As you are reading this, there is probably someone, somewhere in the Heber Valley, talking through their radio to another radio operator somewhere else in the country. This thought may conjure up an image of a gray-bearded man hunched over a microphone in a poorly lit, damp basement, turning knobs on a mysterious box; using a length of old speaker wire, that spent 10 years in a corner of the garage, as the antenna, and likely powering it all from a roof-mounted solar panel. Such are the caricatures of amateur (ham) radio operators.
In reality that caricature couldn’t be further from the truth.
Today, you’ll find amateur radio operators from all walks of life across the globe. Amateur radio is not only a service but a popular hobby that brings people, electronics, and communication together. It is used to talk across town, around the world, and into the vastness of space — all without the use of the internet or cell phones.
Wireless communication was first accomplished using Morse code or telegraphy; today our ability to communicate over vast distances has evolved and simplified. We can video chat with a family member half way around the world with lucid clarity. It’s so much more intimate and quite a lot easier. So, why on earth would we use a radio to talk to someone that we may not even know?
Well…people have been doing it for over 121 years. And, it’s fun, social, educational, and can be a lifeline during times of need.
History of Wireless Communication
In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi sent the first Transatlantic wireless message; and the amateur radio hobby was born. Technology improved and hardware was invented and designed to make the process of generating a radio wave more efficient.1
Within the next few years ‘professional’ radio operators (whether commercial or military), were paid to maintain radio communication and be on the air. Transmissions were largely Morse code and were often interrupted (both unintentionally and intentionally) by amateur operators, due to their stations generally being more powerful than commercial stations. The frustrated commercial operators would jest about the “hams” or “ham fisted” amateurs out there, implying they were poorly trained or unskilled. Why use “ham” to describe them? 2
The word “ham” comes from the last names of the first three amateur radio operators who ran the Harvard Radio Club in 1908; Hyman, Almy, and Murray. Ham was their stations call. In 1909 the name was used as a pejorative nickname — a stab at ‘amateurs’ — from operators in commercial, military, and professional radio communities. The name stuck and is now used with mixed feelings; some embrace it while others feel it is derogatory. Most in the community prefer “amateur radio”.
By the onset of World War 1 there were many thousands of amateurs. However, all amateur radio activity ground to a halt. Several thousand amateur radio operators joined the military. Although amateur radio operators were no longer able to operate for recreation during wartime, they became servicemen and communications specialists in the military. The hobby sprang back to life afterwards and the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) was established by the time the US entered WWII.
When most of the 60,000 amateur radio operators joined the armed forces, the organization (ARRL) lobbied for the War Emergency Radio Service and this brought specific radio communication licenses to local municipalities. This service would help communities stay abreast of war information regarding their safety and, like today, offer a communication service during natural disasters. Of those who hadn’t gone to war, licensed amateur radio operators were the only people allowed and available to operate in this special service. 3
Public Service is Fundamental
Referred to as Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES for short, pronounced air-eeze), volunteer amateur radio operators seek training to fill the communication gap when public communication systems cannot meet the need. Our ARES Emergency Coordinator in Heber Valley, Doug Thompson, said this may include police and fire departments, hospitals, county health offices, and others.
Public agencies must communicate during disasters or emergencies, potentially more than at any other time. One such case is the recent wild-fire in Boulder County, Colorado that started on December 30th 2021 called the “Marshall Fire.” The flames started mid-morning and quickly spread as an enormous western windstorm bellowed across the mountains up to 110 miles per hour.4
As reported by Allen Bishop, Emergency Coordinator of Boulder County ARES, in the early hours of the blaze there were widespread power failures; and utility providers cut remaining power services. This resulted “in the loss of commercial communications including land lines, DSL services and related cellular communications. Following the failure of commercial battery backup systems for cellular and land line communications, 911 services for the Boulder Mountain Communities also failed.”
A few hours later the Boulder ARES team had established a network of communication that included a way for the affected mountain communities to get emergency service calls out over radio.5
Emergency Communication in Heber Valley
Doug Thompson became an amateur (ham) radio operator in 2001 “after the  tornado incident in Salt Lake when all the cell phones locked up.” He explained that he wanted a way to communicate when other systems failed. He pursued the ARES training and brought those skills home to Heber.
Although Heber Valley is home to some 150 or more licensed amateur radio operators, only 10% of them are active in regular network communication. With such a small group from which to draw, very few are trained for Amateur Radio Emergency Services. Thompson describes this as a hurdle to overcome when trying to facilitate ARES activity in our valley.
Emergency amateur radio stations are set up at the County Search and Rescue building, the Police Station, County Public Works building, and the County Health Department. These stations are meant to help meet their specific communication needs during an emergency event. A trained amateur radio operator performs the duties needed by each of those agencies. If those stations cannot communicate directly, then they fall back on a powerful repeater which retransmits the radio signal across the whole valley from a mountain top. However, the necessary communication and skills that will help police and fire departments generally require ARES training. Heber Valley needs more ARES trained operators to run these stations.
With amateur radio operators dispersed throughout the community, Heber Valley will be able to keep communication open during a disaster. Maybe a neighbor desperately needs insulin or another needs formula for their baby, neither with a way to get it. When the radio messages reach the proper help, goods can be located and sent; this all works quicker with a network of radio communication.
Amateur radio operators (hams) develop their communication skill set by using their radios on a regular basis. Each Wednesday night at 9:00 p.m., an on-the-air meeting is held for local amateur radio operators. This somewhat formal “Net” (as it is called) goes through any local announcements that might involve local events, potential service opportunities needing radio operators, or other radio news. Then a roll-call is held where each operator checks in. Afterward, many stay on the air and chat.
The radio operators that participate in the weekly “Net,” have expressed that radio communication is a critical part of their preparedness plan and has influenced their approach to preparedness in general. Many amateur radio operators can power their radios independent of power utilities if the grid goes down. As with any preparedness skill; practice brings refinement and tempering for the time when crisis arrives.
Portable radio operating is very popular and keeps hams sharp. This often means going somewhere unconventional, like a state or national park (Parks on the Air) or a mountain top (Summits on the Air). This method often requires putting radio, antenna, battery, and other essentials in a backpack and setting up a temporary field station. Once on the air, operators often have to manage the many contacts that are trying to get through to them. Participating in these types of radio activities, inexperienced operators quickly learn how to properly document who they’ve talked to and verify any exchanged information, or “traffic.”
There is one very particular time of year when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of important messages being communicated over radio. Can you guess where to? The North Pole. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, sons and daughters of amateur radio operators speak directly to Santa and express their Christmas wish. Something that seemed to be only magical simply becomes real through radio for children.
In certain parts of the country and world, where people are cut off from technology or don’t have the means for the internet, amateur radio might be the only way they have to communicate with the outside world. Stop and sit with that thought for a bit.
Are You Radio Ready?
How will you stay in touch with your family and community if phone systems and power utilities are brought down by a wildfire, earthquake, or another disaster? How will we address the emergency needs of the community if we cannot talk to one another in real-time? We won’t have the luxury of preparing as “we cross that bridge.” You might be well prepared in many departments but are you prepared for communication without the help of your cell-phone or internet?
Just as the residents of Boulder County, Colorado had no idea they were going to rely on a group of volunteer amateur radio operators to access emergency services at the end of 2021. There is no foretelling when the community will have need for amateur radio operators to step up. Become a ‘ham’ today — It’s fun, social, educational, and can be a lifeline during times of need.
During emergencies involving disasters when cellular phones are in high use, send text messages as they require less resource to get a message through.
Ares Section: A local division of trained, volunteer amateur radio operators ready to serve the communities communication needs during disasters and emergencies.
Radcom: Join in a radio NET with a regular hand held, FRS walkie talkie; GMRS users are welcome as well. This is held each Wednesday evening at 8:30 PM. This is not an amateur radio function but is valid for community emergency communication. Visitors are welcome.
Local Amateur Radio Net: For licensed amateur radio operators only, Wednesday evenings at 9:00 PM on the Wilson Peak Repeater, 147.20 MHz with a PL tone of 88.5 Hz and a positive 0.6 MHz offset. Know a ham? Listen in!
Read about how Salt Lake City ‘hams’ offered their services during the tornado event of 1999 in the UARC Microvolt Newsletter from October 1999
1 Maxwell, J. (2000, January) Amateur Radio: 100 Years of Discovery. QST. 28-34.