Sandy signals: Ham radio operators provided communications during major storm

One day after Superstorm Sandy pushed ashore in late October, John Hoge was positioned inside the Winters Mill High School attendance office in Westminster.

He was surrounded by a car battery, an antenna and a ham radio at Winters Mill, which was serving as one of the county's two official shelters while Sandy moved through.

The county was spared the worst from Sandy. Peak winds in the area were roughly 60 mph. Lines of communication held up. But even if they hadn't, ham radio operators like Hoge would have been able to keep communication lines open.

The Carroll County Amateur Radio Club is always ready to provide communication options during emergencies if other options that are reliant on the current infrastructure fall through.

During Sandy, ham radio operators were located at Winters Mill and Century high schools, the two sites designated as shelters by the county. At least one radio operator, usually two, were positioned at the Carroll County Emergency Operations Center in Westminster for the duration of the storm.

"We're here to help in any way we can," Hoge said in October while manning his communications post at Winters Mill.

The radio club meets at 7:30 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month at the Carroll County Fire Training Center off Kate Wagner Road in Westminster. They are well versed in how to set up communications in emergency situations should cellphone towers and phone lines be somehow rendered useless.

Andy Leeds, the club's president, previously lived in Melbourne, Fla., where he saw firsthand how useful ham radios can be in times of natural disasters.

During a few powerful hurricanes, including Category 2 Hurricane Frances in 2004, ham radios were necessary tools for communication because cellphone communications were severely hampered by wind damage.

Ham radios are not reliant on current infrastructure, thanks to portable antennas. The portable radio unit can easily be moved from one spot to the next.

Amateur radios have been used in the county since at least 1935, when several enthusiasts in and around Westminster became licensed.

The Carroll County Amateur Radio Club was formed in 1976. The members have worked with county emergency officials to provide communications when necessary ever since.

In the late 1970s, a series of storms hit Carroll County and radio club members were there. Damage associated with Tropical Storm David in 1979 hampered communications, prompting the radio club to set up the K3PZN/R channel, which has served Central Maryland and South-Central Pennsylvania. During Sandy, news of note was shared between operators at the three locations. Hoge discovered plans to gradually shut down the shelters through discussions with another operator at the emergency operations center. It's a discussion that could have been held no matter what happened to modern communications conveniences like cellphones, Facebook and Twitter.

"As long as the shelters are open," Leeds said, "we are there maintaining communication."

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