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Ham Radio Operators Reach Out

By Tom Mitchell

Leader Times
Monday, April 10, 2006

When narcotics agent Larry Fuksa, of Ford City, isn't chasing bad guys, he's chasing rare DX on his amateur radio.

"DX" is a term for talking to fellow ham operators who live in foreign countries, be it England, Germany or Russia, or the far reaches of the Antarctic.

Fuksa, a narcotics agent for the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, said he releases the stress of his job by relaxing with his main hobby, ham radio. First licensed in 1989, Fuksa worked his way up to a Federal Communications Commission Amateur Extra class license. Since being licensed, Fuksa, whose radio call is KE3OG, has worked nearly 300 of the official 330 countries on the DX list.

"For radio purposes, a country may not actually be what we think of as a country," he said. "For example, Antarctica is not a country, that is, it has no citizens, no cities or capital, but it does have scientific research stations that are often manned by ham operators. Then there are some islands in various parts of the world that qualify for radio purposes as separate countries. One is Marquesas Island, part of the French Polynesian Island group. Marquesas was featured in a recent 'Survivor' television show. Then there's Myanmar in Asia and Peter Island near the Antarctic. I've contacted these and many others.

"Peter Island is difficult to get because no one lives there, but occasionally a 'DX-pedition,' that is an expedition by a group of radio amateurs, will land there and set up a station. Landing there is quite difficult because sometimes the waves and breakers will prevent a boat from reaching the shore, and the expedition must be canceled."

Fuksa, like several fellow radio amateurs in the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association, also has spoken with cosmonauts aboard the Russian MIR space station, and with operators in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also has operated phone patches for servicemen and -women to talk to their family members stateside on the telephone through amateur radio.

"I have QSL cards from nearly all the 300 DX stations I've contacted," he said. "To confirm a contact, you send a QSL card confirming your radio contact to a QSL bureau, and the operator you contacted does the same. The QSL bureau will send his card to you and your card to him or her. When you have confirmed at least 100 DX stations, you may apply for the DXCC (DX Century Club) award from the American Radio Relay League in Newington, Connecticut. It's a prestigious award."

While chasing DX may provide hours of relaxing fun, there is a more serious side to amateur radio for Fuksa and other Fort Armstrong members.

"When the terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, all normal communications were cut," he said. "I am the Assistant Emergency Communications Coordinator for Armstrong County. Our chief communications officer is Richard 'Mo' McKendree, whose call is WB3ING. We stood by to pass information from New York City to Washington through a station in Virginia. We were on the air for 24 hours straight. We handled health and welfare traffic and requests for Red Cross blood supplies, shelter requests and requests for rescue workers and rescue dogs. Amateur radio operators are known for providing emergency communications when other emergency service communications fail."

One of McKendree's most memorable experiences in emergency radio aid was the Tannersville flood of 1977.

"The Laurel Run Dam broke and flooded parts of Johnstown and Tannersville," McKendree said. "Normal police, fire and EMS radio communication was wiped out and as it happened, I was the sole communication between Tannersville and a control center in Ebensburg. It's not uncommon for storms to destroy emergency communications, and when that happens, amateur radio operators step in."

McKendree and other Fort Armstrong members handled health and welfare traffic for people concerned about their loved ones during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and Ivan in 2004. They also provided communications for horse-racing events such as the Race of Champions a number of years ago.

"As it turned out, a horse came past a checkpoint without a rider," McKendree said. "When we checked with the previous checkpoint, the rider was OK, so we began a search. About 600 yards down the trail, we found her and directed EMS personnel to her location. There are many deep hollows and you can't get out of there with CB radios or the like. You have to have VHF and UHF radios, and we use our local repeater to relay weak signal transmissions."

For club president Ed Wilbert, N3LFB, and his wife, Gladys, N3ZID, radio is a family affair. The Wilberts often are heard on the club's two-meter repeater, sometimes just chatting with local hams or sometimes relaying radio traffic.

"We're both certified 'SkyWarn' operators," Wilbert said. "During severe storms, we relay local ground conditions to the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, through their amateur station, WX3PIT. When a tornado ripped through here in 2003, we tracked it right up the valley for the weather service and provided details such as rate of travel, wind speed, rainfall and wind damage or flooding conditions. But when I'm not on some kind of service net, I just enjoy talking to amateurs in different parts of the U.S. or Canada. You may never meet them in person, but you make some nice friends and you learn a lot, too."

For Gail "Trooper" Anthony, N3DOL, of Leechburg, amateur radio also is a family affair. Anthony is joined in the hobby by his wife, Kathleen, N3ZZJ, and their 16-year-old son, Brad, KB3FKB. Anthony is the club's repeater trustee.

"Our repeater operates on an assigned frequency, 145.410 Mhz. It covers almost all of Armstrong County and parts of Butler, Indiana, Westmoreland and Clarion," he said. "It has an automated controller and can transmit various message groups, including one for storm warnings. We have an emergency generator that I can activate by using touch tones if needed. If the repeater should go down in a bad storm, we can use our cars, trucks or homes as repeater station by using UHF and VHF cross-band links. It sounds a bit complicated, but a little bit of study and some coaching by older hams and anyone who wants to obtain one of the three classes of amateur radio licenses can do so. It's easier now than ever and our club is ready to help anyone who is interested.

"It's a discipline that would be especially good for young people willing to apply themselves. It's a real adventure where you learn some math and electronics, how radio propagation works and radio procedure. It is not only a great hobby, but it opens up the whole world from your home."

The Fort Armstrong Wireless Association meets the fourth Wednesday of each month in the Commissioners board room on the second floor of the courthouse annex. New members and anyone interested in obtaining an amateur radio operators license are welcome.