Thousands of Nashvillians have been affected by the outage of cellular and internet services following the Christmas Day bombing in the city center – but this was exactly the type of situation ham radio operators were facing. prepare. They pride themselves on not needing the Internet or cellular service to relay email messages.
The Radio Act of 1912 required amateur radio operators, sometimes referred to as “hams”, to obtain a license, and in 1914 the National Amateur Radio Relay League was founded. The Nashville Amateur Radio Club has been around for 85 years, making it one of the oldest clubs in the country. The 70 members of the group are now looking for ways to be useful in a world where technology has evolved beyond the original usefulness of amateur radio.
“When the news of the bombing started to come out, there were a lot of radio amateurs online, there to help with the radio people who were worried about their loved ones when they could not reach them on the phone. Said Monvel Maskew, President of Nashville Amateur Radio Club.
The Federal Communications Commission allocates parts of 29 different bands – or frequency ranges – to amateur radio operators. Some work better for chatting locally. Some are capable of national, international or even off-planet communication. (The International Space Station has an amateur radio kit.) It is necessary to pass a test to obtain a license to send messages, but not to listen.
On Monday evenings, the region’s hams come together on a “net”, a gathering planned on a specific frequency. This serves as a practice when an emergency calls for an impromptu net. Most of the club’s members are also part of the local section of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Lee Alder, Davidson County ARES chairman, was inspired to join after the historic 2010 Nashville flood that affected internet connections and cell service.
“Basically, we’re radios waiting for a place in case Metro needs us,” Alder says. “We close that little communication gap when everything else stops. And the radio generally works.
When activated, the Nashville Emergency Management Office used to call on radio amateurs to help relay messages, although they haven’t in recent years. Alder says that in the event of a bomb blast, radio amateurs could have plugged in phones and emails at a frequency that still works, albeit slower than we’re used to. But instead, for now, the hams are trying to help by passing information on to friends and neighbors.
“I think the Christmas Day bombing would have been a perfect event that we could have helped if we had had that understanding,” Alder said. “But unfortunately we didn’t.”
The need for amateur radio has of course diminished. Services like WhatsApp can connect us to people around the world. Improvements to weather radar and the online weather messaging system have removed the need for ham storm trackers to be in the same room as weather forecasters, and the prevalence of reliable cellphones keeps us connected, the most of the time. Despite this, the practice continued among amateurs and the barriers to entry were lowered. When Maskew first became interested in his teenage years, radio supplies were well beyond his budget – $ 200 to $ 300 in 1970s dollars, the equivalent of about $ 1,500 today. Today, he says, you can get started for less than $ 100. Previously, testing only took place in person, but now Maskew spends around 30 hours a week monitoring license testing on Zoom. Until 1991, aspiring hams had to learn Morse code, and although this is still a common part of the hobby, it is no longer necessary.
Roger Womack learned to operate a radio with the help of the Courage Kenny Handiham Program, an organization in Minnesota that adapts radio equipment for people with disabilities.
“There has been an upsurge over the past year of new members and people entering the hobby,” says Womack, who is visually impaired. “Because people are sitting at home and new people are getting their licenses where they can talk to people and communicate. I can immediately think of maybe 15 or 20 new ones [on local nets] I heard last year, probably more than that just by listening.
While the hobby tends to skew the age of baby boomers and men, club member Cindy Leech would like to see this change.
“The club has a great community made up mostly of guys who will help you out when needed,” she says. “They are very welcoming. I just wish there were more women, because it’s a different thing for women. Guys tell me, and most other radio operators say, you can tell the difference on radio. A woman’s voice carries better.
Leech took up the hobby to get closer to his father, who lives in New Mexico. He helped relay messages to the families of soldiers overseas. Loud beeps from her machine echoed throughout the house when Leech was a child, and now the practice is something she has made her own by volunteering with the club. Amateur radio operators often volunteer for activities such as charity horse races, races and bike rides, especially in rural areas lacking adequate cell service. Leech says that on one occasion it meant alerting cyclists to a llama on the way, although other times she had to call a doctor.
“What was interesting for me and very rewarding was the community aspect, where they are always ready to volunteer and help these organizations make their event a success,” says Leech.
Still other radio amateurs have “contests”, in which they try to establish the most connections with other operators in a given period of time, or they will try to reach all 50 states, or 100 countries.
At the national level, ARES maintains a partnership with the National Weather Service. Red Cross stations, including the one in Nashville, also maintain radio rooms in the event of a disaster.
“All they have to do is call and say ‘Hey, come on and operate the radio,’” Alder said. “Usually you don’t have to talk twice about a ham. “
The space given to amateur radio operators by the FCC has shrunk over the years, with most frequencies purchased by commercial radio stations and used by cell phones. Because radio amateurs can use the radio waves for free, they don’t have much influence when a larger entity wants to pay for them. It is therefore “use it or lose it”. Part of the reason hobbyists are so keen to involve more people is to fill these frequencies, but it’s hard to say how long these frequencies and this practice will survive.
In the meantime, the hams are there for the safeguard.
“I hope this doesn’t go away for phones,” Leech says. “Because sometimes the phones, in an emergency, don’t work. They are going to lock themselves up. So that’s something I don’t think people realize. It’s really important that we have people on amateur radio so that we have wide coverage in case this happens. “