As Hurricane Florence hits the Carolinas and Virginia this weekend, the Hurricane Watch Net (HWN) in all affected states is tracking the storm, relaying information, communicating with rescue and repair crews, police and other first responders.
HWN, established just days ago, is operated by volunteer radio amateurs under the auspices of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL). Some are using the same equipment that was used in Puerto Rico just a year ago.
There is also an amateur radio network operating out of the National Hurricane Center, one with the Salvation Army, and even an amateur radio on the International Space Station, piloted by European astronaut Alexander Gerst – call sign KF5ONO – which been watching hurricane florence for days. .
“Amateur radios are often used in disaster situations,” said Ron Adcock, president of the Villages Amateur Radio Club and resident of the Village of Gilchrist.
Ham operators are local and in place, usually have their own generators, and the wide amateur radio bandwidth allows communication when cell phones from other systems are jammed. During Hurricane Irma last year, as in past emergencies, club members were on the job providing communications services.
Tom Grosvenor, club vice president and resident of the Village of Country Club Hills, recalled a time before cellphones when his car’s ham radio contributed to a traffic jam on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
“I had a low band radio which is good for long distances,” he said. “I made a call. “Remember Victor One United called an SOS. Major accident on Mass Turnpike. Tell someone, please. Another ham from Texas heard me. I told him where I was and he called the state police. About 15 minutes later, police and ambulances arrived.
Amateur radio operators have not always been so highly regarded. The word “ham” comes from the pejorative term for early hobbyists – “ham-fisted” – referring to their lack of Morse code prowess. Amateur operators eventually turned derision into admiration because of their volunteer work in disasters and wars. Now they proudly call themselves “hams”.
Amateur radio dates back to the days of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who in 1901 successfully sent the first radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean. His later works and patents established the era of wireless communication. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was founded in 1914 as a non-commercial organization of radio amateurs and today counts among its members the majority of radio amateurs throughout the country.
The Villages Amateur Radio Club began in 1996 and today has over 220 members aged 12 to 87. His call sign is K4VRC.
“It is estimated that there are at least 400 ham operators in the villages and surrounding areas,” Adcock said.
He’s quite proud of the new Sumter County Emergency Communications Center.
“There is a room with ham equipment that will be occupied during emergencies so communication can be maintained,” Adcock said. “Every year we have a training day or a field day. Part of it is public demonstrations and emergency training. The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office allows us to use their mobile command post – a tractor-trailer where we can set up our equipment. »
“A lot of the technology has changed since I said in the early 1970s,” Grosvenor said. “There were five levels of operator, starting with novices who could only communicate in Morse code. Back then sets used tubes, then transistors and now there are setups that work with touch screen computers – ‘software defined radios’ that can be pre-programmed and don’t use dials and that kind of stuff. »
“But, there are still a few people who like to use the old tube equipment,” Adcock said with a chuckle. “Many radio amateurs enjoy the technical aspects of amateur radio.”
One of the most notable changes was the elimination of the Morse code requirement for novices, although some hams still use it to maintain skill. Grosvenor has a phone app that translates letters and numbers into audible Morse code.
In addition to technique, ham operators enjoy competitions. One is to contact as many other operators as possible within a given time frame. Others include reaching out to as many countries, states, or counties as possible in a limited time.
Nets, like the Monday night Rag Chew Net, bring hams together to chat and exchange ideas.
“The only topics that cannot be discussed are religion, politics and sex,” Adcock said.
Equipment and technology are always hot topics. Part of the club’s business revolves around selling used equipment from members who have improved or died. And the antenna is one of the biggest equipment problems for radio amateurs in The Villages.
Adcock said that since ham operators in villages live in a landlord environment, they can’t just put big towers in their backyards. Instead, he said, they need to come up with creative solutions. And he added that the club even has a program on “stealth antennas” to meet this need.
As for radio amateurs, their backgrounds are very diverse. For example, Adcock was a philosophy student.
“I always wanted to teach philosophy, but there wasn’t a big market for it,” he says sadly.
Adcock was called to the ministry, received his master’s degree in theology, and with his wife Dorothy moved to Boise, Idaho as an associate pastor.
“They soon decided they couldn’t afford to pay me, so the bishop wanted me to move to a small church in the desert,” he said. “I grew up in the city. I couldn’t do that.
So Adcock entered social services for the state of Idaho, and later New Hampshire, as an ombudsman.
“Evenings and weekends I worked with small churches that couldn’t afford a pastor,” he says. “I really appreciated that because I didn’t depend on them for my living.”
Grosvenor spent much of his life as an electronics technician, first at Sony, then opening his own audio repair shop in Wakeville, Mass.
“Then the big-box stores that brought their work to me opened their own repair shops,” he said. “So I said, ‘Well, OK’ and got into marine electronics with a friend in Gloucester.”
In 1997, his dream job opened up, leading the audio-visual services group for 168 schools in Boston. He retired in 2004, but it took him a while to get to the Villages.
“A friend of mine, also a ham, comes here for a few months every year,” Grosvenor said. “He invited me to visit in 2015. I fell in love with the place, moved here in 2017 and was greeted by Hurricane Irma.”
For more information about the Villages Amateur Radio Club, visit www.K4VRC.com.
John W Prince is a writer and Villages resident. For more information, visit www.GoMyStory.com.