tampabay.com

Riding the waves of the storm

Ham radio operators take part in an emergency drill that puts their hobby to the test. Last year, many were sent to help with post-Katrina efforts.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published June 25, 2006



TAMPA — When a hurricane knocks out major communications, it could take days to fix.

That’s when a ham radio operators become an electronic lifeline. They can be on the air within a matter of minutes, said Bill Bode,  chairman of the Tampa Amateur Radio Club.

As part of a national amateur radio preparedness exercise, ham operators spent the weekend simulating deployment for a national disaster. The Tampa Amateur Radio Club held camp at the Upper Tampa Bay Park where members set up antennas and began communications during a 24-hour drill.

Bode said the location of the exercise remained a secret to participants until Friday afternoon, to make the deployment as realistic as possible.

“Our biggest challenge is to get people to understand what we do,” said Bode, who began immersing himself in the ham radio hobby five years ago.

Bode’s group works closely with the American Red Cross and Hillsborough County emergency officials, including Tampa police and fire agencies.

When Hurricane Katrina hit last year, Hillsborough officials sent local ham radio operators to help with communications on the Gulf Coast until things began to stabilize.

“The thing about ham radio is it’s a hobby, and they’re very good at their hobby,” said Gary Sessums , Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services   officer for Hillsborough emergency management. “They’re very good at MacGyver situations.”

Bode said his Tampa group has about 120 members. The weekend’s emergency drill, called a “Field Day” nationally, drew about 30 active participants to the site.

At the Upper Tampa Bay Park, radio operators set up antennas near RV’s. Some communicated over the airwaves by voice, some by Morse code and others used digital packets that could relay information like location and weather, with less static in the transmission.

Ham radio operators like to say their radio system works when others don’t. Bode said many of the operators are able to transmit communications from their car.

“As long as we can use our cars, we can operate,” he said.

When they aren’t being called up for a disaster, ham radio operators offer their skills in other ways.
They supply communications for charity walks and other nonprofit events.

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.