Specialized technology and code names may sound like elements of a spy movie; but they are also tools used by members of amateur radio clubs.
“We’re the most anonymous organization you’re going to find,” said McPherson Amateur Radio Club member Richard Johnson. “Most people have no idea what we do or how we do it.”
The Newton Amateur Radio Club and the McPherson Amateur Radio Club support numerous events by providing communications services and serving as weather spotters.
“We are basically two clubs operating jointly,” said Russell Groves, president of the McPherson Amateur Radio Club. “They’re separate entities with separate charters, but we do just about everything together.”
The majority of the events members, who are also known as hams, work are marathons or bike rides that can cover more than 50 miles of roads or trails. As participants pass by stations, the radio operators note if anyone is experiencing health problems, is being chased by a dog, has an emergency call coming in or needs to drop out and arrange transportation from the middle of the course.
“We try to be very efficient in the information we’re passing. It isn’t a lot of chit-chat, it’s just information as needed to be conveyed to the right people,” Groves said. “We keep track of the riders and the runners so we know where everybody is on the course. If someone doesn’t make it from one stop to another, we’re keeping track of that, too.”
The system also ensures riders or runners who get lost are found and that the event does not end until everyone is accounted for.
“They don’t want to close up the course if there are two or three people straggling out there,” said MARC member Bob Dittert. “We provide them that information.”
Some events — such as the Heartland 100-Mile Marathon — take place in areas without dependable cell phone coverage.
“We are generally the only communication to the course, because cell coverage is so minimal out there,” Groves said. “Cell coverage out there is better than it used to be, but it’s not completely reliable and we are. We can reach each other every time, all the time.”
The hams use an intermediate radio station called a repeater that sits at a high location to receive their signals and retransmit them out. In doing so, the range of their signals can be extended.
“A radio that is in my car that can only talk five or 10 miles can talk 50 miles with linking,” Groves noted.
Events can require between six to 12 volunteers, depending on the amount of area that needs to be covered.
“Amateur radio cannot be compensated,” Groves noted. “This is all volunteer. The equipment we bring is our own equipment. The entire thing is done as a public service.”
Many of the hams are also trained weather spotters, who relay hazards such as rain, floods, fog, lightning or hail to event organizers and also go out in severe weather to keep the National Weather Service abreast of the latest conditions.
“If we have any funnel reports or that kind of severe stuff, we pass that along and then we have one person taking the reports and sending those through an interface to the weather service along with emergency management and law enforcement,” Groves said.
Every amateur radio operator must pass a test to become licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and receive their call sign.
“For us, it’s like a rite of passage. It tells other people that care about it that, when you have a call sign, you’re a ham,” Groves said. “We’re proud of the fact that we have that call sign.”
Hams can get license plates with their call sign — a mixture of five numbers and letters — on them to show they are a part of the response community.
“The governments — state, federal and local — have recognized that many of us have had training that helps them in times of disaster by having that available network of radios and trained operators to help them out and take over loads of communications as needed,” Dittert said.
There have been instances when disasters have shut down regular emergency communication lines and that is when amateur radio operators are ready to step in.
“We could restore communications in an area the size of McPherson County in about two hours on the ham bands, whereas the official sources might take several days,” Johnson noted.
Jerry Williams, president of the Newton Amateur Radio Club, became interested in radio communications when playing with citizens band radios as a child. What was a hobby then has turned into a responsibility today.
“I look at it as a public service to the local government and the community in case communications fail,” Williams said. “It is a very interesting hobby, because you’re dealing with dispatch communications that the public is not aware of.”
To become licensed, aspiring amateur radio operators must pass a exam or 35 questions taken from a pool of 350 questions.
“We’ll help people get started, we do it all the time,” Groves said. “We are ready to do this for anybody that’s got the drive to learn the technology. We’ll help them become hams. It’s continually a giving back process.”
The McPherson Amateur Radio Club meets at 1 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month at the McPherson Police Department, 1177 W. Woodside St. To learn more, visit https://www.facebook.com/McPhersonAmateurRadioClub or call 620-947-3467.
The Newton Amateur Radio Club meets at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday evening of each month in the Board Room of the Newton Public Library, 720 N. Oak. To learn more, visit http://www.newtonarc.org.
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at email@example.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.