DENHAM SPRINGS — Ham radio operators from Albany to Baton Rouge gathered Saturday at Community Christian Academy for the purpose of possibly saving lives.
The operators gathered to simulate, re-enact and perform drill procedures, review steps and reconnect with vital partners to handle a variety of emergencies.
“It is imperative we continuously learn, discover and research every possible means to provide communication and information for our community, public safety and partners such as law enforcement, FEMA, Homeland Security, the American Red Cross and our military,” said Jeff Hawkins, 65, of Denham Springs, a radio operator for 52 years and a founding member of LARS 30 years ago.
Agencies responsible for handling disasters, such as Homeland Security, appreciate the work and support these ham clubs bring to all emergency situations, said Dawson Primes, director of the Tangipahoa Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
“Those folks show up and stay until the end every time we have a major event,” Primes said. “During Katrina, their system was the only way Washington Parish was able to get assistance. They would call us, and we would relay the info to the state EOC. We appreciate all that they do for our community making sure we stay connected.”
Hawkins said that when the Amateur Radio Relay League was formed in 1914, radio signals could only transmit for approximately 50 miles; however, members set up a national relay connecting all the radio operators coast to coast.
“We still use this relay system today, as well as innovative, contemporary, wireless technology,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said operators are called “amateur” only because they do not get paid, but there is a great deal of work and expense involved in setting up a radio station and acquiring call letters. Members study complicated technological material to pass the tests for different levels of operators issued by the Federal Communications Commission, and operators spend numerous hours on the air honing and developing skills.
“Being on the radio is a labor of love and a passion,” said John King, 75, of Walker. King has been a ham radio operator for more than 56 years and was also a cofounder of the group. “I just fell in love with radio when I was a young boy, and all I wanted to do was be on the radio,” he said.
King worked in commercial broadcasting immediately after he graduated from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. He was an on-air personality for KGAN, a station there. Later in his career, he worked with WBRZ in Baton Rouge and WHMD in Hammond while pursuing his law degree.
King said he first realized the true value of ham radio when his club started working with the Military Affiliate Radio System.
“In those days, there were no cellphones in every pocket. The boys had no way to get messages to loved ones and family or to even let them know they had arrived safely after being deployed overseas,” King said. “You knew this meant a lot to all the folks involved, and this eased the minds of the guys to know their families knew they were OK. Their gratitude was overwhelming.”
King isn’t the only ham operator in his family. His wife, Barbara, 72, has been on the radio and by his side during emergencies, trainings and club events, in addition to keeping club records and feeding the group on field day.
Their home has four rooms filled with radio equipment, she said. The earliest radio they own is one from 1946, with old glass tubes that they acquired from China. The radio, they said, still works.
“I have seen the contribution ham operators have made to their community in disasters, bad weather and emergencies,” Barbara King said. “I enjoy it along with my husband and like being a part of this network where we really do an important service for others.”
“We have seen in other catastrophic events where all communications had failed except for ham radios,” she said. “It’s hard not to feel we are doing something major here.”
“We’re there when there’s no one else, no other communications are available,” John King said. “We’ve got some of the reliable, age-old standby equipment, voice, telegraph and Morse code that you can depend upon, along with newer technology, which is compatible with amateur radio devices.”
Another aspect of the field day was to rehearse setting up a radio station in the most imperfect situations and adverse conditions. Wayne Templet, 67, of Denham Springs, set up a makeshift antenna using pipes and a Mexican Coke bottle. “We have to be creative and think outside the box in emergencies, use whatever we can find to establish our radio to relay and transmit to other radio stations,” Templet said.
The antenna used to connect the group digitally to the NASA satellite was humbly constructed with a plastic lawn chair and a pipe pieced together.
The ARRL has many different programs to get youth involved.
Anyone interested in becoming a ham operator is urged to attend a monthly LARS meeting. For information on ARRL or LARS, contact Hawkins at (225) 664-6217 or (225) 931-2959.