Radio operators ham it up on JBER

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 20:00
Communication technique has applications beyond fun
The power supply, antenna tuner, and a ham radio in the Elmendorf Amateur Radio Society ham shack in the CIvil Air Patrol building. Ham radio is a relatively inexpensive hobby and can be used both for fun and for relaying information or contacting help in an emergency.

With easy Internet access almost anywhere these days, we often forget that everything depends on sensitive electronics and in many cases on fiber-optic and other cables underground or even under the ocean. Many things can disrupt those connections, from earthquakes to mudslides and fires. When that happens, there’s an outage — usually repaired quickly. But in the case of a big event, like a major hurricane, there may be days of isolation.

Into that vacuum step ham radio operators. (The term came from the first decade of the 20th century as a pejorative; a ‘ham actor’ was incompetent, and professional telegraphers thought amateurs were unskilled.)

“During Hurricane Katrina, communications equipment wasn’t just down, it was under water,” said Ron Keech of the 673d Communciations Squadron, who serves as the secretary for the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson amateur radio club. “Before (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) got there, ham radio was up and running.”

Amateur radio personnel got communications going, relaying information about what different areas hit by the hurricane needed.

“We don’t broadcast, we communicate,” he said.

In the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, for four days, all military communication was down - but amateur radio was working, Keech said.

The military has long supported amateur radio; Fort Richardson had a Military Auxiliary Radio Station for many years, although it has been off the air for a while, Keech said. The Elmendorf MARS station is affiliated with the ham club. MARS is a Department of Defense-affiliated network, which can relay information between federal agencies like the DoD and FEMA on federal frequencies.

“We have people coming out of the woodwork who were here in the 50s and 60s, talking about Elmendorf Air Force Base. So we catch them up on what has happened here, and learn the history.”

The call sign KL7AIR was assigned to Elmendorf in 1948. “We’ve had an unbroken history of that call sign,” Keech said. “There were other stations on Alaska bases, but they’re gone now. We’re trying to maintain that history.” Trading contact, or QSL, cards with operator call signs on them is a long-standing tradition, and Keech said there are still QSL cards from Alaska stations around the world.

“We still get QSLs (contact cards) from Air Force Station Shemya in the 1970s.”

But JBER has a ham radio station and Keech encourages anyone with base access to get involved.

“It doesn’t take a genius,” Keech said. “We have everyone from basic operators to guys who build their own radios, from 14 year olds to the elderly.

“If young people are involved and have confidence with it, they can be of benefit to the base and the community,” Keech said.

There are amateur radio operators in the emergency operations centers in Anchorage and Wasilla, he noted. “It’s a designated volunteer position for backup functions; they can communicate with the Lower 48 while other systems are getting fixed.”

JBER’s ham club meets in the Civil Air Patrol building off Dena’ina road on the back of the flight line, Keech said. The club moved there in 2004. There are about 14 people active in the club - almost all civilians - and they would like to see some new faces.

“Seventy percent of hams are 60 or older,” he said. “We’re trying to preserve the call sign; it’s dark in Alaska in the winter, but whatever the weather is, someone’s on the net.”

“The principal function is to provide and maintain a viable working station for active duty people,” Keech said. “If they can’t have a station at home, that’s what the club is for.”

The hobby isn’t hard to get into, Keech said.

“The cost is cheap compared to some other hobbies,” he said. “This is a poor man’s hobby. ... The tests are free, and the license is good for 10 years. If you can’t afford a radio, we have ones that can be borrowed or you can use the club. Some people get involved enough to get into contests.”

A radio setup can be small enough to fit on a desk or in a vehicle, although some people have extensive studios.

The tests ensure that operators know basic safety and electronics, radio etiquette and regulations. Once an operator has that basic license, it’s hands-on training for achieving higher levels. The payoffs are communicating with people around the world and helping in emergencies when other communications fail.

“The world likes to talk to Alaska,” Keech said. “We’re kind of hard to reach. But if I point my antenna over the North Pole, I pick up Europe - and everyone wants to log a contact in Alaska.”

Amateur radio operators often compete to get contacts from different states and countries, with awards organized by their home clubs.

“There are lots of hams in the (Alaska) bush,” he said. “Obviously there are lots in the population centers, but every night I talk and listen to people in Deadhorse, Nome, northern Canada, Kotzebue - people so far off the roads they have to fly in. But they have a ham radio.

And there are several nets on at night, so there’s a gaggle of people in Alaska on the radio, and if there is trouble, someone will hear.

“Even satellite phones can be very unreliable here in Alaska, because the satellites are so far down off the horizon they can’t connect,” Keech said.

Hams man checkpoints on the Iditarod trail, he said, relaying times and providing communication where even news crews don’t get to. When aircraft go down in the bush, it’s often someone with a radio who relays information back to emergency services.

“Cell phones and email are great when they work, but don’t put all your communication eggs in one basket,” Keech said. “When things break, they tend to break catastrophically. And although systems are robust, they’re not perfect. One good earthquake in Prince William Sound would sever 80 percent of communications between Alaska and the Lower 48.”

The Federal Communciations Commission allows ham radio to operate because it provides an essential service.

The motto of the American Radio Relay League - the association for amateur radio - is “When All Else Fails.” The association has more than 156,000 members, according to its website. Because operators pay for the equipment and maintain and operate it, it’s off the grid - and less susceptible to damage.

“If the equipment survives the storm or crisis, the operators are on the air,” he said.

The aurora borealis is caused by solar wind in the atmosphere - and they can disrupt GPS and other communication.

“The radio gets noisy,” Keech said. “We might have to relay a message, but we get through.”

For those considering getting into the hobby, Keech has nothing but encouragement.

“They don’t need to buy equipment; they can contact the club on base. We have manuals, which were donated; they give you the basics of everything in the test. There’s no charge for the tests, which are available in Anchorage twice a month.

“There are practice tests online that people can take. If they’re consistently passing, they can go take the Technician test and get on the air.”

“It’s not difficult,” Keech said. “It just takes a little effort to get the license and then get to the club. You have to start somewhere.”

For military personnel, being active in amateur radio can be good for evaluation bullets as community service.

While knowing Morse code is no longer a requirement for the test, learning it does open up more horizons in ham radio, Keech said. There are also ways to link computers to the radio.

“A computer can pick up the tones and filter out the noise,” he said, offering clearer communication even in a solar storm.

For communicating long distances, operators can bounce radio frequencies off Mount McKinley, the ionosphere, low-earth orbiting satellites and even the moon.

“The hobby is so big, it’s hard to describe all the things you can do,” Keech said.

The club meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 5 p.m. at the club building.

For more information, visit the club’s website at or email [email protected].

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