Sharing amateur radio

Amateur radio operator Digger O’Dell shares some tips with an interested youngster Saturday at the MARS/amateur radio station on NAS Whidbey Island during the American Radio Relay League’s Kids’ Day. Photo Courtesy of B.J. O’Dell

Amateur radio is one of those hobbies that doesn’t usually get a lot of attention.

Until there’s an emergency or natural disaster, that is, when Ham radio operators play a vital role in establishing communication and relaying information.

Members of the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island MARS/amateur radio station were on hand Saturday to help foster an interest in amateur radio among children, as part of the annual American Radio Relay League’s Kids’ Day.

While the day got off to a bit of a slow start (there were no children present during the time the Whidbey Crosswind was there), things picked up during the afternoon, and organizers said a few youngsters who came to test the air waves.

“It was a lot of fun. We made popcorn and stayed till four in the afternoon,” said Digger O’Dell, one of the MARS/amateur radio operators on hand for the day. “If you have one kid come in, that’s a success and after that it’s just fun.”

O’Dell said one of the first participants to arrive, a 9-year-old girl, was able to talk with twins from Missouri.

“They had a real neat talk,” he said.

Other contacts were made with children in Utah, California, Pennsylvania and a special event station at the birthplace of Orville and Wilbur Wright in Indiana.

The youngest participant in Saturday’s Kids’ Day was just 4 years old. According to O’Dell, there is really no age restriction for Ham radio operators. In order to get an amateur radio license, one has to understand the pertinent Federal Communications Commission regulations and demonstrate practical knowledge of equipment and safety.

While understanding the regulations may be out of reach for a young child, older children who are able to grasp the concepts and rules and can pass the examination can get their license. But anyone, young children included, can gain knowledge and on-air experience without a license.

“The FCC law is that if you are with a control (licensed) operator, you can talk on an amateur radio,” O’Dell said.

“The more you do it, the better you get,” he said. “So if you want to be one, ask one.”

Retired Navy officer Digger O’Dell makes adjustments to the radio equipment at the NAS Whidbey Island MARS/amateur radio station Saturday. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

A lost art?

To assume amateur radio has gone the way of the dinosaur would be a mistake, at least according to the folks at the NAS Whidbey MARS station.

“I keep thinking it’s a lost art, but it really isn’t,” said Willie Oliver, the Island County assistant emergency coordinator for the American Radio Relay League. “If you look at the numbers, (involvement in Ham radio) has stayed pretty steady.”

“People say ‘Ham is going down,’ but it’s really not,” agreed Richard Isakson. “If you look at the numbers, membership (in amateur radio clubs) is also staying consistent.”

Isakson cited a new Ham radio club at South Whidbey High School as an example of continued interest in amateur radio. The group formed shortly before the end of the school year.

And with the popularity of computers and cell phones among today’s youth, it’s not surprising to people involved with amateur radio that teenagers in particular can be drawn to it as a hobby.

“It’s a technical hobby,” said Oliver. “So if you’re interested in the technical aspect of electronics, this is a good fit.”

Oliver said there are a couple of misconceptions about amateur radio.

“One is that it’s hard to get into — it really isn’t,” he said. “And two, people think it’s expensive. It doesn’t have to be.”

Oliver and O’Dell said it’s usually easy to find old equipment to get started in amateur radio. And because people can practice with other Ham radio operators before they get their license, it gives them a good chance to learn about the equipment and to know what kind they want to get when it’s time to make a purchase. As far as licensing fees, the FCC doesn’t charge for a license. The only cost involved is usually for study materials and test fees, which is nominal.

“You learn stuff as you use it,” agreed Isakson. “You learn the basics and people will show you the rest.”

“You can even borrow equipment until you get your own,” said O’Dell. “Hams like to help each other.”

Digger O’Dell adjusts the radio receiver at the MARS/amateur radio station at NAS Whidbey Island. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

MARS and disasters

While amateur radio enthusiasts can use the air waves to talk to people from all over the world, there is another function for the station at NAS Whidbey. MARS stands for Military Auxiliary Radio System and is a program sponsored by the Department of Defense and operated by the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force.

“MARS operates on Department of Defense coordinated frequencies instead of FCC frequencies,” explained Oliver.

MARS is mainly a civilian auxiliary, but its programs also include active duty, reserve and National Guard units and Coast Guard cutters and shore stations, among others.

Its primary mission is to provide auxiliary emergency communications to agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security, but also assists state and local emergency response agencies.

In the past, a large part of what MARS stations did was pass along morale and welfare messages by patching telephone calls through to active duty service men and women around the world. With the advent of the Internet and email, those services aren’t in high demand any longer.

But there was a time when a telephone patch could literally mean the difference between life and death.

O’Dell’s wife, B.J., who is a licensed MARS operator and a former Navy nurse, recounted a time when she helped coordinate communication between a Navy ship between Guam and Hawaii.

There was an injury on board the ship and the crew needed to talk with a doctor. The closest doctor was in Hawaii. B.J., working from the small office at NAS Whidbey, was able to coordinate the necessary communication between the medical staff on the ship and the physician. That’s the part of being an amateur radio operator she likes.

“I like working with emergencies and being able to set up a system of communication,” she said. “And I like working with kids behind the scenes.”

And that’s what drives many of the crew at the MARS station, who cited the recent tornado in Joplin, Mo., as an example of the role amateur radio operators can play in an emergency.

“Every time there’s an emergency, they want amateur radio operators up and running,” Digger O’Dell said.

“The Internet can be brought down. Cell phones can be interrupted. We’re capable of communicating all around the world,” said Oliver.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when, there’s going to be an emergency,” said O’Dell.

The MARS station is located in the back of Building 13 on the NAS Whidbey Island Seaplane Base. Operators are there every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon. Anyone interested in amateur radio is encouraged to stop by.