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Ham radio hobby still in vogue for some
COUNTY — While Hurricane Irene threatened cell phone service and downed telephone wires, undaunted ham radio operators were still able to pass messages around the world.
"Amateur radio has been very useful in some emergencies," said Norway's Tom Winsor, who, in addition to being a state representative, is a licensed ham radio operator. "It's truly a wonderful hobby."
Emergency responses are just the icing on the cake for most ham radio enthusiasts, who enjoy everything about a hobby that had its heyday decades ago.
"It [ham radio] is for people who are interested in the way technical things work," said Winsor. "It's fun to talk to people who share the same interests."
According to Bill Crowley, president of Yankee Amateur Radio Club (YARC), ham radio operators are able to communicate, not only with people in the state, but also with people across the globe.
"It covers the gamut of casual chat to Morse code," he said.
YARC, consisting of nearly 70 members, mainly operates through a [privately owned] repeater on the top of Streaked Mountain in Buckfield.
"It's part of a linked repeater system, which on a high-frequency spectrum, has worldwide capabilities," said Crowley. "The repeater is in range of a hand-held receiver, and a remote machine listens and retransmits it on a different frequency."
According to Crowley, a repeater receives a weak signal, and retransmits it at a higher level of power, which forms a wide-coverage network.
"I've talked to a fellow in San Marino [California], [and fellows in] Italy, Sardinia, Brazil, Lithuania, and the Caribbean," said Crowley. "I've talked to thousands of different people over the years."
Crowley says that through various interactions, he's learned phrases in different languages, like "hello" and "thanks for the contact."
"I can speak a little French and Spanish," he said, "but most ham operators around the world speak English."
Crowley says that ham radio signals can even reach as far as outer space, where astronauts have the capability, through advanced ham radio technology, to communicate with people on Earth through a technique he referred to as "moonbounce" – literally bouncing signals off the moon.
As a long-time operator, Crowley says he would like to see younger generations get involved with ham radio, given that it provides comprehensive training on the technical ends of electronics.
"I've been doing this for 51 years," he said, "and it had a decline for awhile with the coming of the Internet and cell phones. It was what one referred to as an old folk's hobby, but it's coming back with young people."
Norway resident Norman Jackson said he would also like to recruit young people, as he believes that ham radios serve as a useful teaching tool.
According to Jackson, using a ham radio is nothing like playing a video game; "It's actually a healthy, wholesome hobby," he said.
It could teach kids the basic knowledge of electronics and allow them to make connections with people living in foreign locations, like France, Germany, or Switzerland, said Jackson.
A licensed ham radio operator for 45 years, Jackson says that he uses ham radio as a way to meet people and "build relationships."
He explained that, on occasion, he connects with WWI and WWII veterans, who "definitely have a lot of stories to tell," he said. "Talk about getting an education!"
On any normal day, Jackson is also capable of reaching frequencies in other countries through an abbreviated signal he referred to as"CQ." In Morse code, this translates to "seek you," which is an invitation for any operators (listening on that frequency) to respond.
"It's almost addictive," he said. "My big kick is that I love to do Morse code. It's like a second language to me now. I can read it and write it."
According to Jackson, communication with other hams is not limited to one subject.
"We share a lot," he said. "About our jobs, our families, what we use for equipment, how many watts of power we are running, what the weather is like. They [ham radio operators] really have many diverse interests."
For Jackson, it's about being able to communicate with many different people.
"I certainly don't have a shortage of people to talk to," he said.
When Winsor first received his ham radio license, he immediately joined an organization called Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), with the intent to provide emergency communications.
"It's an authorized service set up by the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to allow amateurs to provide emergency communications when telephone services and other services could be down," said Winsor. "It's a search and rescue type thing."
Crowley said that numbers of operators have increased just in the last few years, based on the need for a reliable communications outlet.
"It provided communications for ARES during Hurricane Irene, when cell phones did not," he said.
Locals suspect that the demand for ham radios will increase, because it's not only a viable hobby; it "has the ability to save lives."
"The comradeship is unbelievable," said Jackson. "I am going to do the best I can to keep it alive."
Becoming a ham radio operator is simple and affordable, and anyone can do it, according to all three local operators.
"There's a piece in ham radios for a whole bunch of people," said Winsor.
According to Crowley, people interested in getting their license must take a federal exam that evaluates the person's technical skills. They are then given one of three levels of licenses – technical, general, or extra-class.
Exams are available for Oxford County residents at the Oxford County Courthouse at 10 a.m. on September 24.
The exam is sponsored by the Androscoggin ARC and CERT communication group. Walk-ins are allowed, and the cost of the exam is $15.
According to Crowley, if those interested pass the initial technical license and wish to get a higher-class license, they can do so free of charge.