Originally created 09/17/06

Ham it up



In a world where the cell phone and e-mail have become established modes of communication, Columbia County resident Dean Maples is still happy to ham.

Seated in front of an impressive array of transmitters, receivers and other assorted boxes of broadcasting magic, he carefully dials frequencies, listening for distant voices offering important, or merely interesting, information. He listens in as fellow amateur radio operators on the Eastern Seaboard check into an established frequency being monitored from Pennsylvania. Waiting for a break in the chatter, he hits the transmit key on his black microphone and offers his location, the weather and the clarity of the frequency. Later he will assist with a shift change as one moderator signs off and another signs on.

"When I was a kid, my dad had this big Zenith transoceanic radio," Mr. Maples said, leaning back in his chair. "He set it up in our basement, ran a wire and I would sit for hours, listening. One of the things I heard were these short-wave broadcasts, the hams, talking about tubes and antennas and it really just sparked my interest."

Later, Mr. Maples would contact the American Radio Relay League, a ham organization created in 1915, and build his first rig using proceeds from a paper route. Today, his equipment takes up an extensive section of his attic/workshop. Although his setup, which includes mobile radios, Morse code keys and a computer interface, represents a significant investment of time and money, he said starting is just as cheap as when he bought his first pieces as a boy.

"For $50 you can start," he said. "You don't need everything new. You can grow. Yes, this is a substantial investment, but it is also 30 years."

For Jeff Jackson, the district emergency director of Augusta's Georgia Department of Human Resources Division of Public Health, the interest in radio came later in life. Already an engineer, he became a ham man when he realized that the radios were used for much more than merely broadcasting audio signals.

"It was the idea that once you get a ham radio license you really have a license to experiment," he said from his station at the Richmond County Health Department, where he has been setting up an emergency-ready radio station. "I thought that was pretty cool," he said. "I mean, the more you look, the more things there are you can do. I was like a lot of people who think about the World War II technology, but there is something new all the time."

A big part of the hobby for both Mr. Maples and Mr. Jackson is public service, being able to volunteer during times of need.

"The first thing that happens in a natural disaster is phone lines get jammed up," Mr. Jackson said. "Sometimes this is the only means of communication. With this, we can have voice communication, e-mail; with the digital technology we can even send faxes."

Though almost completely volunteer, ham operators have become an integral part of most disaster-preparedness plans. During Hurricane Katrina, ham operators donated small hand-held units to emergency and law enforcement workers when their established systems were wiped out.

"They are critical to our planning," said Preston Harpe, the medical reserve corps coordinator for Georgia's East Central Health District. "Ordinarily we can communicate by phone or through the Internet, but those things can be vulnerable."

There's also a competitive aspect to the hobby. Mr. Harpe said he remembers that in the 1950s and '60s, it was all about a clean signal and raw power. He said people would fire up one-kilowatt rigs that would dim the lights. Today, technicians are concerned with finding the cleanest signal with the least amount of power or talking with the greatest number of countries.

"When you have contacted more than 100 countries, you get a certificate," Mr. Maples said with a laugh. "Hams call it wallpaper."

Both Mr. Jackson and Mr. Maples agreed that the real challenge of ham is getting young people interested. Mr. Maples, who is the Columbia County Amateur Radio Club secretary, said the group sets up every year at the Oliver Hardy Festival in Harlem in the hopes of interesting young would-be operators.

"We recognize that there are a lot of young people that don't know what ham radio is all about," Mr. Jackson said. "A lot of the hams are getting older, so it's necessary to educate young people, to get them involved."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

- North Augusta Amateur Radio Club: mywebpages.comcast.net/rwilliams309/K4NAB.html


- Augusta Amateur Radio Club: www.qsl.net/w4dv/


- Columbia County Amateur Radio Club: ccarc.hamradioman.com/