BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – They slide into their cramped trailers filled with computers, radio equipment, a soda scattered about here and there, and maybe a snack, and they sit trying to hook-up with other people doing the same thing around the world.
They’re not hackers, although some could envision hackers doing the same thing. These are ham radio operators binging on their radio set-ups to try and connect with people around the world from Fort Madison’s Rodeo Park New Lion Shelter house.
About four trailers and a large generator are parked in the gravel just off Airport Road and antenna wires are strung across the northern part of the park about 25 feet in the air.
The operators were on hand for a 24-hour emergency preparedness drill beginning Saturday at 1 p.m. and running through Sunday at 1 p.m. sponsored by American Radio Relay League. Locally the event was supported by the Lee County Emergency Management Agency.
Steve Cirinna, Lee County Emergency Management Agency coordinator, said he works with the group annually to put on the preparedness drill so in the event regular communications go down, the area has workable communication systems.
“If we ever need emergency communications this is where I’ll come. If anything fails, we’ve got these guys,” Cirinna said.
He said the National Weather Service out of the Quad Cities actually has a ham radio station and most of those folks there are ham radio operators. The state emergency operations center in Des Moines also has a complete ham radio communication center.
“We just went through this with a table top exercise on a New Madrid Fault situation,” Cirinna said. “Obviously you’d have damaged infrastructure and power lines, and when all that stuff goes out and we need someone up and running and get communications going, it’s gonna be these guys.”
John Hobart, a ham operator from Warsaw, Ill., who’s part of the Fort Madison Amateur Radio Club, said the radios allow local to worldwide communication.
Hobart said he’s been licensed since 1977 and has been going to this annual event since 1983. He said he’s never been called into action with his system, which he said is valued at more than $10,000. He said it’s a hobby like any other.
“Sometimes I’m on hours a day and other times I go a month without ever getting on.”
Technology has taken the primitive radio system into the digital world.
“We can take a router and redo the programming and make it work within our ham frequency and we can use that over the air. It’s more private over our own intranet, and we can interface that over an Internet setup,” Hobart said.
“We’re just getting started with it but we can relay to another local and so on. We could set up a video in an emergency situation to show what’s going on.”
Dave Haworth of Fort Madison got licensed in 1960 just out of junior high on a temporary basis and then in 1991 got back into the hobby.
“The general purpose of this weekend is to practice for emergency preparedness,” Haworth said. “We always hear about Hurricane Katrina and the ham radio operators were the only voice to the outside world.”
Haworth said the ham radio operators were called into action during the 1993 floods to help take some of the burden off local emergency response teams to help relay some of the more basic information. He said that responsibility is why they do annual drills.
“We practice being prepared for total power outages and sometimes total mayhem scenarios,” he said.
“In the flood of 1993, ham radio operators up and down the river shadowed emergency services personnel. All the emergency services communication would be done through their radios, but when they got overwhelmed with other traffic, like Health and Welfare, they handed that off to us and we took care of that for them so they could concentrate on what they needed to do.”
He said some ham operators will also work hand-in-hand with Red Cross officials during disaster relief efforts for welfare traffic.
The group uses off-the-grid power provided from the generator on-site and tries to see how many connections they can make throughout the country.
“We set up here and we’re allowed to get on the air for 24 hours to see how many people and how far can we reach in 24 hours without plugging into the wall,” Haworth said.
“It’s partly a contest and partly for fun. We get points. Last year this club was one of the top point leaders in the Midwest for our class, which is 2A. That designation means two radios on auxiliary power.”
Inside one of the trailers Michael Robins of West Point was teaching his nine-year-old son Tristan, how to make connections using call signs, letters, and a small black tuning dial. The contacts were then logged into a database that is tracked by the American Radio Relay League for points.
Tristan made several attempts and then finally made a contact. They don’t carry on much of a conversation, but exchange call signs and class for the current contest.
“The goal is to get as many contacts as you can. That one came in loud and I made him jump on it and that’s all it was. He gave us his information, which I already had by listening to him. We gave him ours and we confirmed it and logged it,” the older Robins said.
He said usually the group has a GOTA radio, which stands for Get On The Air, set up so anybody who came by could try it, but with the impending weather they didn’t set that up this year.
Tristan doesn’t have a license, but since his father, who’s been licensed since 2005 was with him, the two were able to monitor the radio as a team.
The other two trailers included a CW trailer, which is continuous wave signals, such as Morse Code, where the audio wave is a beep on or off.
Jim Livengood of Burlington and Larry Newby of Denmark were manning the station in the other small trailer, with Livengood wiggling a shiny morse code activator in response to a flurry of beeps coming in over a speaker.
Those two were also capturing connections and logging them into the system.
The term “ham” has a checkered and storied past. Some say the name is actually an acronym, supposedly from the last names of the Harvard Radio Club members who started the first amateur radio stations. Albert Hyman, Bob Almy and Poogie Murray. Wikipedia says the term “ham” comes from the amateur nature of the operators.