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Ready for emergencies, ready for fun

Bainbridge ‘hams’ eschew email for the old-school challenge of amateur radio.

In case of earthquake, forest fire or Rotary Auction, call the Bainbridge Amateur Radio Club.

Ham operators are often the unsung communications heroes in emergencies and other big events, member Leo Barnecut says. In last year’s California forest fires, “the ham radio operators saved their bacon,” he said. “The first thing to go down is telephone lines and then cell-phones, so ham operators are state-of-the-art in an emergency.”

In fact, the Bainbridge Amateur Radio Club was formed 10 years ago when the fire department called out to local “hams” for the serious business of ensuring emergency communications. Today, the club is also a way for enthusiasts to meet socially: over breakfast, and the “hamfest” rummage sale of radio equipment.

All amateur radio operators are licensed by the FCC, with the commission’s database showing more than 200 hams on Bainbridge.

The club works with the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management Alternate Communications System and the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service; during fires in eastern Washington last year, club members were asked to be ready to deploy.

“There are times when hams are needed. The services they provide are crucial and life-saving,” club member David Mitchell said. “It’s a nice way to give in the community, and be geeky.”

Members take obvious pride as emergency volunteers; the club conducts periodic drills with the county in simulated crisis situations.

“It’s sort of like ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ with radios,” said Craig Hagstrom, club president and the emergency communication coordinator for Bainbridge.

Hams also provide communications for non-emergencies, like the Bainbridge Island Rotary Auction. Club members work the auction grounds, helping find lost children or calling in medical aid should it be needed in the auction crowd. They also provide communications during the annual Chilly Hilly bicycle ride.

Ham operators have been around for decades; Morse code was hams’ lingua franca, and radios were an outlet for “geeks” in the 1930s and 1940s.

Jack Klamm, a ham for more than 70 years, recalls getting in trouble in junior high for making crystal sets from school materials and selling them to other kids.

The club’s call letters are W7NPC, in honor of the 13th Naval District at Fort Ward during World War II whose call letters were NPC.

Amateur radio operators work with low-power systems using low frequencies, which can “wrap around” obstacles or bounce off the atmosphere to travel further than “line of sight.” Repeaters set up by hams allow a message to be relayed even further.

By contrast, cellular telephones use high frequencies and need a “line of sight” to the cell tower. Club member Bob Lewis said he and his wife use their hand-held radios instead of cell-phones to communicate on the island, notorious for spotty cellular coverage.

With many more outlets for techno-philes today, Hagstrom says the amateur radio hobby is slowly fading.

The club is always looking for new members, and on average new hams are in their 50s.

“Our biggest problem is that we can’t get the attention of the current amateurs, and kids aren’t taking this up as a hobby,” Hagstrom said.

But radios are not just for geeks. Hadley got involved by listening to ham channels on her short-wave radio.

She recalls one night listening to boy scouts talking to a fisherman in Alaska; club member Bob Nielsen got different news perspectives listening to the BBC or Radio Moscow during the Communist witchhunts of the 1950s.

Strict rules for message relaying ensures that messages passed over great distances arrive intact.

“It’s like ultra-slow email,” Hagstrom said. “But there’s a high confidence that a message will get through.”

Said Lewis, “Ham operators get dinged by computer people for being low-tech, but few people see how fragile the Internet can be,” noting that virus attacks can bring systems to their knees.

By contrast, he says, ham operators are a fairly loose collection of individuals, and their equipment is nearly impervious to any single catastrophe.

“We shrug off the dings, because when a hurricane hit south Florida, they couldn’t communicate until the hams showed up,” Lewis said.

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Hams, with eggs>/b>

The Bainbridge Amateur Radio Club meets for breakfast the first Saturday of each month. Information and location: 842-6907.

Community Events, April 2014

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