On Wednesday, around 6:30 a.m., the first of 60,000 runners in Atlanta will take off in the Peachtree Road Race.
Audrey and Jack McElroy will have been there since 3:30 a.m., ready with their ham radios in case something dire unfolds.
The brother and sister from Forsyth County are working as volunteers through the Atlanta Track Club on its communications team for the event. The Peachtree Road Race began in 1970 with just 150 participants, but it has since grown into the largest 10K race in the country, and so the Atlanta Track Club coordinates the presence of dozens of volunteer amateur radio operators to provide an alternative means of communication in the event of an emergency situation.
This will be the first Peachtree Road Race for the siblings, and their job is simple: observe. Jack, 10, will have his radio at a medical tent near the finish line in Piedmont Park. Audrey, 14, will have her while she runs the 10-kilometer race.
“Everyone’s job there is just to observe,” Audrey said. “and if anything seems abnormal they’ll report it.”
Audrey and Jack have been well-trained. They participate in weekly emergency communication exercises with their dad, Tom, who was exposed to amateur radio during the Vietnam War. His older brother served for two years during the conflict. The only way Tom McElroy’s family in Pittsburgh could communicate with his brother abroad was through a network of civilian licensed amateur radio operators who assisted the military with communications then called the Military Auxiliary Radio System, or MARS. The soldiers lined up at a military base or in a jungle in front of a radio, and a ham radio operator in California relayed calls to servicemen’s homes.
“My mom could hear her son’s voice,” Tom McElroy said. “It was huge.”
Tom McElroy’s fascination with amateur radio was crystallized soon after he married his wife, Jan, in 1998. A New York native, Jan McElroy watched the original World Trade Center towers being built. When they fell Sept. 11, 2001 from terrorist attacks, the only means of communication that worked in Manhattan immediately after was ham radio.
That settled it for the McElroys. They were about to start a family, and they were determined not to be handcuffed by cellphone technology’s limitations not if but when the next crisis happened.
“The towers coming down made (Jan) realize that in times of need you need to be able to count on yourself,” Tom McElroy said.
They got their amateur radio licenses soon after. When Audrey came along in 2004, it didn’t take long until they started rearing her on the technology.
“There are YouTube videos, for some reason, online when I was 2 on the radio just calling out,” Audrey said.
Audrey eventually earned her license in 2014. Jack received his in 2016. The initial attraction to ham radio for both was how it connected them to the world. They’ve made calls with operators on six continents.
But it’s also taught them conversation skills and exposed them to math and science concepts. Audrey is entering the STEM Academy at Forsyth Central High School this coming school year. Her application video on what she could bring to Central’s STEM program was about ham radio.
They’ve learned to bypass cellphone services and send text messages to each other through their radios; selfies too.
“There are so many things you can do with it,” Audrey said.
Including event supervision. The two have volunteered at other races, like the Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon, the past couple years, so they’re used to crowds. But the Peachtree Road Race is unique.
Still, Audrey and Jack are prepared for whatever happens.
“I’m really at ease,” Tom McElroy said. “They know what to do.”