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On the same wavelength: Amateur radio bridges the gap

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Craig Goble and Jeff Meyer practice emergency communications during the Amateur Radio Relay League nationwide field day at The Oakwood School on June 24, 2017. (Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector)

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By Kristin Zachary
The Daily Reflector

Monday, June 26, 2017

When two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001, and four years later when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, it was important for emergency officials to be on the same wavelength.

That’s difficult to do when emergency communication goes down, as was the case during 9/11 and Katrina. Situations such as those prove just how important amateur radio is, according to Pat Williams, spokesman for Brightleaf Amateur Radio Club of Greenville.

“In 9/11, when the second tower fell in New York City, cellphone towers went with it,” he said. “In 45 minutes, ham operators were on the ground with antennas and equipment to communicate.”

Amateur radio operators, or “hams,” are able to communicate without cell networks or the internet. Hams communicate by voice through microphones, through Morse code or through interfacing a radio with a computer or tablet to send data, text or images. They can set up anywhere with generators and antennas.

“We’re a public service organization,” Williams, 67, said. “We’re basically the last line of communication.”

Brightleaf is among more than 7,000 active amateur radio clubs nationwide. More than 700,000 people in the United States are licensed as amateur radio operators. Brightleaf has about 60 members.

A group of about 15 men was at The Oakwood School on Saturday and Sunday for American Radio Relay League Field Day, a national 24-hour event that acts as an opportunity for hams to test their emergency preparedness.

“Whiskey 4 Alpha Mike Charlie,” Jeff Meyer said into his microphone, identifying the club’s radio call sign for anyone listening.

Meyer, 62, a purchasing specialist for East Carolina University, is president and treasurer of Brightleaf. He and his family moved from Michigan in 2007, and this is his 40th year as a licensed amateur.

One of the club’s projects is to get children involved and encourage them to work as weather spotters, which has prompted a partnership with The Oakwood School.

The field day was hosted this weekend out of one of the rooms of the school that is being outfitted as a school club station, one of the few in the state, Meyer said.

Most amateurs initially are drawn to the hobby because of their interest in weather.

“That and we like to talk to people, and at 2 o’clock in the morning, you’ve got a million friends and you don’t have to wake up your family,” he joked.

Meyer has worked with SKYWARN, a volunteer program through the National Weather Service, through which he received training to act as a spotter and relay severe weather information.

“Basically, we’re their eyes and ears,” Meyer said. “They can look at doppler, but they can’t definitively say you have a twister, and by the time it comes by and does its thing, it’s too late.”

Ham operators use their communications capabilities to share critical weather information with the NWS, local emergency management officials and storm spotter networks. 

“People say, ‘What do we need ham radio for? I’ve got a cellphone’ that can be used in the case of an emergency,” Meyer said. “It’s nice to be able to look at your cellphone, but you’re only as good as the tower is. If the tower is not there or malfunctions, you’re dead.”

Brightleaf is hoping next month to work with Pitt County Emergency Management to have members go out to the fire stations to show how they can help in the event that its radio network, VIPER, failed.

Two years ago, Peter VanHouten, 62, a physician at East Carolina Retina and member of Brightleaf, outfitted a trailer with radio equipment.

The trailer, known as an Amateur Radio Emergency Service trailer, is hitched to VanHouten’s SUV.

“We could roll this trailer anywhere and have instant communication in not even five minutes,” he said. “The battery is always charged. I can plug in the generator if I’m going to go extended time.”

Solar panels charge the battery that powers the radios, and several antennas poke through the roof to allow communication through frequencies authorized for amateur radio.

“The general principle is the more wire you’ve got in the air, the more fire you’ve got in your radio,” he said.

VanHouten has been involved with Brightleaf for 16 or 17 years. He decided to get his amateur radio license after Hurricane Floyd.

“I had two inflatable Zodiacs, and I was running rescues with the Zodiacs, saving people from drowning,” he said. “It had always been on my bucket list to get my license, but that finally pushed me over the edge to say, ‘Do it.’

“My grandfather was one of the original amateur radio guys in Davenport, Iowa, in 1923, and Herbert Hoover signed his license,” VanHouten said.

Hams learn about geography and electronics and experience a camaraderie and instant bond, he said.

“It’s like fishing,” VanHouten said. “You never know who you’re going to catch on the other end of the radio and what their experiences are.”

He once had a conversation about Pearl Harbor with a 92-year-old veteran, who was talking on a radio at his home near the Grand Canyon.

“You never know when you’re going to get something like that,” he said.

“With ham radio, you can sit and talk to anyone in the world cheaper than you can make a long-distance phone call,” said Williams, Brightleaf’s spokesman.

Williams said a new ham can get into the hobby for $350-$400, in terms of purchasing equipment. But, once you have the equipment and a license through the FCC, you’re set, and you can play an important part in times of emergency.

“If we’re needed, we’re always on call,” Williams said.

That has been the case multiple times in Pitt County since Brightleaf got its start in 1967.

Bernard Nobles, 69, joined the club in 1975. Nobles, who retired in 2009 from UNC Public TV after 27 years, served as the section emergency coordinator for the state through American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio, until 2010.

On March 28, 1984, a tornado outbreak struck Georgia and the Carolinas, causing 57 deaths and more than 1,200 injuries. The event lasted 10 hours.

“There was a lot of people who got killed in this county,” Nobles said. “Amateur radio was one of the communications elements that was used by the fire marshal. As a matter of fact, he used us to call the National Guard commander to activate Pitt County National Guard because the phone lines were down.

“The tornado was an EF-4. It was almost a mile wide,” he said. “It came within 2 miles of my house. I stayed on the radio all night long. My wife and child were underneath a bed.”

Local hams, including Nobles, also aided during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

“Power lines were down, and amateur radio filled in the void,” Nobles said.

Amateur radio operators were transported by military trucks and helicopters to be stationed, along with nurses and doctors, at Wellcome Middle School, Stokes School and other locations.

“We relayed information back and forth, particularly to the two (schools) across the river,” Nobles said. “They were the most important; they didn’t have power.”

Areas south of Winterville had power, Nobles said, but Winterville and Greenville were without because the main feeder line went across the Tar River.

“They cut the power off intentionally to keep that cable from hitting the water,” he said. “They were advising people not to take boat rides down the river because you could get electrocuted.”

The hams operated for a week, Nobles said, supplying communications between the schools, the emergency operations center and the hospital.

“Gov. (Jim) Hunt after Floyd said if it wasn’t for amateur radio, there would have been a lot more deaths in eastern North Carolina,” VanHouten said. “There’s no question. That’s our reason for being, to be there in bad times.”

Contact Kristin Zachary at kzachary@reflector.com or 252-329-9571. Follow her on Twitter @kristinzachary.

Brightleaf Amateur Radio Club

The club meets the second Tuesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. in the VFW building on Mumford Road.

For more information, visit the club’s website at w4amc.com.

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