A local group is able to talk to people on the other side of the world and report emergencies without using a cell phone or the internet.
Members of the Sawnee Amateur Radio Association use amateur, or ham, radios for both personal enjoyment and as a source of communication in emergencies, which member Tom McElroy said is a part of a license each operator must obtain from the Federal Communications Commission.
“That license says, ‘you can have millions of dollars’ worth of radio spectrum for your use, however in exchange, in time of need when all else fails, you people had better be able to operate your radios to serve your community,” he said. “So we make it fun to serve our community.”
Jim Farmer, the group’s president, said he has met people from across the country and the world through ham radio and it even led him to his career in electrical engineering.
“We talk to people in other counties, and that can develop a lot of good will,” Farmer said. “One day … in ten minutes, I talked to people in three different countries. So, that kind of thing fosters good will, and people in different countries will collaborate on different projects.”
The group holds monthly meetings at Northside Hospital Forsyth and issues an emergency drill on their radios each week.
“We build our own radio station, put up own antennas for the purpose of talking to people close to us and talking to people worldwide,” Farmer said. “It’s for the challenge of doing it. It’s for the challenge of accomplishing something with our own hands and own skills.”
Farmer said there were some theories as to how amateur radio came to be known as ham radio “but none of them can be verified.”
Each June, the group holds a local field day to compete and improve their skills.
“For 24 hours, we talk to as many other people in North America as we can,” Farmer said. “We’re awarded points based on the way we talk to them and how many people we talk to. The prize for winning is bragging rights, but it allows us to hone our emergency operation since we are away from our base stations.”
Farmer said ham radios were used this year by some in south Georgia when Hurricane Irma approached and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria when other methods, like cell phones, were unusable.
McElroy said local operators put their emergency skills to the test when tornadoes hit the county a few years ago.
“We had tornadoes touch down here in Cumming,” he said. “That day, that network became the real McCoy. We really were talking, saving each other [and] giving the community information.”
McElroy is involved with increasing youth membership and interest. His children, Audrey and Jack, already have their licenses and are able to send messages and videos on an Android device through radio without being connected to a network.
“It’s a great equalizer,” he said. “When you get a ham radio license at 10 or get it at 60, it’s still the same license. You’re on par with an adult.”
He said he would like the program to reach more young people, and the family has made presentations for local schools and Boy Scout groups.
“Kids love to talk to each other, and if they talk to each other they are using technology,” McElroy said. “The best possible way for them to do that is to use technology so that they truly understand the theory, the operation, how antennas work, how radios work and that gives them a boost.”