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Making a Difference: Ham radio operators offer connection in good, bad times

By Darrel Hammon - Special to the Daily Herald | Apr 8, 2023

Courtesy photo

Ben Booth works at his ham radio station in this undated photo.

From monitoring volcano eruptions in Tonga or earthquakes in Haiti to helping with community events like parades, marathons and bike races, amateur radio is often the first — and sometimes only — means of communication to the world outside the affected area.

A typical amateur radio operator may be just about anybody, attracting people of all ages, persuasions and walks of life from teachers to entrepreneurs, electrical engineers to truckers, kids in high school, a Yale computer science professor, a wheat farmer and beyond.

Ben Booth, a former technology teacher, received a ham radio as a gift from his son. “I began listening to a local ham operator group,” Booth explained. “They were doing a Net, which is where a Net Control Operator calls a roll of Hams (what they call ham radio operators) who have expressed interest to practice radio skills regularly. I was hooked.”

On the other hand, Stan Merrill, a former Yale computer science professor who moved with his wife to Park City, joined for a different reason.

“I wanted to protect my family by having good communications capabilities in the event of an earthquake, wild land fire, or other disaster,” Stan said. “I was told that ham radio was the best way to do that, so I got all three levels of license.”

Courtesy photo

Don Wood sits in front of his Ham radio set up in this undated photo.

According to Noji Ratzlaff, a Lockheed electrical engineer and head of the 1,100-member Utah Valley Amateur Radio Club, there are really two kinds of ham radio operators.

“The first is the hobby folks who look forward to weekends or special days when there are particular events where they can make as many contacts as they can. The other group is the utility folks who often get involved in preparedness fairs, emergency drills and the construction of their own antennas and solar stations,” Ratzlaff said.

Ham radio operators not only talk to people around the world, but they also learn and teach the science of it. Stan was drawn to ham radio operation because of the science aspects. “Ham radio operators have long been scientists in their own way and have made enormous impacts on the science. In fact, crew members on space stations have ham radios and talk with school children all over the world,” Stan said.

Over the years, NASA and universities have investigated what happens when you bounce radio waves off the ionosphere, and the subsequent consequences, during solar eclipses. Ham radio operators were among the first to investigate the occurrences.

“From the very beginning, ham radio operators loved to do wild and crazy things,” said Don Wood, an electrical engineer turned manufacturer and developer of medical devices and the leader of the Wasatch Back Tri-County Amateur Radio Group. “Over the years, ham operators advanced the art of radio transmission using the ionosphere and long-distance communication and in helping people in challenging situations.”

Courtesy photo

Darrel Hammon

Ben uses a computer program designed to parse out meaningful information from a noisy signal — often chatting with scientists from around the world. Numerous opportunities exist for ham radio operators to become involved and make a difference.

“Many hobbyists gravitate to volunteer organizations like ARES — Amateur Radio Emergency Service, RACES — Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or SKYWARN, a storm watch organization,” Ben said. “But it is fun to learn new things so you can become a better ham operator.”

Utah has a program called RACES that tests ham radio communications each month to assure that hams around the state can communicate in an emergency. Several counties and cities in Utah rely on ham radio operators to collect and forward information in the event of disasters so that county emergency managers are able to direct first responders.

Utah County utilizes ham radio operators as part of their Emergency Communications and Support Team according to Sgt. Quinn Fackrell from the Utah County Sheriff’s Communication Office.

“They work in various volunteer capacities, from training others, doing public safety fairs, setting up command centers, and providing communication and support in remote areas during emergency situations,” Sgt. Fackrell said. “Other cities are calling us all the time to see if they can come help them. My hat is off to them. These folks are willing to provide countless hours of service on their own time and their own dime.”

For many ham radio operators, working with emergency response groups in their communities is a high priority. Often, when an emergency occurs, ham operators are the first ones called on to help. “We have helped with many fires like the fire in Eagle Mountain or when someone was lost in Provo Canyon. When organizers asked for our help, we provide communication support,” Noji said.

When COVID-19 hit, the activity on ham radio skyrocketed. “Ham communication during COVID was significant,” Don said. “We helped people maintain their sanity throughout the world. The sociality of ham radio is phenomenal!”

Utah has its share of ham radio operators who provide service and sociality throughout Utah. The Utah Amateur Radio Club has about 20,391 men and women with active licenses, including Noji’s wife Lisa and Stan’s wife Helena!

Not only do ham radio operators have fun talking to people from all over the world, but they also watch potentially dangerous situations. Living near Rockport Reservoir, Ben makes sure to follow along with possible evacuation notices.

Amateur radio technology has changed over time but has not kept up with other fields where technology has surpassed it, such as Wi-Fi, cell phone, internet, and much more. “It’s old-school nature lends itself to simplicity,” said Noji, “which is one of the reasons it’s so reliable–no dependence on the internet. Ham radio can be completely self-sufficient.”

Even before the internet, ham radio operators were bouncing waves across the ionosphere, talking to people around the world, providing valuable communication help for communities during major disasters, keeping people safe, and helping communities during events where cell phones don’t work.

“Before social media, there was ham radio,” quipped Don. “It was the first social media.”

If you want to become a ham radio operator, check out http://hamstudy.org or http://hamradioprep.com to take a multiple choice 35-question test until passing with a score of 74%. You also need to register at https://apps.fcc.gov/cores/userLogin.do and pay a $35 fee.

Once you pass, the Federal Communications Commission will email your license and call sign. Like other licensed groups, you will need to renew your license after 10 years.

If you have more questions, please contact Noji Ratzlaff at nojiratz@hotmail.com, Don Wood at don wooddo@me.com, or the Utah Valley Amateur Radio Club at https://uvarc.club.


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