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Sunday, January 27, 2013
Ham radio operators prove that short waves can be long on benefits
Amateur radio operators, also known as “hams,” are the primary method of communication after a disaster because cellphones and the Internet don’t work during power outages.
Unlike other means of communications, the Federal Communications Commission requires users to have a license to operate the two-way radios.
Norm Goodkin, who helped launch an amateur radio program at Calabasas High School, said ham radio operators provide a valuable public service. Goodkin also teaches quarterly entry-level study and exam sessions offered by the city of Calabasas and the Lost Hills Disaster Communications Service
Goodkin said ham licensing has been gaining popularity among young people in recent years because familiarity with electronics, radio theory and safety gives them an advantage in high school, college and careers.
“Learning ham radio sets students apart. It gives them an edge because they demonstrate initiative by taking a class that is not normally taught in high school,” said Goodkin.
“American schools no longer teach electricity or electronics. Our kids now can go through school without learning how batteries and light bulbs work. That would never happen in Korea in Japan. There the kids learn electronics to compete worldwide,” Goodkin said.
Goodkin, who is in charge of recruitment for the Lost Hills Disaster Communications Service unit, said many graduates of his program go on to join the Amateur Radio Emergency Service and the Los Angeles County Disaster Communications Service.
According to the FCC, amateur radio, a voluntary noncommercial communications service, remains popular because it enhances international goodwill, something Agoura resident Jerry Lewine experienced firsthand in 1968 when he was an electronic engineering major at the University of Pittsburgh, sharing ham radio equipment with a roommate.
One night all frequencies were dead except for one weak SOS signal emitted by a Greek freighter some 450 miles off the Baja California coast. According to the radio transmission, the ship’s cargo of cotton was on fire and the boat was listing badly. The ship’s radio room was charred and the only communication came from a ham radio operator on board.
Lewine confirmed with a friend that the distress call was real and called the Coast Guard to give them the coordinates of the ship.
“Luckily the U.S. Navy had a cutter in the vicinity, and they rescued all 35 people on board the 485-foot ship before it sank,” Lewine said.
Lewine quit ham radio in the mid-1980s but revived his old passion last year when he installed a 60-foot tower in his backyard to chat with amateur radio operators throughout the world.
“I’ve talked to some truly interesting ham radio operators, including Barry Goldwater, the King of Jordan and Tom Christian, one of the descendents of the shipwrecked crew of the mutiny on the Bounty on Pitcairn Island,” Lewine said.
Recently he met a Florida ham who now lives in a village of 800 people on a mountaintop in Papua New Guinea. The man learned their dialect and is developing it into a written language.
Accountant Bradford Ormsby, who maintains the emergency amateur radio station at Westlake Village City Hall, also has a passion for transmitting a signal across the globe, but his focus is largely on preparedness.
“For the initial time when emergencies come, amateur radio is the one communication service that potentially can link everybody back together,” he said.
Ormsby is a member of the Disaster Communications Services for the Los Angeles and Ventura County sheriff’s departments, among other groups.
Jim Jordan, director of public safety for Calabasas and former captain for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said ham operators are dedicated people.
“ Some have stations with large antennas in their yards to talk around the world. Others use handheld, just to chitchat (because) if nothing works, a ham radio probably will.”
More than 170 licensed operators live in Calabasas, and about a dozen of them are members of the city’s Community Emergency Response Team. They meet on the air every Saturday to test the system. Similarly, the Agoura Hills Disaster Response Team meets on the air every Monday night.
According to Goodkin, many people come in groups from other regions to take advantage of the local one-day class.
“With long classes, there is a big dropout rate. . . . you learn more by picking up the radio and using it than you do in the classroom. The best thing is to get people licensed with a radio in their hand as soon as possible,” he said.