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Thu February 12, 2009
Hams on Ice
By Casey Northcutt
Murray, KY – Calloway County Emergency Management Director Bill Call was faced with directing emergency personnel in the midst of what Governor Steve Beshear called the worst natural disaster Kentucky has ever seen, without any common communication devices. So, Call also known as also known as KJ4W on his HAM radio mobilized the Murray State Amateur Radio Club.
"When we had a shelter set up in the Weeks Center and there was no electric power, their telephones at the Weeks Center didn't work, so we provided communications from the Weeks Center shelter back to the EOC. Then, we did a number of spots reports of -you know, There's a line down here or a tree down here' - and relay that back to the EOC from which we managed to get crews there to work on things."
The organization began in the 1960s when a few technology buffs gathered to share their interest in this particular type of radio - equipment more regulated than Citizen's Band radio with more power and channels.
"There's always been a group of people interested in just playing with technology as a hobby. Some of them have gone on to engineering or electronics work. Some of them have gone on into nursing."
Club President Randall Winchester says 25 to 30 club members regularly gather in Murray State Institute of Technology building for their monthly meetings. Mostly, their activities range from radio games, such as a high-tech form of hide and seek called "Fox Hunt," to weather spotting for the National Weather Service. When emergencies occur, however, their duties become more serious.
"The tornados back - the last bunch that came through, some of our people of our club members were out with the EOCs. Some of our club members have been trained in damage assessment, so they go out with the emergency personnel and work there."
Winchester's 14 year-old son, Joseph, got his first taste of emergency radio operation during the ice storm. A licensed operator like his father, he took a unit to various locations throughout the county.
"I volunteered to do local communications relaying at the warming shelters. One place was Lovett and the other place was the Weeks Center. At the Weeks Center, I had to call in an ambulance and I called in for supplies. And, I got to be treated as an equal. They would refer to me, like, as an adult, and that kind of felt good."
Because of the clubs efforts, not only did the radio waves carry calls back and forth for more food and water, but according to member John Hart, they also carried emails.
"These two hams drove through Murray and Mayfield and up to Ballard County and around the river counties surveying the communications - could they bring up 911? Could they find the EOC? And they way they got their information back was by emailing through high frequency radio through Nashville and then back to Murray."
Hart says if the club hadn't been there, relief efforts would have slowed considerably and a lot of people would have dealt with storm-related difficulties unaided. Bill Call tells a story about a neighbor who used his home unit to notify the fire department about a house burning down the street.
"My wife, who is also a ham, got on the ham radio and called me at the EOC. Well, at the EOC, I'm sitting right next to a fireman."
Call says wryly that not everyone is lucky enough to live next to a ham radio operator. But, in case of a wide-spread disaster, at least the area has several within a few miles.