Ham Stories‎ > ‎

Amateur Radio Operators Not Just Hamming It Up

By Joseph M. deLeon
News-Post Staff
Staff photo by Sam Yu

Jeff Fishman, left, vice president of Frederick Amateur Radio Club, and Eric Gammeter, president, display a transceiver for short-range communications, top, and a high-frequency shortwave transceiver for long-range communications.
FREDERICK, MD — Jeff Fishman was in junior high school in the 1960s when he built his first radio.

He was inspired by the radio club at Gaithersburg Junior High School, where he became fascinated by the electronic technology and the idea of hearing radio programs from far away places.

But Mr. Fishman never got past the system of dots and dashes that was required at the time for an amateur radio, or ham, license. New interests diverted his attention in high school, but he always wanted to help people.

After graduating, he became a licensed pilot at age 18 and joined the Civil Air Patrol, participating in rescue operations. That's when he recognized the similarities between the way pilots and radio operators communicate.

"I finally became a ham about six years ago," Mr. Fishman said. "And there is a lot of interoperability between search and rescue communications and amateur radio."

These days, knowledge of Morse code is obsolete, and computers can be used to send text and voice messages through radio waves, he said. But one thing is as true today as it was in the late 19th century — radio is vital for emergency communication.

Cross-training between emergency response teams and amateur radio operators to perform each other's jobs is a new priority in Frederick County.

"It's a vital link to be able to communicate and get the word out to organizations like the Red Cross," Mr. Fishman said. "And that's the true calling of amateur radio, to participate in emergency services and to serve the community."

Radio to the rescue

One example of the way amateur radio operators assist during emergencies is helping with communications at Frederick Memorial Hospital if telephones or the Internet are down, said John Veltri, director of safety and security at FMH.

The radio operators man the hospital's two on-site radio systems, which help keep hospital staff in contact with county officials during an emergency. Computer programs and hardware let staff send voice and text messages from phones or computers through radio to the outside world.

"The radio equipment links us in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do," Mr. Veltri said.

Jack Markey, director of the Frederick County Office of Emergency Management, said amateur radio operators have participated in every major emergency in the county, such as the President's Day snowstorm of 2003.

The storm deposited more than 20 inches of snow from Feb. 13 to 18, shutting down most businesses and city offices. Radio operators were able to send messages to each other, even when telephone lines broke under the weight of snow and ice.

Even during less pressing natural events, amateur radio operators serve as weather spotters and help guide city and county response teams, Mr. Markey said.

"They help us with eyes out in the community," he said. "They're always communicating amongst the radio community, and when there is something significant, they push it out to us."

Mr. Markey said there is a place for everyone who wants to contribute to emergency response, particularly in communication.

"It's something that really anyone beyond childhood can participate in," Mr. Markey said. "You don't have to be a front-line firefighter going into a burning building to help emergency response."

Getting everyone involved

Mr. Markey said every resident is his or her own first responder to an emergency because people tend to want to take care of their family and neighbors.

That's why he encourages people to join the Community Emergency Response Team in Frederick County.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department started the CERT concept in 1985 to help prepare for earthquake disasters. The first CERT class in Frederick County started two weeks ago, with about 15 volunteers expected to finish a 20-hour training program today.

The training includes first aid, life support, light search and rescue, communication and emergency response techniques for fire, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

"It provides training to individuals to help their neighbors during times of emergency," Mr. Markey said. "Not how to be an independent team of rescuers, but how to be safe and do what they can within their level of training to assist others."

Jack Lynch, emergency volunteer coordinator for Volunteer Frederick, said many radio operators are getting cross-trained in CERT techniques. Amateur radio operators' ability to transmit messages from remote locations make them ideal candidates for emergency response training, he said.

"Ham radio is certainly a vital piece of emergency response," he said "We know from other events that cell phones and even fire and rescue communications are not reliable during natural disasters like Katrina and 9-11."