Ham radio isn’t just a hobby anymore

Cordova Amateur Radio Club are trained to provide communications assistance during natural disasters

If regular communication methods – such as internet, telephones or cell phones, fail, due to an emergency, including natural disaster, how will Cordovans reach the outside world to ask for assistance or share timely information?

Members of the Cordova Amateur Radio Club (CARC) – all licensed ham radio operators, are trained to help in such situations. While amateur radio is sometimes referred to as a hobby, it’s also a backup emergency communications plan for Cordova.

All members were required to pass Federal Communications Commission testing and obtain licenses to operate on UHF (ultra-high frequency), VHF (very high frequency), or HF (high frequency) channels.

“If Cordova has a communications outage during a disaster, ham radio can work off a car battery, transceiver, and antenna,” said Stephen Phillips, club president. “Moreover, we can contact folks around the world, and request aide.”

There are 600,000 amateur radio operators in the United States, and more than two million worldwide, according to the American Radio Relay League.  ARRL is the national, non-commercial association for amateur radio enthusiasts in the U.S., founded in 1914 by Hiram Percy Maxi.

Joanie Behrends, CARC’s secretary, said the idea for a local amateur radio club started in Cordova in 2009, when the city began to take serious efforts to prepare for large scale emergencies.


“One of the efforts to prepare for disaster management in Cordova was to provide some form of communications from Cordova out to the rest of the world, should all our traditional communications fail during a major disaster,” Behrends said.

After a two-year effort to obtain grant funding, the amateur radio signal repeater was purchased with city disaster management funds, she said.

“CARC signed a memorandum of understanding with the city to use CARC members for communications in any disaster situation. It’s a real win-win for all involved,” she said.

In disasters worldwide, amateur radio and ham communications have proven multiple times to work, when every other form of communication fails, she said.

In December 2009, Dick Groff and Behrends decided to try to boost interest in amateur radio operations.

“At the time, Ralph Bullis was the only operator that we were aware of (in Cordova),” Behrends said. “I brought a ham in from Anchorage to teach an initial technician class locally. We all tested with her at the end of the class, and we went from one ham to 20 hams overnight. It was awesome.”

CARC’s first president was resident Jason Fischer.

“(He) agreed to be our president – we had to have one to be a club, and we decided to become an official Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) club. He and I did a myriad of administrative details in those initial months. We met in February as a fledgling, had no idea what we were doing, and have slowly evolved to today. All we wanted was a club name and a repeater, so we could talk to one another,” Behrends said.

ARES, which is part of the ARRL organization, consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment with their local ARES leadership, for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.

The purpose of the club, Phillips said, is to promote interest in amateur radio communications, the furtherance of public welfare, the advancement of the radio art, the fostering of education in the field of electronic communications, and the dissemination of knowledge and information about the Amateur Radio Service.

People use ham radio to talk to each other all over the world or on the other side of town. With an initial investment of $50 for the first level exam, anyone can get started. The club even has radios that new members can use, to learn how to be a ham.

According to the ARRL website, the FCC created amateur radio service to fill the need for a pool of experts who could provide backup communication during emergencies. The FCC acknowledged the ability of the hobby to advance communication and technical skills of radio and to foster goodwill internationally. Countless lives have been saved during natural disasters when skilled hobbyists act as emergency communicators to render aid.

“Most our club members are enthusiasts as well as ARES members. ARES is designated to using radio during times of distress on the community, such as a natural disaster or terror event,” Phillips said.

Cordova Police Chief Mike Hicks, a CARC member and ham radio operator, obtained his license in 2009 as a hobby, he said.

“I upgraded to a general class license this spring, which gives me more radio privileges. I enjoy it as a hobby and it is also another level of redundancy in our emergency communications system. My furthest radio contact, and my first as a general operator, was a ham operator in the Cook Islands near New Zealand over 6,000 miles away,” Hicks said.

Amateur radio started in the early 1900s and grew from there with help from the International Amateur Radio Union and the American Radio Relay League.

“The first list of call signs was distributed in 1909 in the First Annual Official Wireless Blue Book of the Wireless Association of America,” Phillips said.

The use of radio for natural disasters started with the Amateur Radio Emergency Corp. in the 1930s, and later evolved into the ARES group that it is today, he said.

The original meaning of ham has completely disappeared, according to the ARRL website.

“Ham is just an informal name for radio operator. No one knows where ham came from exactly,” Phillips said.

CARC offers testing twice a year for obtaining FCC amateur radio licenses.

Phillips said they’re always looking for new members.

When a new opportunity to test becomes available, club members post flyers around town. Members meet weekly on air via the VHF repeater on Ski Hill. Once a month they hold business meetings in the fire department’s training room.

“The big picture is really about keeping the hobby alive,” Phillips said. “Even with the use of cellular phones and other technology, this still is a viable means of communicating. People learn how to locate a radio signal, commonly used in plane crashes and avalanche rescue operations, for example. During Alaska Shield 2016, the club worked with police dispatchers, practicing relaying distress messages to Alaska’s Emergency Operations Center in Anchorage.”

The club’s current board includes Phillips, president; Bryan Mills, vice president; Bob Behrends treasurer; Joanie Behrends, secretary; Mark Meredith and Rheo Reroma, members-at-large. For

more information, email Phillips at [email protected], or contact club members in person or via their call signs.

General license holders are: KL1AL Ralph Bullis; KL2XM Robert Behrends; KL2XN Joan Behrends; KL2XY Jason Fischer, KL2XZ Richard Groff; KL2YE Michael Hicks, KL4AF Bryan Mills, KL4DL Stephen Phillips, KL4FE Mark Meredith,

Technician license holders are KL2XO Toni Bocci, KL4AE Carolyn Roesbery, KL4DM Rheo Reroma, KL4DN Katherine Mead, KL4HE Natalie Webb, KL4HF James Thorne. N7SZB Robert Gear is an extra license holder.

A technician license is the first level license in amateur radio; general is the second level license, meaning you can talk on more frequencies, Behrends said.

“As a general, you can talk around the world,” she said.

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson
Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.