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June 23, 2013

Hamming it up

Amateur radio enthusiasts hold annual Field Day event

TUNNEL HILL — Outside the Smith Chapel United Methodist Church on Saturday, two antennas pointed toward the sky in concert with the building’s steeple while a generator hummed just outside a door.

Inside the building, a dozen or so amateur radio operators put their skills to work making contact with other operators near and far. The annual Field Day event, hosted by the Dalton Amateur Radio Club was designed as a fun event for operators and to allow others to learn more about amateur radio. To many operators, using what are sometimes called ham radios is both a fun hobby and a useful skill to have.

David Freiberg of Rocky Face said he’s held his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license since about two years ago after studying rules, regulations and how-to tips for about a month. He is now among many across the nation who use their license and skills to report ground conditions to the National Weather Service during storms and other events.

Freiberg said the NWS prefers the radio method because cellphones and email capabilities can quickly become overwhelmed during bad weather. Amateur radio operators also help out during emergencies. Using homemade or store-bought antennas of varying sizes, operators can communicate from virtually anywhere and are even able to use a frequency to send email without an Internet connection.

John Heard, a public information officer for the Amateur Radio Relay League, said amateur radio operators volunteer in all sorts of situations. During emergencies, they often coordinate with local rescue workers or law enforcement officers to help them in areas where other kinds of communication, such as cellphone service, aren’t available.

At the Boston Marathon this past April, for example, more than 100 operators were assigned to shadow certain race workers and assist as needed during the race. When two bombs went off near the race finish line and cellphone service became unreliable, they shifted into emergency mode, helping responders.

“So they depended on amateur radio folks to transfer information,” Heard said.

The operators, he said, are already trained in how to interact with rescue workers during emergencies. Freiberg said he used his radio once to help an injured hiker in an area where there was no cellphone service.

Heard said the local radio club occasionally offers classes so that people can learn how to use the radios and get their entry level FCC license in the same day.

“Used to, people were scared of it because they had to learn Morse code,” Heard explained. “You no longer have to learn Morse code.”

Volunteer examiner Bert Coker, a retired educator, gives the test locally and for surrounding counties. The cost is a $10 processing fee. The licenses are valid for 10 years.

Coker said when he obtained his license for the first time more than 40 years ago, he had to go to Atlanta where examiners offered the test once a week. He became interested in getting his license after he started learning Morse code through his involvement in Boy Scouts. His radio license later came in handy when he and his wife had to be separated for several weeks while he was working toward his master’s degree in Carrollton, he said. They were able to talk to each other every night using the radios.

Today, while operators don’t necessarily have to know Morse code, some, like Freiberg are learning it anyhow. The technology continues to advance, too. For example, from a special digital radio, an operator can talk all over Georgia.

Jeff Ownby, deputy director for the Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency, set up the agency’s mobile command station — a converted recreational vehicle — at the church building and stayed for a meet and greet with operators. He said his department learned several years ago the importance of amateur radio when several operators assisted with a search and rescue operation in a rural area.

“They would communicate back to us (from various areas during the search),” Ownby said. “We kind of saw then this is something we need to really embrace and start working with these guys.”

Local radio club president Jerome Holcomb said all the amateurs are volunteers. The club’s expenses are covered with proceeds from a ham radio festival held each year in late February or early March.

For more information on the local club, visit Daltonhamfest.com, call (706) 259-8980 or email John Heard at n4jjk@arrl.net.

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