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Hams to the rescue

If a major catastrophe occurs and the power grid goes down, it'll be ham radio operators to the rescue.

They know they'll have to be able to set up their systems in the field, in chaos and amid injured survivors, using batteries (even car batteries), generators and solar and wind power to keep vital communications working for emergency responders, hospitals, police and the public.

To that end, they're holding a 24-hour practice this weekend in the fields outside ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland. 

“We’ll be outside all night with our tents and canopies, and if someone needs to sleep, they can, but it’s a worldwide emergency drill, a simulation of a wide range of power sources going down,” says Curt Hadley of Jackson County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (JCARES). “It’s nice to have that feeling that it’s here for any emergency. We can even use the radios in our cars and hook them up to the car battery.”

Starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, 20 to 30 operators will learn how to work their networks through the night without plugging into the power grid. The public is welcome to attend, hear a talk on how ham radios work and actually put the headphones on and talk to other ham radio operators in the valley or those hundreds or thousands of miles away. Having novices use ham radios without a license is allowed at local clubs' GOTA — Get On The Air — stations, but users must be supervised by licensed operators. 

The "big one" — a quake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone — likely would take down all power and collapse freeway overpasses, crippling the food chain and making the smallest tasks chaotic. Without power and cell towers, there will be no internet, notes Hadley.

But ham radio operators will be able to communicate in a global network, he said. When Hurricane Katrina thrashed New Orleans, ham radio was the main communication lane to the outside world, proving its value in the internet age, he says.

In a disaster here, ham radio operators would go to shelters or other central locations and help out. They’re already connected with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Community Emergency Response Team, which is activated in major emergencies.

Newer electronics have enabled hand-held, battery-powered ham radios the size of a cellphone for $35. The hobby is affordable; Hadley got his radio, used, for under $100.

At his Medford home, Hadley turns his dials and listens to a range of mundane messages, such as weather — and a man talking about his dogs. Talk about religion or politics is frowned on. Abusive or hate speech can be reported to the FCC, which can levy fines. The FCC requires licensing and grants three levels of amateur radio licenses.

JCARES offers free, 12-week classes at the Smullin Center to prepare ham radio operators for the tests. The next one starts Aug. 6. Costs are $45 for two books and $15 for the test. It also offers workshops on building a radio kit, hunting transmitters and soldering.

Operators are always asked why they’re called “ham” radio operators. Hadley says it may have come from the old days of pounding on a key to transmit in Morse Code. Some operators were called “ham fisted.”

— Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.