Radio operators gather in Howard County for national drill

The rapid jaunt of Morse code dots and dashes Nick Yokanovich tapped out on his telegraph sounder carried across the field on the sluggish summer wind like an echo from another time.

And while it may have sounded the same when Samuel Morse's invention linked the world in the 19th century, it is just as vital today as a communication tool, especially in the event of natural disasters and emergencies, Yokanovich said.


Yokanovich and about a dozen members from the Amateur Radio Club of the National Electronics Museum in Linthicum gathered Saturday at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge to participate in a 24-hour nationwide preparedness drill sponsored by the American Radio Relay League.

Atop a slight hill, they established a communications village with a network of antennas, aerials, transmitters and six two-way radio stations that were set up in portable screen tents, while humming generators and batteries provided necessary electric power. All equipment in use Saturday afternoon is owned and maintained by members, whose motto is, "Ham radio works when other systems don't."


There was a tent that offered novices a "chance to go on the air" with assistance by a ham, who will help them connect with someone they don't know out in the ether, and perhaps get them interested in the hobby, which can be done with an investment of only several hundred dollars.

Ham radio operators use voice contact while Morse operators use code.

Tom Christovich, a club member, said the drill, which will continue through the night, is "part exercise and part competition where a ham can acquire points."

Early on during the drill, Yokanovich, who has been using Morse code for nearly 20 years, but also is a ham radio operator, patiently listened to a guy using the code who hailed from South Texas.

"I like it because when I'm doing Morse, I can eat potato chips," he said with a laugh. "The ham guys on microphones can't do that."

Tim Ramsey, another ham and club member, said he likes Morse because "it's crisp and there's never any static."

About 30,000 ham radio operators from around the country are participating in the drill, Christovich said.

The Columbia Amateur Radio Association participated in the drill at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in Ellicott City.


"Hams are prepared to offer technical solutions and provide support for rescuers during times of national emergencies and natural disasters," Christovich said. "We can often locate family members when given a name by a loved one."

He said ham operators also can provide communications support for community organizations as his club does for the annual Marine Corps Marathon.

"Hurricane Katrina was a big showcase for hams, many of whom traveled to the South in a volunteer effort to save lives and property," Christovich said. "They helped for months and for a time, it was the only way many people could communicate."

Ham radio operators work in conjunction with first responders supplying needed critical information while at the same time offering another avenue of communication with the outside world. All ham radio operators have to take classes in order to sit for a Federal Communication Commission license.

Christovich explained that while there is no disaster scenario for the drill, members are able to work on their communication skills as well as have a little fun.

"It's also a way of showcasing our hobby," he said.


"I've had my license since I was 13," said Beth Kistler, 30, an Olney middle school teacher, and Christovich's daughter, who was assisting with the event that is open to the public and ends at 2 p.m. Sunday.

On the subject of why they're called ham radio operators, Christovich insisted it had nothing to do with ham.

"No one really knows why we're called hams, but one theory is that operators like talking — like show business hams — you know, hamming it up," he said.

Amiable and outgoing, Christovich should know because over the years he's been in the hobby he has connected with hams in more than 200 countries.

More information is available at 410-615-3269; and also through Twitter: @K3NEM.