BRANDON BYRD, 10, slowly turns the dial on the amateur radio in his grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Miss., as he searches for an open frequency. “This is KF5NYQ,” says Brandon, speaking into the microphone and identifying himself with his call sign.
“I like talking to the other amateur radio guys, and I really like it when I can contact a new country,” says Brandon, who earned his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license at age 8 and is the youngest in his family of four generations of amateur radio operators. The fourth-grader has logged communication with people in more than 120 countries.
Brandon and his grandparents, Ed and Betty Jo Byrd, are among more than 700,000 amateur radio operators in the United States. Not only do they have fun talking with people worldwide and competing to see who can contact the most countries, but they also enjoy using their “ham radio” hobby to serve the nation.
In the first hours or even days after a natural disaster when power and phone lines are down, two-way amateur radio often is the only way to communicate, as was the case when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast in 2005. “All the cell phones were dead. The only ones with communication were fire and police departments,” says Ed Byrd, 63. Within two years after the Katrina tragedy, the Byrds had helped train 1,500 people, including staff at 16 hospitals, as licensed amateur radio operators, known informally as “hams.”
Volunteers on Call
Practicing their radio skills, which can involve evaluating the atmosphere and weather conditions to determine how much wattage is needed, keeps the operators sharp for contests and public service.
Many hams belong to the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which works with disaster- relief organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross. Hams also volunteer as trained weather spotters for the National Weather Service’s Skywarn network.
“We don’t chase tornadoes, but we sit on the ground and report over the ham bands to the National Weather Service,” says Jack Sovik, 62, of Youngstown, Ohio. Field reports of funnel clouds by Skywarn spotters help the weather service issue timely warnings that save lives.
When one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011, Skywarn spotters had been monitoring the storm for hours. Caleb Burns, 27, was coordinating the spotters by computer in nearby Springfield, Mo. “I took a call [by radio] and I’ll never forget the scared voice,” Burns says. “Someone said, ‘This is Freeman Hospital. Can anyone hear me? We’re in trouble.’”
When Burns replied, the hospital employee reported that nearby St. John’s Regional Medical Center had taken a direct hit from the tornado. Patients were being evacuated to Freeman Hospital. “He said, ‘We’re doing triage in the parking lot.’ He needed to know how many patients our hospitals in Springfield could take.’”
Burns called Springfield hospitals and transmitted the information to a Freeman employee. Hams, including Andrew Brashers, Steve Palmer and Patti Flowers-Palmer, rushed to the hospitals to set up emergency radio stations. Hospital staff in Joplin used portable ham radios in cars to talk directly to Springfield doctors to make arrangements to transport injured patients and to order crucial medical supplies.
“The phone lines were shut down because of overload, both the cell and land,” says Steve Palmer, 50. “In the first 12 hours, there was no other way for hospitals to communicate.”
A Century of Hamming
In 1912, the U.S. government began issuing licenses to thousands of electronics trailblazers who experimented with the new wireless telegraphy. Two years later, industrialist Hiram Percy Maxim founded the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in Newington, Conn., to promote the art, science and enjoyment of amateur radio.
A growing number of hams are being attracted to the airwaves a century later. Last year, a record 717,201 Americans were licensed amateur radio operators, up from 662,600 in 2005. A written exam must be passed to obtain an FCC license and to transmit on radio
frequency bands reserved for amateurs, as opposed to commercial operators.
Tinkering with hands-on gadgetry attracted Kevin O’Dell, 56, of Perry, Okla. When he was in the ninth grade, he learned Morse code so he could get his ham license. Although Perry still knows how to tap dots and dashes that represent letters of the alphabet, today he usually talks over his ham radio.
“Last night I was updating software in my computer that attaches to my radio and I made contact with a gentleman in Helsinki, Finland,” O’Dell says. Soon, he was exchanging small talk in English, the universal language for hams. “It’s kind of like fishing,” O’Dell says. “You don’t really know what you’re going to land and that’s exciting. You never know who’s on the other end.”