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17 July 2011

Amateur radio users still play vital role in communications

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IOWA PARK, Texas - It's a scenario storm spotters dream about. They're sitting at a restaurant, waiting in traffic or relaxing on the couch when a severe storm starts cooking up in the distance.

An emergency coordinator calls to dispatch them to a park, school, shopping mall or open field -- anywhere in the direction of the storm. In 30 minutes or less, as the storm builds into a tornado, they've set up a portable radio station.

Then power gets cut out across town.

The storm-spotting radio operator -- who can communicate without power, the Internet or phones -- starts relaying critical information to the National Weather Service regarding hail size, wind speed, temperature shifts and path of the tornado.

The updates give people enough time to seek safety.

Operators in the Wichita Amateur Radio Society take pride in providing that public service.

"We are the eyes on the ground," said Larry Ballard, coordinator for the Wichita County Amateur Radio Emergency Services. "Not everything can be seen on radar. That's where we come in. We see first-hand what is going on."

To get more people to understand what they do, dozens of the society's amateur or "ham" operators gathered on a recent Saturday at Oscar Park here -- near Wichita Falls in north Texas -- for a 24-hour ham radio demonstration and competition.

The annual field day was part of "Amateur Radio Week," sponsored by the American Radio Relay League. Thousands of operators from ARRL divisions across the nation competed to see who could have the most radio contacts with other ARRL operators.

By mid-afternoon, operators with the Wichita society had earned points for making contact in Florida, New Mexico, Arkansas and other states. They'd even talked with someone in Ontario, Canada. Last year, they made 250 contacts.

The event lets ham operators to practice for disaster situations -- and it brings awareness to local law enforcement officers, politicians and the public of what emergency operators do.

The Wichita Amateur Radio Society has been around for about 40 years. It has 54 storm spotters.

To become a WARS member, you must own a ham radio (which costs about $300), have an amateur radio license, pass exams on weather and radio operations and spend time with a veteran storm spotter.

"We make sure you know what you are doing before we send you out," Ballard said.

Ballard said the society is training 11 newcomers, almost double its yearly norm.

Operators provide critical communications during unexpected emergencies, including wildfires, winter storms, tornadoes and hurricanes.

Spotters with the society get sent to about 15 predetermined high points in the area to monitor conditions. They feed their information to a radio controller, who in turn relays it to the National Weather Service forecast office in Norman, Okla.

"We can set up just about anywhere and communicate in any situation," said Todd Luna, the society's vice president. At the event, members ran multiple radio stations -- under the park pavilion, in a camper and in a 4-wheeler -- on just one generator.

Last year's event drew about 35,000 operators from across the country. There are more than 650,000 amateur radio licensees in the U.S. and more than 2.5 million in the world, Luna said.

"Anyone can listen in for updates as we announce them, and they don't have to wait until it finally appears on TV once it's filtered through the system," said Terry Morton, president of the Wichita Amateur Radio Society.

Even with power outages or downed phone lines, WARS operators can communicate with law enforcement officers, fire departments and even relief organizations such as the Red Cross. They'd already been called out at least a dozen times by late June.

"You can't stop the weather, but we hope to give out as much information and provide as much time as possible so people can get to a safe area," Ballard said.

- The Republic