There is a large population of amateur radio hobbyists in Utah County, commonly known as ham radio operators.
“A few years ago when I started the program for Orem citizens to get prepared, they were talking about starting a club and I said, ‘I’ll host you,’” said JoAnna Larsen, Orem city's emergency manager.
Larsen oversees emergency preparedness both for the municipality and its residents, preparing them for any emergency such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.
The Utah Valley Amateur Radio Club officially organized Feb. 5 with the call sign K7UVA. A call sign is similar to a key or phone number used to contact someone. All licensed amateur radio operators have a call sign.
“It’s more like a station number like KSL, FM100, that kind of thing,” said Noji Ratzlaff, interim club president. His call sign? KN0JI.
In less than six months, the club has amassed more than 340 members who hail from Lehi to Payson, and it has already passed one of the oldest and largest clubs in the state in membership numbers.
“We have 340 and that’s because there is no other club in Utah County other than the one at BYU (membership 12),” Ratzlaff said. “For a long time to go to a club meeting you had to drive clear to Salt Lake or to Cedar City and St. George. That’s why it’s grown so fast.”
Having a locally-based ham radio club has also sparked interest among those who have been interested but uninvolved in the past.
One of UVARC’s charter members is C.D. Price, of Orem, call sign KF7MGY. He has a brother who has been a ham radio hobbyist but lives in San Diego.
“My brother’s been in it for several years. He’s part of the reason I got involved,” Price said. He has collected seven radios since picking up his interest in October and participating in UVARC.
“I have four handheld ones, a mobile and one is land-based,” he said.
In order to certify, a hobbyist once had to learn Morse code but that requirement was relaxed approximately a decade ago. Morse code is no longer required for any licensing.
“They got more repeaters, the equipment is less expensive, and people have become more interested,” Price said. “Morse code is still the preferred way to [communicate].”
He and his friend, James Moore, whose call sign is WG7JM, are members of the Utah County Amateur Radio Emergency Service organized by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.
Under the direction of the Utah Department of Public Safety and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) is a public service that provides a reserve communications group within government agencies for times of extraordinary need. When activated, RACES personnel are called upon to perform many tasks for the government agencies they serve. Several Utah counties and many cities also have service organizations, an emergency communication system of volunteers such as UCARES.
Additionally, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its own volunteer back-up communications system for emergencies called the Lindon or LDS Emergency Communication Services.
"And a lot of us belong to the Lindon Bishop’s Storehouse emergency radio communications,” Price said of UVARC members.
Another of UVARC’s founding or charter members, Aubrey Gum moved recently to Orem from Logan and spearheads the club’s Ladies Net. Her call sign is K7GUM.
“It’s a bunch of women who sit in on the same repeater but men are not allowed on that net, on that little program that we do,” Gum said.
A radio repeater is an electronic device that receives a weak or low-level amateur radio signal and can retransmit it at a higher level or higher power.
Larsen feels fortunate to have the Utah County club home based in Orem.
“We’re lucky in the city of Orem that we have such great citizens who are willing to take the initiative to help our community be more prepared,” Larsen said.
UVARC hasn’t just drawn statewide attention because of its explosive membership. At UVARC’s first official club field day in June, members contacted more than 1,244 stations nationwide in 24 hours and topped many older Utah amateur radio clubs in numbers, placing third in the state.
The annual contests are conducted in less than ideal situations, including using generator power, batteries, solar power, leaving the comforts of home and communicating without commercial power.
“These other clubs have been around 30 to 40 years and we’re brand new,” Ratzlaff said. “We did spectacular for our very first time.”
The competition is friendly because UVARC members are also competing against themselves; often many radio ham operators belong to more than one club.
Listed on the Utah Amateur Radio Club site, there are more than 40 organizations in Utah including three statewide clubs and one interstate: the American Relay Radio League Utah Section, the ARRL Rocky Mountain Division, the Utah VHF Society, the Utah D-Star Users. There are 18 area clubs registered in Utah from Tremonton to St. George and Tooele to Wanship and a quite a few specialty clubs such as the Utah Contest Club, a military club called the Utah Army Military Affiliate Radio System, and the Utah Microwave Group whose members like to build their own equipment.
Some of the UVARC members, as well as its interim president, also belong to Utah Amateur Radio Club based in Salt Lake County, or the Oquirrh Lake and Herriman clubs. According to Ratzlaff, the creation of the Utah Valley Radio Club was to give its members a closer location to gather instead of having to travel to Salt Lake County to meet.
While becoming a club member has little or no cost, a ham radio operator takes some dedication and can become a critical skill to have during a community emergency.
Ham radio operators were key in emergency communications during the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in 2015 where thousands died at its epicenter between Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal.
“For the longest time, ham radio operations were the only way to get through,” Ratzlaff said. “For the first 24 hours, nobody knew what was going on and ham radio was the only way to get out or in.”
UVARC secretary/treasurer Alma Perry is dedicated to helping people become licensed in amateur radio. According to Perry, you can become bona fide ham radio operator by going to hamstudy.org and, with minimal preparation, pass the licensing test.
“I tell people if you study for 30 minutes a day for one week, you can pass the test,” Perry said.