Their war stories involve tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and 9-11, but Amateur Radio operators (called “hams” for their gift of long-distance gab) still mostly enjoy a one-on-one conversation with an operator half a world away.
Or even farther.
“One of my goals is to talk to someone on the International Space Station,” said veteran ham operator Denise Lucas of Hurst, a network analyst with a monitoring company.
There are more than a dozen clubs in North Texas consisting of ham operators who are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast on amateur radio bands. The clubs get involved in community and public service events such as the Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth, Arlington’s Fourth of July parade, and the Hurst club’s holiday Mall Watch parking lot check.
Many will be participating in the American Radio Relay League’s 24-hour Field Day event Saturday. During that time, more than 35,000 hams in the United States and Canada will be communicating with one another to practice relaying messages and to demonstrate their skills to the public.
Among local amateur radio operators participating in Field Day are those from clubs in Arlington, Bedford, North Richland Hills, Fort Worth and Azle.
One of amateur radio’s main functions is Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or RACES, where operators work in partnership with the emergency services in their city. Government officials can even give the hams access to use emergency radio frequencies in a crisis.
Hams can relay emergency and welfare messages with their equipment and battery or generator power sources during a crisis when electricity and cellphone service is knocked out.
“Many of us are RACES members and support events in Tarrant County including the National Weather Service with SkyWarn nets,” said David Lucas, spokesman for the Arlington club. “Many of us are also Community Emergency Response Team members and are working on communications in case of power being out and no repeaters being available.”
Club members also support the office of emergency management by monitoring the emergency siren testing each month, David Lucas said.
The relay league has a national traffic system to pass along radiograms, handwritten messages passed through relay systems to make sure messages are delivered as written.
Craig Leikis, Hurst club president, said hams will be using the national traffic system on Field Day, talking to some of the 70,000 ham radio operators who hold FCC licenses in the United States. Leikis works in information technology and has been a ham operator since 2006.
Field Day broadcasting is a marathon, not a sprint.
“We will be operating straight for 24 hours,” said Noel Lee, a federal law enforcement officer and ham operator since October 2012. “Our goal is to make as many contacts as possible in that time frame.”
Becoming licensed is not as hard as people might think. The entry-level license requires basic knowledge of electricity, radio equipment and FCC rules. Classes typically last about three weeks and conclude with administration of the licensing test.
“It’s fun, once you get on the air, talking to people in other countries,” said Lee. “You can put as much or as little money in it as you want and still have fun.”
For beginning hams, an investment of a little more than $50 will secure the license and get them on the air — the license fee is $15 and the manual for free classes costs $20. Club dues in North Texas generally range from $20 to $25 yearly.
Beginner equipment can cost as little as $35 for a short-range hand-held radio and $15 for an antenna, the Hurst hams said. Radios can go as high as $12,000, and tall antennas and towers can run $50,000 to $60,000. Hams often have mobile units in their cars and base units in their homes.
Randy Foster of Bedford, a World War II veteran and former airline pilot, got his ham license in 1972. Last week he summed up his motivation for staying in amateur radio for so long.
“I think helping people is the main thing,” the onetime B-24 ball turret gunner said. “If half of Hurst gets blown away and they lose the telephones and cell towers, then we’d be there to help out with critical communications.”