KENAI — When Bill Nelson was growing up in the small town of Westport, Ore., he knew there had to be a better form of communication than two tin cans tied together.
His family’s radio had a short wave band on it so he could hear short wave broadcasts. In some instances, he was hearing broadcasts from other countries.
Nelson’s interest was instantly piqued.
“That was a fascination to hear radio from around the world,” said Nelson, who now lives in Kenai.
These were broadcasts not by radio stations, but by individuals controlling short wave broadcasts. In 1961, Nelson received his first ham radio license. He has been an operator ever since.
Ham radios are the last line of communication during an emergency where power outages would disrupt just about everything.
“When I think back to the big earthquake of ‘64 where all forms of communication were knocked out that relied on power, cell phone systems may or may not pick up the slack,” said Max Carpenter, Moose Horn Amateur Radio Club Director. “With a big emergency, the ham radio will probably be the only means of communicating any distances at all.”
The reason ham radios will still be functional is due to the fact they are mostly powered by generators or battery systems. Most operators can go portable, if needed, able to broadcast from a number of different areas. “All we have to do is set this stuff up, as long as the roads are open we can get out and do communications for public service, (send) messages to help the police and emergency responders,” Nelson said.
Carpenter has been a ham radio operator for almost 30 years, he used to work with a group called React, that would monitor C.B. channels for emergencies when a friend told him how much more he could do with a ham radio.
Much like Nelson, Dale Hershberger was about 14 when he started listening to shortwave broadcasts on the radio his family owned. As he heard more people talking on the radio, his interest expounded. Hershberger was a licensed ham radio operator 14 years later.
Although their titles read “amateur radio operators”, Hershberger said that is not completely accurate. “We’re all professionals in our field,” Hershberger said. “We’re professional amateur operators.
Hershberger and several other “professional amateur operators” could be found Saturday not alone behind the knobs of a radio, but gathered together for an annual event they said they all look forward to.
The American Radio Relay League is a national association for amateur radio. Every year, an event called Field Day is hosted, where operators are encouraged to set up their radios using only generators or batteries to ensure the goal of “being off the grid”. Nelson said he counted about 500 contacts from the Moose Horn club alone.
“That’s pretty good for us because the stations in the Lower 48, they’re talking to one another with their beam antennas pointed at each other,” Nelson said. “It’s hard for them to hear us, the beams are directional antennas pointing east and west, and we’re kind of northwest so we don’t have usually have a whole lot of success.
“But it’s always fun anyway.”
The Field Day lasts throughout the night - it started Saturday and ran through Sunday morning. Nelson estimated there were about fifty people coming in and out during that time.
Ham radio is not something that is going away any time soon, he contends.
There are more than 700,000 ham radio operators in the United States alone, Nelson said. Tests are required to become an operator, but nowadays, the questions and the answers are available online.
“If you’re a good memorizer, just go through the tests,” Nelson said. “We didn’t have that before, we had manuals and books - you didn’t know what the test questions were going to be.”
Operating ham radios may be somewhat of an unknown hobby, but the reality is that these operators are responsible for informing the public during emergencies.
“Ham radio is not dead, most people seem to get the mind set that you don’t need that kind of stuff. We have our cell phones, all we gotta do is punch in the numbers,” Carpenter said. “Cell towers are not always going to be available if the big emergency does come along.”