Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Shortwave radio works when all else fails

When the non-hygienic organic substance strikes the oscillating blades of the air distribution device and everything from 911 communications radios to cell phones are rendered useless, you can still rely on the weird guy down the street with the big antenna strapped to the side of his house.
More than 100 years after the advent of amateur radio, known as short wave, the old form of communication remains a backup to emergency crews in times of disaster. "We're sort of the third tier for disaster situations," said Dick Becker, an Orange County amateur radio enthusiast and member of the Culpeper Amateur Radio Association, which includes operators in Orange and Louisa counties. "If the power goes down, police and emergency radio communications can fail. They fall back on cell phones. But in emergencies, cell phones get overused and become useless. They then fall back onto the third tier. That's us."
On Saturday, the amateurs will turn pro for their annual field day, 24 hours of communicating via radio for points and fun. The Culpeper organization will swarm the Waugh Harley-Davidson parking lot in the town of Orange with mobile devices powered by generators, solar panels and battery packs.
The national event, sponsored by the Amateur Radio Relay League, is part practice and part competition, with points awarded for operators who can keep on the air without relying on fossil fuels or electricity and talk to as many other operators as possible.
It cranks up at 1800 UTC (Universal Time, Coordinated) on Saturday and winds down at 2059 UTC on Sunday. For those of us who don't surf the short waves, that's 2 p.m. Saturday to 4:59 p.m. Sunday.
We're invited to watch and learn.
"It's fun. You take mobile devices out into the park and you string wires in the trees to create a makeshift antenna and whatever else you can do to stay on the air and talk to as many people as possible," Mr. Becker said. "The idea is to simulate a situation where there is no power and find ways to keep communications open."
That's important. When hard winds blew through Northern Virginia last summer, they took out the 911 communications system, plus cell phones. Short wavers, however, remained in contact.
"When everything is down, they come to us. We relay information for emergency crews and we want to be available for as long as it takes. That's the idea behind keeping them running for at least 24 hours in this exercise," Mr. Becker said. "We want to stay on the air until the power's back on."
When called, they answer. When Hurricane Katrina blew through the South, amateur radio operators became the communications backbone, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many states have amateur radio stations in hospitals and emergency operations centers and amateur operators are an integral part of emergency operations in hurricane-rich Florida.
When officials at the nuclear plant in Louisa run disaster tests, short wave operators are often included.
Short wave doesn't need cable connectivity. It doesn't require Wi-Fi. There are no little bars telling short wavers that they don't have service.
"We're not reliant on that technology. We're not affected by storms. About the only thing that knocks us off the air is an electromagnetic pulse," he said. "Short of that, we're there."
"When Everything Else Fails, amateur radio often times is our last line of defense," said Craig Fugate, FEMAs top man. He made his comments in a 2012 earthquake emergency response forum. "We get so sophisticated, and we have gotten so used to the reliability and resilience in our wireless, wired and broadcast industry and all of our public safety communications, that we can never fathom that they'll fail. They do. They have. They will. I think a strong amateur radio community [needs to be] plugged into these plans."
Besides being a public service, amateur radioing is fun, Mr. Becker said. With an estimated 700,000 amateur radio operators in the United States and some 2.5 million worldwide, he doesn't run out of folks with whom to chat.
"I've talked to other operators in Moscow or Italy. It's fun and we share information about our equipment and maybe some modifications we've made," Mr. Becker said. "I guess you could say it's sort of the first social media."