As Hurricane Florence slams into the Carolinas and Virginia this weekend, the Hurricane Watch Net (HWN) throughout the affected states is tracking the storm, relaying information, communicating with rescue and repair crews, police and other first responders.
HWN, set up just a few days ago, is being operated by volunteer ham radio operators under the auspices of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL). Some are using the same equipment that had been used in Puerto Rico just a year ago.
There also is an amateur radio net operating from the National Hurricane Center, one with the Salvation Army, and even an amateur radio on the International Space Station, manned by European astronaut Alexander Gerst – call sign KF5ONO – who has been monitoring Hurricane Florence for days.
“Ham radios are often used in disaster situations,” said Ron Adcock, president of The Villages Amateur Radio Club and a resident of the Village of Gilchrist.
Ham operators are local and in place, usually have their own generators, and the wide amateur radio band width allows communication when cell phones of other systems are jammed. During Hurricane Irma last year, as with past emergencies, the club members were on the job providing communications services.
Tom Grosvenor, club vice president and a Village of Country Club Hills resident, recalled a time before cell phones when the ham radio in his car helped in a traffic pileup on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
“I had a low-band radio that is good for long distances,” he said. “I put out a call. ‘Remember Victor One United calling an SOS. Major accident on Mass Turnpike. Say someone, please.’ A fellow ham operator in Texas heard me. I told him where I was and he called the state police. About 15 minutes later, the police and ambulances arrived.”
Ham radio operators were not always so well regarded. The word “ham” comes from the derogatory term for early amateurs – ‘ham-fisted’ – referring to their lack of prowess in Morse code. The amateur operators eventually turned the derision into admiration because of their volunteer work in disasters and wars. Now they proudly call themselves “hams.”
Amateur radio dates back to the days of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who in 1901 successfully sent the first radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean. His later work and patents established the age of wireless communication. American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was founded in 1914 as the noncommercial organization of radio amateurs and today counts the majority of ham operators across the country as members.
The Villages Amateur Radio Club began in 1996 and today has more than 220 members ranging in age from 12 to 87. Its call sign is K4VRC.
“It’s been estimated that there are at least 400 ham operators in The Villages and surrounding area,” Adcock said.
He’s quite proud of Sumter County’s new emergency communications center.
“There’s a room with ham equipment that will be manned during emergency situations so that communication can be maintained,” Adcock said. “Every year we do a practice day or field day. Part of it is public demonstrations and part is practice for emergencies. The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office lets us use their mobile command station – a tractor-trailer where we can set up our equipment.”
“A lot of the technology has changed since I stated in the early 1970s,” said Grosvenor. “There were five levels of operator, beginning with novices who could only communicate in Morse code. Back then, sets used tubes, then transistors and now there are setups that operate with touch screen computers – ‘software defined radios’ that can be preprogrammed and don’t use dials and that kind of stuff.”
“But, there are still a few people who like to use the old tube equipment,” Adcock said with a chuckle. “Many ham operators enjoy the technical aspects of amateur radio.”
One of the most noticeable changes has been the elimination of the Morse code requirement for novices, although some hams still use it to maintain their skills. Grosvenor has a phone app that translates letters and numbers into audible Morse code.
Along with the technical, ham operators enjoy contests. One involves contacting as many other operators as possible in a set period of time. Others include making contact with as many countries, states or counties as possible in a limited time.
Nets, such as the Monday night Rag Chew Net, bring hams together to chat and exchange ideas.
“The only subjects that cannot be discussed are religion, politics and sex,” Adcock said.
Equipment and technology are always hot topics. Part of the club’s activities revolve around the sale of used gear from members who have upgraded or passed away. And one of the biggest equipment concerns for ham operators in The Villages is the antenna.
Adcock said since ham operators in The Villages live in a homeowners’ environment, they can’t just put up big towers in their backyards. Instead, he said, they have to find creative solutions. And he added that the club even has a program on ‘stealth antennas’ to meet this need.
As for amateur radio operators, their backgrounds are very diverse. For instance, Adcock was a philosophy major.
“I always wanted to teach philosophy but there wasn’t a great market for it,” he said ruefully.
Adcock was called to the ministry, received his Master of Theology, and with wife Dorothy moved to Boise, Idaho as an associate pastor.
“They soon decided they couldn’t afford me, so the bishop wanted me to move to a small church out in the desert,” he said. “I was raised in the city. I couldn’t do that.”
So, Adcock went into social services for the state of Idaho, and later in New Hampshire, as an ombudsman.
“On evenings and weekends I worked with small churches that couldn’t afford a pastor,” he said. “I really enjoyed that because I wasn’t dependent on them for my livelihood.”
Grosvenor has spent much of his life as an electronics technician, first with Sony and then opening his own audio repair shop in Wakeville, Mass.
“Then the big-box stores that had been bringing their work to me opened up their own repair shops,” he said. “So, I said, ‘Well, OK’ and moved into marine electronics with a friend up in Gloucester.”
In 1997 his dream job opened up, running the audio visual services group for 168 schools in Boston. He retired in 2004, but it took him a while to get to The Villages.
“A friend of mine, also a ham, comes down here for a few months every year,” Grosvenor said. “He invited me to visit in 2015. I fell in love with the place, moved here in 2017 and was welcomed by Hurricane Irma.”
For more information on The Villages Amateur Radio Club, visit www.K4VRC.com.
John W Prince is a writer and Villages resident. For more information visit www.GoMyStory.com.