Ham radio club enthusiasts have hobby that also helps in crises

Published 2:12 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mention the term “Ham radio operator” to most people, and they will envision an old codger, puffing on a pipe or cigar, sitting in his shed by the house with a set of headphones on, talking to someone on the other side of the world, with a massive antenna shooting up right beside his hobby shack.

But did you know that Highland Community Hospital has a ham radio station. So does the Pearl River County Hospital in Poplarville. So does the Emergency Operations Centers in Poplarville and Picayune. So does the Pearl River County Baptist Association Shelter out from McNeill, and the fire stations.


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It’s because, says Larry Wagoner, when all other communication systems go down in an emergency such as a hurricane, ham radio operators are the last ones who are still “talking to one another.”

As a matter of fact, the local Pearl River County Amateur Radio Club, helped install the stations here.

Wagoner, a ham radio enthusiast and club public relations officer, says he first got interested in amateur radio as a young lad of seven because a few member of his family urged him to start looking into it.

Later he read more about it and then “took the plunge.” He now is the vice president of the county club, and the club just recently held what is called a “Ham Fest” at the old National Guard Armory at Poplarville.

The club has about 34 members, with some members from Washington and St. Tammany parishes in Louisiana and also from nearby Stone County.

At the fests, amateur radio operators get together and talk about each others’ “rigs” and vendors also show up hawking the latest ham radio gadgets and communication gear.

While the county club here just held their fest, and it won’t be until next December when the locals get together again, there are other club fests planned nearby in Hammond in January and Slidell in July.

Used to be, it wasn’t easy to become a ham radio operator. The main obstacle was having to learn Morse Code (CW or continuous wave for short), which was a stumbling block for many. Wagoner said that in 2007 the Federal Communication Commission phased out that requirement, and the licensed amateur operators shot up in numbers.

“I was one of the last of the coded generals. Right after I qualified with the code, they did away with it,” said Wagoner.

Wagoner, who lives in the Henleyfield Community and on his day job works for a private hospice company, says that as a ham radio operator, he has talked to other enthusiasts in about 100 countries and to residents in all 50 states.

There are an estimated 6 million ham radio enthusiasts in the world.

“Some of our guys have talked to persons in over 300 countries, so what I have accomplished is not that big a deal,” he said.

Wagoner said that most people think that it is very expensive to become a ham radio operator. “They envision a big, expensive radio tower outside their home, a big, powerful, high-priced radio, but you can really get into it without a lot of expenses,” he said.

Wagoner said the local county-based club offers classes for those interested in getting their license and also shows members how to string an inexpensive antenna that will allow them to communicate with the world just “with a string of wire and some insulators.”

“In fact, most guys prefer the inexpensive homemade antennas and radios, as opposed to the manufactured varieties, although you can get some deals there, too,” he said.

Wagoner says there are three levels of licenses one can qualify under: tech, general and amateur extra.

The basic tech license allows one to operate on most bands, among them the most popular 2-meter band. The general license allows an operator to get into bands that are used worldwide and the amateur extra class license expands band usage even more, he says.

He said the local club offers a three-Saturday course to get started and to earn a license.

Wagoner said that most people don’t realize that the amateur bands occupy more space in the frequencies regulated by the FCC than just about any other. Only the military occupies more space.

Wagoner said some enthusiasts get into antique radioing, like operating the old tube-type radios, called “boat anchors.” Says Wagoner, “Those guys say it ain’t real radio if it don’t glow.”

Radios first operated using vacuum tubes that warmed up hot enough for the wires inside the glass bulb to glow. Transistors later replaced the old tubes.

Ham radio can be traced back to the early 1900s when radio first began. Amateurs have always blazed a trail in new uses of the medium, and they do it as a hobby and not for money.

Ham radio really took off here after Katrina when not only government officials, but the general public, found out how valuable amateurs were after all types of communications failed and went down.

“They were called the ‘unsung heroes’ during and after the storm,” said Wagoner.

Said Joe Spraggins, Harrison County’s EOC director, “If it hadn’t been for the amateur radio operators, we would not have had communications with other agencies. . .ham radio saved the day.”

Pearl River County Emergency Management Director Danny Manley said that the local amateur operators are definitely necessary to round out the readiness of the emergency system here that would go into operation in case of a disaster.

“In case of a disaster that knocks everything out, they have a network to communicate between the cities, the county and the state. In addition, most of them are weather spotters, which is another necessary capacity we need here during emergency situations,” said Manley.

He said that the emergency management headquarters and offices in Picayune and Poplarville are equipped with ham stations. “They set it up for us, all by themselves. They are a great asset for the county,” said Manley.

Anyone interested in joining the club can call Wagoner at 601-799-1387.