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Ham radio keeps communication lines open

Operators hold competition in Lake Oswego
by: Submitted, Will McKinney, left, and Ron Kinder operate ham radios as part of the Lake Oswego Amateur Radio Emergency Service. The service is designed to assist Lake Oswego Fire Department in a disaster. Members of the group spent 24 hours at Westlake Park Saturday to raise awareness about their jobs and join in a competition between ham radio operators in the Western Hemisphere.

Little-known fact: When the Twin Towers collapsed Sept. 11, 2001, ham radio operators around New York set up a critical communication network that kept police and fire officials in touch with hospitals, crisis centers and other emergency facilities.

'(Ham radio) is wireless and it's broadband enough that somehow the message can get through,' said Cathy Dausman of the Lake Oswego Amateur Radio Emergency Service.

In a society increasingly concerned with disaster preparedness, ham radio operators - amateurs licensed to operate radios on bandwidth managed by the Federal Communications Commission in America - are a growing part of the strategy to coordinate emergencies, nationwide and in Lake Oswego.

Locally, ARES is sponsored by the Lake Oswego Fire Department and regularly prepares to supplement communications in an emergency. The group includes about 15 very active members and a list of about 100 others who operate ham radios in the Lake Oswego area.

Testing their capabilities as part of an international competition, ARES members set up camp in Westlake Park Saturday for a 24-hour ham radio marathon that brought tech junkies out in force.

Using batteries, solar panels and generators powered by diesel and gas, ARES members spent the night in the park, operating radios in shifts, competing to generate the highest number of contacts in the competition.

'It's supposed to prove that we can operate out in the open without conventional power, without help from anyone,' Dausman said. 'The object of this field day is to prove yourself self-sufficient.'

Ham radios, which have a transmitter and receiver in one unit, use antennas and satellite dishes to send and receive signals. Satellite dishes can reach across continents, battling the sunspot cycle and weather factors to send signals around the world. Ham radios can also link to computers, substituting as the modem. The radios can be as small as a cell phone, some much larger, and are privately owned and maintained.

Last year, 33,078 ham radio operators joined the annual contest sponsored by the American Radio Relay League. Through radios, they generated 1,217,693 contacts in a 24-hour period in the same fashion as ARES members on Saturday.

Larry Goff, battalion chief and emergency manager for the Lake Oswego Fire Department, said ARES ability to communicate in a disaster is big benefit to the city.

'In any kind of disaster you can think of communication is always going to be one of your biggest hurdles,' Goff said.

Pointing to the 1996 floods, which isolated Vernonia and some parts of Lake Oswego, prompting emergency officials to walk door-to-door on the canals, Goff said the possibility of similar incidents prompted the fire department to add the radio component to its already extensive citizen volunteer network.

In an emergency, Goff can activate ARES by either contacting group members before a big event, like a hurricane, or by having members automatically respond to fire stations in a disaster.

While dispatch radios are reserved exclusively for emergency communication, Goff said ARES can maintain critical links to shelters, hospitals and other crisis facilities.

'It's really critical that we have this additional communication system,' Goff said. 'We feel really fortunate in this city to have a group that's really dedicated to providing a service like this.'

The group meets weekly on the air on Sundays and stages regular disaster drills to test its members' ability to respond.

Rick Dimos, an active ARES member and a long-time radio operator, said the need for ham radios is essential in disasters and the public often thinks modern communications have eliminated their need.

'A cell phone tower can only handle about 130 calls,' Dimos said. 'People say we have cell phones now, we don't need this, well they're wrong … People who have been involved in a disaster situation know what a cell phone can't do.'

Dimos said there are other perks to ham radios. For some, Dimos said, ham radios are just fun. Some groups meet daily like on the Internet and some use ham radios to make friends. Dimos himself uses a ham radio to stay in touch with college friends. Sometimes, he said, he'll chat with the contacts he makes around the world, including a World War II veteran who used to repair radios in B-52 bombers.

Dimos has operated a radio since he was 14 years old and said he enjoys battling the sunspot cycle and learning how to position an antenna during the right time of year to reach out further into the world. He said he first contacted Japan about three years ago and looks forward to the contacts he makes over distance.

Like many participants in the Lake Oswego ARES group, his biggest interest in ham radios is their ability to be ready when people need them most.