by Steve Earley
Business Gazette - Gaithersburg,MD
If a tropical storm strikes the region, they’ll be ready. In the meantime, members of the Laurel Amateur Radio Club are on their radios practicing the fading art of conversation with strangers thousands of miles away or seeking the name of a good barbecue joint off the interstate.
Amateur radio operators, who are celebrating 100 years of voice radio communications this year, are renowned for their contributions during emergencies. Portable and free from the confines of a network, ham radios were a godsend during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and during Hurricane Katrina last year, when phone lines and cellular towers in the disaster zones were either destroyed or overwhelmed with traffic. Locally, the radio clubs’ assistance when remnants of Hurricane Isabel swept through Laurel in 2003 helped them earn a spot in Laurel city’s Emergency Operations Center.
But responding to emergencies is but one part of the world of amateur radio.
The social aspect is the biggest draw for many.
In a world increasingly dominated by e-mail and text messages, ‘‘we still have the art of conversation,” said club member Jim Cross of Laurel.
Talks often originate from a ‘‘CQ” call by one operator. Short for ‘‘seek you,” calling out ‘‘CQ” is a way of polling for someone in order to begin a conversation.
A future friend, even a world leader, may be on the other end.
‘‘I had a fellow on the radio this morning who was on his way to Florida and he was going to stay with a friend he met on amateur radio,” said Joe Craven, a past president of the Laurel club.
Club member Al Brown of Laurel said in the late 1970s, King Hussein of Jordan answered a ‘‘CQ” call of Brown’s.
‘‘I just happened to be on the radio one day looking around and this JY1,” said Brown, referring to Hussein’s call letters, ‘‘which was an unusual name, started chatting.”
‘‘You get a lot of famous people,” said Joe Craven of Laurel, a past president of the radio club. ‘‘But when you get them on the radio, you’re talking to them just like they’re your neighbor.”
Some famous hams include former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and the Eagles singer Joe Walsh.
By tapping into different frequencies, operators, who must take a test to earn a license from the Federal Communications Commission, can find cohorts in the neighborhood, on the other side of the globe, even in outer space.
Cross said he hops on the radio to seek restaurant recommendations when traveling.
Astronauts have been known to link up with school kids.
‘‘The magic is still there,” Cross said. ‘‘To talk directly with an astronaut, that’s magic to me.”
The use of amateur radios during emergencies is a wonder in its own right. Computer software allows operators to send instant messages without an Internet connection. TV signals can be sent by radio. Even e-mail can be sent and received by an offline computer through radio relays that eventually reach an Internet connection.
‘‘A lot of people here, they’re used to e-mailing each other. You take that away in an emergency, you have a problem,” club president Kevin Craven, Joe’s son, said of Laurel city officials.
The club’s radios were used to communicate between shelters during Isabel and have been utilized by officials during emergency drills when cell phones have failed.
In a real-life situation in 2004, club members came to the aid of Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, when a crashed computer shut down its phone system for 10 hours.
‘‘When everything else fails, there’s amateur radio,” Brown said.
The Laurel Amateur Radio Club was formed in 1979, and its 55 members range in age from their 20s to their 80s.
Kevin Craven said there is concern, however, that not enough young people are being turned on to the hobby.
‘‘It’s not as exciting for kids now,” he said. ‘‘Between TV and the Internet and sports, there’s not much room for other hobbies.”
But he quickly noted that for any child interested in technology, there’s a place for him or her in ham radio.