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Tuned In To The World

By Steven P. Wagner, The Forum, Fargo, ND

Friday, April 14, 2006

Brian Doucette hopes to keep one eye on the sky this summer and an ear to his shortwave amateur radio.

It’s a way for Doucette, 32, of Moorhead to combine two main interests.

He received his radio license while in high school at Little Falls, Minn., which gave him a way to talk to people around the world, far before the Internet became a household fixture.

“I just love talking to people,” said Doucette, who works at Multiband USA in Fargo.

“It’s fun to find a total stranger on the air and talk for a half hour. A lot of the time you’re talking to people you will never meet.” 

The stereotype of amateur, or “ham,” radio operators conjures up pictures of people working with large radios, with dozens of buttons and dials, in their basements.

But that’s not so much the case anymore.

Ham operators like Doucette carry handheld radios with them, allowing them to dial into frequencies and talk to people miles away.

The frequencies are reserved by the Federal Communications Commission for use by hams at frequencies above the AM broadcast band, according to the Web site www.hello-radio.org.

While amateur radio operators may enjoy communicating through Morse code, talking on radios or sending computerized messages by satellite, hams often provide a valuable community service.

“A lot of people associate ham radio with the ’50s and ’60s,” said Tim Gooding, who along with Doucette is a member of the Red River Radio Amateurs, a local club of about 120 members.

“A lot of people don’t know we’re still around. It’s more than a hobby. It turns into an avocation.”

Club members volunteer time as severe weather spotters or providing radio communications during disasters and charity events.

For example, amateur radio operators in Fargo provided The Salvation Army with communication services during this month’s flood to pinpoint what was happening along the river and where resources should be sent.

“Amateur radio has been a Godsend for us,” said Steve Carbno, disaster coordinator for The Salvation Army in Fargo and a fellow ham operator.

“The first thing that breaks down in a disaster is communications,” he said. “Their efforts really enhanced our operations.

“They are definitely some of the unsung heroes of our community.”

Greg Gust, who teaches Skywarn weather spotter courses for the National Weather Service, said ham operators play an important role in severe weather.

Operators who pinpoint a storm and describe what they’re seeing provide valuable details in issuing Weather Service warnings, he said.

He’ll be teaching ham operators about radar at the club’s Amateur Radio Hamfest 2006, an annual trade show, on April 22 at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo. Three days later, Gust plans to teach a three-hour Skywarn class.

Doucette plans to attend both to gain more knowledge about weather in the area to supplement his love for amateur radio.

“It’s a part of the hobby I’ve never done but always was interested in,” he said.

Ham radio operator Tim Gooding tunes his shortwave radio to receive a signal in Morse code from Columbia recently at his home in West Fargo. Britta Trygstad / The Forum