I can remember when I was a kid visiting my Great Uncle Joe in Greenwood, Arkansas, who had as a hobby Amateur Radio, also known as "Ham Radio." I remember strolling past his makeshift closet-turned-radio shack next to his bedroom and hearing all the funny sounds of frequency tuning and voice modulations that sounded to me a lot like the communications I'd seen the movies with airplane pilots. Or, since I was into Star Wars, it reminded me of the radio chatter between the X-Wings and Y-Wings during the big Death Star battle. Those who've seen the movie know what I'm talking about. It was always intriguing to me.
Uncle Joe would always invite me to sit with him at his desk next to his old Kenwood HF radio (TS-440S for those enthusiasts out there). Next to that he had his Morse Code equipment, and a map on the wall with thumbtacks identifying all the different states and countries he'd communicated with and would mail his QSL postcards to. His callsign was “NR5H,” operator class “Amateur Extra.” If you look up that callsign, I think it’s since been reissued to somebody else, but at the time that was my Uncle Joe.
He always had several friends he'd touch base with every night. I'm not even sure where they were located, but I know he really enjoyed connecting with them. Evidently it was something he'd held on to ever since his World War II days as a radio operator. And, as a kid, it's something that captured my interest too.
Eventually, as a teenager, I decided to study to take the Technician class exam to get my own Ham Radio license. One summer I went up to Greenwood and spent a couple of weeks with my Uncle Joe, along with my ARRL license manual, for him to tutor me and help me understand the basics. After that, I passed my exam and got involved with the local Ham club in my hometown. Whereas my Uncle was into the long range HF bands, all the locals (as far as I was concerned) made use of the shorter range VHF bands, with the repeater towers positioned around the state to bounce off of.
Here I was 17 or 18 years old, hanging out with a bunch of old timers and retirees who would meet up every week at the local Hardy's in Heber Springs for breakfast and coffee to talk radio. I was by far the youngest guy in the room, but I loved it and soaked up as much as I could learn.
After High School and for the next 20 years after that, the hobby took somewhat of a backseat as I focused on other things—life and career. But, I was sure to keep my license renewed with plans to one day get back into it.
One of the occasions I’d always pull out my radio for was severe weather. Being in Arkansas we are in the tornado country, and one of the big benefits of ham radio is the emergency preparedness factor. Whether that’s storm chasers reporting on real-time conditions of tornadic activity, or, in the aftermath, when phone lines and cell towers go down, it’s the Ham Radio Operators who are able to supply emergency communications to those who need it. So, that’s one reason I keep my radio nearby.
But also for just emergency communications in general. As you know, cell service doesn’t extend everywhere. In fact, I recently went on a backpacking campout with two of my sons and their Trail Life scouting troop. It was in the Ouachita National Forest, a few hours away from the church where the troop is based. We parked our vans at the start of a trail off the highway, several miles outside the nearest town, and hiked our 3 miles to our campsite.
There was absolutely no cell service in the spot we were at, with all the high and low terrain. Before the trip, I went ahead and programmed into my radio the frequencies for the different area repeaters as a just-in-case precaution. As it turns out, it’s a good thing I did because we experienced our own emergency situation on the trail.
After our first night at camp, one of our boys stepped into a hole hidden beneath the leaves and twisted his leg up pretty seriously, leaving him in no condition to walk. His troop leaders and fellow student trail men immediately jumped into action and made a stretcher out of a tarp and couple long branches. The 3-mile hike we made the day before wasn’t level terrain by any means, and at one point required the crossing of a running stream, so they all had their work cut out for them to carry him back out.
In the meantime, while the guys started their hike back to the highway carrying the boy on the stretcher, knowing that process would itself take close to an hour, it was important we try to call for help to meet the guys as they resurfaced from the trail, but, of course, there was no cell service. So, I pulled out my trusty ham radio, and with another fellow Ham (W4BBU) who had brought his radio, we set out to climb a nearby ridge to try and get line-of-sight signal with one the repeaters.
It took us several attempts and searching for the right spot. But, finally finding a decent clearing and a fallen tree that we were able to climb to get the best elevation, we made contact with a ham radio operator in nearby Hot Springs Village—147.015 MHz, station W5HSV. Shout out to K0TXT, Jim, of Hot Springs Village for answering our call for help. He was able to call dispatch and have first responders meet our guys on the trail before they had even finishing the 3-mile hike back. They were then able to transfer the boy in the proper vehicle and get him safely to the hospital. The radio system worked precisely as it needed to.
Then, believe it or not, not a few hours later, another fluke accident happened with another one of the scouts. This time, while exploring the stream, another boy lost his footing on a slick rock and fell, breaking his arm. It was totally coincidental and a freak misstep. Usually, our guys are quite careful and follow proper safety practices. But, for whatever reason on this trip, we ended up with a second injury in the same day.
Once again, our leaders and trail men jumped into action. They made a temporary splint and sling out of a few sticks, a piece of hard plastic from the frame of a pack, and some cloth material. And it’s another hike back to the highway for yet another group, and another hike up the ridge for me and Bill, our other ham. We make contact again with the local repeater we connected with before. The radio operator out of Hot Springs Village this time, instead of calling dispatch, served as a third-party communicator and called our Troop Master who was still at the hospital with injured boy #1 to let him know about injured boy #2. Transportation arrangements were then made for boy #2, and he also was safely taken to the hospital.
Folks, these kinds of things can’t be anticipated, but, with a little forethought, they can be planned for by practicing old fashioned emergency preparedness. “Be prepared” is the old scout motto. Actually, the motto for our Christian Trail Life troop is “Walk Worthy,” but certainly walking worthy includes walking in wisdom and good judgment. And, part of good judgement is planning ahead and even preparing for the possibility of crisis situations.
The examples I’ve given are obviously just a few examples. There are so many different situations in life that can result in a far better outcome than they would otherwise for those who encounter them when they aren’t totally caught off guard. In terms of emergency communication, something as simple as a ham radio can make all the difference in coordinating the help that you need. Of course, in a non-emergency situation, you have to be licensed to use one, but in a true emergency, you don’t need a license. According to the FCC Rules, Title 47, Part 97, Paragraph 403—
“No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.”
So, there you have it. Anyone can use a ham radio in an emergency. Granted, it’s kind of important you know how to use the radio and how to actually make contact with another person. Often, ham radios have to be programmed in order to connect with area repeaters. So, my advice is, if you’re going to get the radio, you might as well go ahead and get the license to go with it.
Long story short, ham radio can make all the difference, whether on the trail, or for advance warning of a tornado, or in the aftermath cleanup of a tornado, or a hundred and one other applications.
That’s my plug for ham radio. It’s a wonderful hobby, and a wonderful preparedness tool to have in your arsenal.