Ready to Help: Local Ham-radio Operators Prepare for the Worst

Jul 1, 2015

The pickup trucks parked at the Brewster Sportsman’s Club have unusually large radio antennas on them. Set up in the field just beyond the trucks are some even larger antennas, big enough to broadcast all over the world.

About a dozen members of the Barnstable Amateur Radio Club, or BARC, are gathered inside the Sportsman’s Club speaking into microphones and tapping out Morse Code messages. They’re HAM radio operators, and Rob Leiden is the group’s public information officer. He says this is a national event called, Field Day. Once a year HAM operators across the country take to their equipment to prepare for what they would do in case of a disaster.

“With simple radios that have repeaters that are backed up by batteries we can be self contained and provide assistance to the Red Cross and other disaster service agencies while all other methods of communication have gone down,” said Leiden.

Disasters happen, and Leiden has used HAM radio in those situations before.

“Following Katrina, the Red Cross recruited a lot of amateur radio operators because not only do we have the ability to communicate,” he said, “but we have the ability to deal with technical issues. They had deployed large numbers of people requiring laptops to communicate to deal with the disaster in general, as well as radios to keep communications going in places they otherwise wouldn’t have it.”

But HAM radio isn’t just audio anymore. Newer transceivers can transmit location data and other types of communication.

“If, for example, during an emergency you wanted to show an emergency manager a picture of the scene as you were telling him what you were seeing, you could do both at the same time over radio,” Leiden said. “You don’t even have to use a laptop, the radio has the capability to do all that and the microphone in one case, has a built in camera.”

More people than ever are finding their way to Ham radio. Leiden says there are more than 700,000 operators in the US, and more than one million worldwide and that “young people are finding out that there’s an alternative to the Internet... It’s also a way for youngsters with similar interests in the engineering and scientific areas to get to know one another.”

One thing that’s helps boost interest is the fact that organizations such as the American Radio Relay League hold contests and give awards to operators.

Jack Schuster is a member of the Barnstable group and he often competes in these contests. Schuster explained the contests saying that, “you contact people far away, around the world and they’re usually 24 or 48 hour contests, you can operate as long as you can out of that time period and you try to make as many contacts in as many countries as you can and then the scores are published and you get certificates and plaques.”

This past weekend’s Field Day was one of those contests, with a focus on operating in less than optimal radio conditions. The group’s president says that over the course of the 24-hour event, the Cape’s Ham operators made just under 2000 contacts, connecting with people from as far away as Spain, Italy and Russia.

For more about HAM radio on the Cape check out http://barnstablearc.org

Davis Land is an intern with WCAI's production partner, Atlantic Public Media.