Radio 'hams' still play key roles during disasters

BY ELIZABETH MELVILLE ELIZABETH@NEWNAN.COM When natural disasters strike — like the recent, deadly tornados that devastated regions of the southeast, especially Tuscaloosa, Ala., — the public is reminded of the importance of amateur radio operators. Following Hurricane Katrina and, even now in Tuscaloosa, ham radio operators are equipped to set up communications when a region’s infrastructure and cell towers have been obliterated.
“In Tuscaloosa, ham radios are filling the gap in communications,” said Eddie Wilson, president of the Coweta area ham radio club — the Bill Gremillion Memorial Radio Club. Wilson wants the public to know that despite a misconception that ham radios are becoming obsolete, the number of amateur radio operators licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is beginning to swell once again — and especially in the field of emergency preparedness. The local ham radio club will be participating in the largest on-air amateur radio event beginning June 25, at 2 p.m. and concluding June 26, at 2 p.m. The two-day event will take place at the Coweta County Fairgrounds on Pine Road in the animal barn, according to Wilson. It’s sponsored by the American Radio Relay League. “Anybody’s welcome — this is open to the public,” said Wilson. “Field Day,” as the event is called, is an opportunity for people to find out what amateur radio is all about, and it also serves as an emergency preparedness exercise for radio operators. Visitors, young and old, will have the opportunity to talk to people around the world on the radio during Field Day. “This is an opportunity for amateur radio operators to demonstrate emergency preparedness from a location where they don’t normally operate,” said Wilson. “We demonstrate our abilities by running on generators — non-commercial power. No communications infrastructure can be used during Field Day. We set up from scratch.” Wilson said he encounters people who don’t know what Ham Radio is. “All you need to talk is two radios — one on each end,” he said. “No infrastructure needs to exist to communicate.” Wilson was introduced to the world of amateur radio mainly through his career. He got his ham radio license in 1965 as a teenager in Louisiana. Later, he studied electronics in technical school and served as a radio technician in the Air Force for four years. Following his military service, Wilson was employed at Delta Air Lines as a avionics technician. During Wilson’s 31 years at Delta, he traveled extensively and often used his non-working hours to communicate via his ham radio, according to his wife, Kathy. “Once it gets in your blood, it sticks there,” said Wilson. What first attracted him to ham radio was simple — “I like technology.” “People think amateur radio is a dying technology,” he said. “It’s not. We have digital voice and digital data. Current state-of-the-art technology can be applied to ham. There are things available that weren’t available when I started. We’re evolving.” Wilson’s amateur radio has given him the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people — some in person and others only over the radio. In Santiago, Chile, Wilson noticed a ham radio antenna on an old school building and went it to inquire about it. Wilson learned the building had, at one time, housed a radio club. He was invited to use the antenna there in the evenings. Wilson became a regular there when he was in Santiago on business. A scuba diving trip to Truk Lagoon led Wilson to a visit with another ham radio operator on the island. From a taxi, he noticed an amateur radio antenna at a church. Someone at the church said there was a “ham” atop a nearby mountain, and Wilson made the trek. He met and befriended Sam — “V63KU” — a local operator. And Wilson can’t set his hobby aside even on vacation, says Kathy. On the his 22nd wedding anniversary vacation to Costa Rica, Wilson set up his radio and made several contacts around the world and talked to his ham buddies in Georgia — all from the balcony of the hotel while enjoying a Costa Rican sunset. Kathy gave her husband the best birthday present several years ago when she secretly studied for the amateur radio operator licensing test and passed. On his birthday, she presented him with her license, much to his pleasure. “The opportunities to meet people with a common interest is tremendous,” said Wilson. He wants the public to know, “We’re not a dying breed.” The public is invited to learn more about amateur radio at the Field Day event. On June 25 from 4-6 p.m. the club will be providing hot dogs and cold drinks. The Bill Gremillion Memorial Radio Club (BGMRC) is the local group for many of Coweta County’s amateur radio operators. Many of them meet on Thursday mornings at Chick-fil-A on Bullsboro in Newnan for breakfast, and the club has a monthly meeting the third Thursday evening of each month. BGMRC operates a booth at the Powers’ Crossroads Festival every year on Labor Day weekend and participates in the Amateur Radio Field Day event each June. They also volunteer as back-up communications with Coweta Emergency Management. “Even homeland security recognizes the importance of amateur radio,” said Wilson. For more information, contact Wilson (K4UN) at 770-583-2062, or visit them online, bgmrc.org .


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