When the city of Laurel opened its new Emergency Operations Center over two years ago, it included a separate room for HAM radio, a form of communication that uses the radio frequency spectrum to communicate. Its inclusion illustrates the city’s support for the Laurel Amateur Radio Club and its belief that the club serves a necessary purpose and is not just a recreational hobby.
“What they can provide is a great service,” said Stephen Allen, emergency operations center manager. “They are a great asset for us to have to get the word out.”
HAM operators — amateur radio operators — use a transmitter/receiver and antennas to communicate around the world on short-wave radio bands that bounce off the ionosphere. When communication systems fail, whether because of natural disasters or by unforeseen events such as terrorist attacks, HAM operators only need to rely on their battery or generator-powered transmitter/receiver to relay messages.
“It’s a system a lot of people …. sometimes forget about,” Allen said. “Everybody is so used to picking up the phone or going to the internet. ... People forget even the old way of writing something on paper.”
Over the years, the group has assisted the city with communications through snowstorms and flooding, according to Jim Cross, who has been a member of the club for years. In 2005, the group helped Prince George’s Hospital keep communications open when the hospital’s computer/phone system went down.
“We’ve been available,” Cross said. “We try to be ready in case they need something. You’ve got to practice. This stuff has to be like breathing. You can’t think about it.”
Cross is also a former Laurel City Council member — another important asset, according to Allen.
“He is well aware of the procedures and stuff here in the city,” Allen said.
All HAM operators are required to obtain a license, Cross said. There are three categories — technician, general class and extra class — with each license providing access to different radio waves. Each category requires the passing of a test and each needs to be renewed at different times.
Ben Stewart was 10 years old when he got his technician license and became a member of the Laurel Amateur Radio Club. Now 12, Stewart is studying to take his general class test.
“It’s not too hard to get but you have to put some work into it to do it,” Ben said. His father got him interested in radio and the two usually have a radio on.
“I like talking with people my own age around my area that I can’t talk to normally,” Ben said. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people in contests. I think the farthest place was around the Texas area.”
Contests are popular events for many HAM radio operators and typically require participants to contact as many amateur radio operators in a given time period.
“If you can make radio contact with each of the 50 states, you get a certificate,” Cross said. “If you can make contact with someone in all 3,007 counties, you get a certificate for that. It’s a hobby.”
The group also does public service for various events such as marathons, where members place themselves around the course to keep an eye on runners and radio in for help or supplies.
“It lets us practice using the radios,” Cross said. “So when things go kapooie, we know what to do.”
Another time, a member started an amateur radio club at the school where she worked in Silver Spring. As an activity for the school, the club set up outside and provided communication between the students and the astronauts on the space station.
“It was amazing. You could have heard a pin drop through the whole thing,” Cross said. “They asked questions like ‘if you get sick on the space station, what do you do?’”
All services provided by HAM operators are done free of charge, as stated in federal regulations, Cross said.
“We are all volunteers,” Cross said. “We’re going to help. We come out, do it and go home. We can’t collect money for it.”
Cross got involved with HAM radios while a sophomore at Laurel High School. His mom drove him to Washington, D.C., to take his first test in 1962. Five years later, he let his license expire and he gave his equipment away to his father-in-law.
“He got his license and really enjoyed it,” Cross said.
While on vacation in 1990, a traveling companion set up his HAM radio equipment to use and Cross became hooked again.
“It’s an interesting, fun thing to do,” Cross said. “It’s good for kids like Ben. You learn electronics, rules and regulations and you can do stuff.”
Graduating licensed HAM operators also qualify for numerous scholarships, Cross said.
The group is one of 14 volunteer examiner coordinators in the country and is responsible for scheduling exam sessions and providing the necessary policies, procedures and instructions necessary to ensure the exam is taken in accordance with the Federal Communications Commission. It is one of two VECs, the other being in Alaska, that has never charged a fee to take a HAM test.
“People do not and have not ever, been charged a fee,” Cross said. “They do it for free.”
With hurricane season still swirling and winter on the horizon, members of Laurel Amateur Radio Club will be ready to face whatever challenges come their way.
“We don’t get called out a whole lot,” Cross said. “We have an interesting bunch of tools in the tool box and we practice, practice, practice.”