Speaking with E.A.R.S.

In an age of faster PCs, quicker download times and instant messenger, it would be easy to believe that amateur radio is slowly dying.

Having been in existence for over fifty years, Edmond Amateur Radio Society (EARS) has over  one hundred members and has become a trend, not only here but also around the country.

“Since 9/11, the interest in Ham radio has really increased. It seems that more people have become increasingly interested in emergency issues,” said Andrew John, president of EARS. “While there are always emergencies going on, in most instances the first established communications is Ham radio.”

John explains that when emergencies occur such as the Murrah Federal building or the tornadoes of May 3, 1999, the areas that are hardest hit have no means to communicate. In most instances, telephone lines have been broken.  Sometimes there is flooding and most of the time, the cellular lines are completely full. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is usually the first to respond and reestablish communications.

“[ARES] are the people who are serious about helping during disasters,” John said. “Basically, each person has a walkie-talkie style radio that has a small range of communication. What each person does is key their radios with repeaters, which are nothing more than a radio device attached to an antenna several hundred feet in the air, and the low-powered radio becomes very strong.”

The distance in these repeated signals can be converted from just a few miles to 50 or 60 miles. The idea is to have many of these mobile hammers (as they like to be called) covering large areas around major disasters such as in New Orleans after Katrina or Greensburg, Kansas after their May 4, 2007 tornadoes.

“We had members from our Edmond society that went in Louisiana after the hurricanes, and in many instances they were the only means of communication for several days,” John said. “There are also about twenty-five or thirty hammers that do storm chasing. They help not only the local televisions and radio stations, but also the National Weather Service listens in to their communications.”

The Federal Communications Commission requires a license to operate a Ham radio. There are three levels of licensing, ranging from entry level to advanced level. This is what determines who has access to which area of the bandwidth. The more advanced the license, the more long distance frequencies the user can operate in.

“When I got my license over thirty years ago, Morse Code was the standard to pass a test. To be licensed you had to be able to copy so-many words per minute,” John said. “Today, the United States was one of the last countries that lifted these requirements because most countries have begun to use voice-over radios.”

Another change in the amateur radio industry has been the size and cost of available radios. Once upon a time, it required at least a half-ton truck and large antennas to be a mobile hammer. Today, most of the radios are similar in size to the one in your car and can range to the size of a briefcase. The cost has also shrunk. A mobile radio and car antenna cost about $250, and a home antenna and power supply cost about $200.

“It's a fairly inexpensive hobby,” John said. “A person can spend up to $10,000 on a radio and antenna, if that is their preference. Me, I don't have one of those.”

The only thing to avoid is being a rag-chewer. “It is a term given to people that get on and talk for over thirty minutes,” he said with a laugh. “It fine. People even set-up networks and host shows that come on at the same time each week. All of us hammers are weird, but it's a different kind of weird. It’s really, really fun.”

There is much more to learn about the hobby of Amateur Radio. A class is available for anyone interested in obtaining a license. Log onto www.k5eok.org for all the information about classes, times, licensing and equipment.  

“Anyone can get their first license,” said John. “We have had grandmothers take the class who didn't know a thing about Hamming, and now they’re in communication with the entire world.”

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