Cumberland Times-News

June 22, 2013

When disaster strikes, local amateur radio operators keep communication lines open

Michael A. Sawyers
Cumberland Times-News

— ROCKY GAP — You might think of the Mountain Amateur Radio Club as a relief pitcher for the Allegany County Department of Emergency Services, or maybe its spare tire.

When cell phones, the Internet and electricity all head south because of some weather event, ham radio operators, or at least their voices, take to the air, literally, to keep communications alive.

Take Hurricane Sandy, for instance. Although downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it got to Allegany County, Sandy’s impacts were significant this past October. Ditto for the super derecho that swept through Western Maryland about one year ago.

Enter ham radio operators. Enter the Mountain Amateur Radio Club.

“We kept communications open between shelters and the county’s emergency office,” said club president Dave Ogden. “We stayed in touch with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., to let them know about rainfall.”

Ogden was speaking Saturday at Rocky Gap State Park where the annual public demonstration of emergency communications was taking place near the entrance to the campground. It’s an annual, national event on the fourth weekend in June. Those involved call it, simply, the Field Day.

Tornadoes, fires, storms, ice and even the occasional cutting of fiber optic cables leave people without the means to communicate, say national amateur radio spokesmen.

“The fastest way to turn a crisis into a total disaster is to lose communications,” said Allen Pitts of the American Radio Relay League.

The local field day allows for equipment to be checked and club members to practice their communication skills. The HamCom, a mobile command unit, is activated with separate communication routes to police, fire and emergency services.

The club is available for many uses, not all of them being of the emergency sort. Members station themselves along the Great Allegheny Passage trail during the March of Dimes walk, letting organizers know how many walkers have passed various checkpoints. Walkers also know that help is just a radio transmission away should it be needed.

Club members have worked the Savage Man Triathalon and this past September immediately called ambulances when two bikers wrecked and fell down a steep hillside.

“One of the bikers was able to climb back up on his own and when he reached the road the ambulance was already there,” said Jim Robison, club public information officer. “He was impressed.”

“We responded to the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center when for some unknown reason the internal communications there would not work,” said Bill Tucker. Tucker is the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service officer for Allegany County.

“We were available at the hospital for a few hours in case one department needed to communicate with another department,” Tucker said. “They got it fixed and we didn’t have to make many contacts.”

Ogden became interested in amateur radio in 1996.

“I was fascinated with communications, so I looked at some magazines, talked to some local hams and bought equipment,” he said, recalling one incident in Washington County where he made communications for some people stranded by high water in a car. “They were rescued,” he said.

The term “ham radio” was originally used to mock amateur radio operators in the 19th century for being bad at something, like ham-handed or ham actor, according to Wikipedia.

The term had already been used for bad wire telegraph operators, who (like a ham-fisted boxer) presumably were seen as having hands as clumsy as if they were hams.

To learn more about amateur radio, go online at www.hamtalk.org.

Contact Michael A. Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.