canada.
The public is invited to learn first-hand how amateur radio works, and maybe even make a few contacts with the help of a ham.
A TYPICAL HAM RADIO is a transmitter and a receiver, usually purchased as one unit called a transceiver.
You might opt for a handheld transceiver with its own antenna or operate from your car using a magnetic mount antenna and a transceiver mounted under the dash.
A ham radio might fit in your pocket, on your desk or take up half your attic or garage.
"There are also a lot of guys who make their own radios. They're usually not as elaborate as a commercially purchased radio, but they still are able to make contacts. It's very rewarding to talk to someone on the west coast, or even on the other side of the world, with a radio that you put together yourself," Harpster said.
Depending on the size of your radio, power can range from a few milliwatts to as much as 1,500 watts.
One of the more challenging aspects of radio is working in low-power mode, defined as being less than 5 watts of transmit power. That may not seem like very much, but under the right conditions, and usually a good antenna, you can go around the world with that power level," he said.
DURING THE CURRENT SUNSPOT CYCLE, it is possible to talk around the world during daylight hours running just a few watts of power.
"The sun plays a key role in amateur radio. The activity on the sun increases and decreases in a regular cycle every eleven years. We are approaching the time of maximum activity on the sun in the next few years for this cycle," Harpster said. "When the sun is active, it increases the ability of the upper layers of the earth's ionosphere to reflect radio waves, allowing signals to bounce all around the world with ease."
Hams in space
"RUSSIAN COSMONAUTS recently stepped out the back door of the International Space Station and hand-launched an amateur radio satellite," Harpster said. "It is powerful enough to be heard with a VHF scanner and a regular antenna. Just tune in to 145.950 MHz. You might have to leave the radio on for quite some time, because the satellite is in low-earth orbit and only comes overhead a few times a day."
The satellite's batteries are only expected to last a few weeks, but there still might be time to tune in. Visit www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/expedition28/russian_eva29.html
On space-shuttle missions, crewmembers can use their handheld radios to contact hams for a few minutes. These have line-of-sight communication that limits conversations to the time the satellite is overhead.