Mountain Express Amateur Radio Article

The Idaho Mountain Express did a nice article on Amateur Radio:  http://www.mtexpress.com/index2.php?ID=2005132892

Local ‘hams’ keep valley in touch

Amateur radio operators quietly provide key public service
Joe Yelda, of the Wood River Amateur Radio Club, talks on a hand-held radio in his car. Photo by David N. Seelig

By DAMIAN THORNTON
Express Intern

Many people know that amateur radio operators like to chat. Few realize that the chatter can sometimes save lives.
The Wood River Amateur Radio Club, operational for the past 12 years, has helped spread the word about the power of amateur radio as both a hobby and public service. Involvement in amateur radio is becoming more popular—not to mention more accessible—in the Wood River Valley, as the grassroots group hosts training sessions and testing for those interested in getting licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Commonly referred to as “ham radio,” amateur radio boasts the ability of low-power wireless communications worldwide via high-frequency radio waves. For Wood River Valley residents and visitors, the benefits of ham radio are profound. Cellular coverage is spotty at best outside city limits, leaving many people partaking in backcountry recreation without immediate communication in an emergency.

“If something goes wrong—a major earthquake, for example—you could be a radio volunteer at a shelter or help with 911 dispatch,” said Joe Yelda, public information officer for the amateur radio club. “In a disaster situation, emergency services can be easily overwhelmed. There would be a need for communications people.”
The dedication of volunteer amateur radio operators was a key component in the organization of emergency responses to Hurricane Katrina and last winter’s earthquake in Haiti, as well as the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. While communications via cell phone, land line or the Internet inevitably fail along with the power grid, ham radio is often the only means of coordinating large-scale operations in the wake of tragedy.

Today, virtually every emergency-response service in the Wood River Valley is represented by at least one licensed ham radio operator. Organizations with members well-versed in radio communication include the Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Wood River fire departments and 911 dispatch, St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, American Red Cross, Blaine County and Sawtooth search and rescue, Sawtooth Mountain Guides, Galena Backcountry Ski Patrol, Sun Valley Ski Patrol, Sun Valley Trekking, Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides, Hailey and Ketchum rotary clubs and the Sawtooth National Forest.
In addition, if a power outage or natural disaster were to occur in the area, 140 licensed operators throughout the Wood River Valley are both able and willing to keep communication alive throughout the region. Yelda attributes the rise in involvement in recent years to the realization of how simple it is for beginners to increase their own backcountry communications while strengthening the community’s emergency preparedness.

“With a $100 radio, you can reach virtually anywhere in the Sawtooths,” Yelda explained. “That’s pretty affordable.”
About $15,000 raised through personal contributions allowed the nonprofit ham radio group to install two radio repeaters in the past three years, which has significantly increased wireless communication throughout the area. These high-powered repeaters are able to capture and re-transmit relatively weak signals from hand-held radio units. Hand-held radio signals typically only reach five to 10 miles on their own, with successful transmission essentially requiring an open line of sight between radio operators.

The repeaters, atop both Galena Summit and Bald Mountain, have shifted the region’s mountainous terrain from obstacle to high-altitude radio relay station. Operators directing their signal through the repeaters can now communicate with and monitor for emergency calls from other hams over most of the area between Stanley and Twin Falls. Each repeater features heavy structural protection and back-up power sources to keep radio communication alive long enough for emergency services to focus on a situation at hand rather than worry about loss of radio signal.

Finding a cellular provider with similar credentials would be a very difficult task, not to mention the fact that communicating via ham radio is free after earning FCC licensing and purchasing a hand-held unit.
Beyond the possibility to help in times of crisis, ham radio is also a fun option for those wishing to increase personal backcountry communication. Using the Baldy repeater’s auto-patch feature, radio operators even have the opportunity to make local telephone calls from deep within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
“I encourage everyone to volunteer,” Yelda said. “Helping out at events with no cell coverage is a great chance to practice.”
The radio club provided communication throughout Galena Summit for the Galena Grinder bike Race last month, and helped with the Sawtooth Century Bicycle Tour and Boulder Mountain Ski Tour.
There was also strong involvement with a wildfire training exercise at Greenhorn Gulch in June, a training opportunity for the horde of recently licensed ham radio operators who already hold positions with regional emergency-response services.
“One of these days, it will save someone’s life,” Yelda said.
In fact, it’s safe to say that it already has.
Without hand-held radios and the Galena and Baldy repeaters, it may have taken much longer for visitor George Broadbent to be rescued after being thrown from his horse near Alturas Lake on July 20. Nearly 20 emergency-response personnel rushed toward the GPS coordinates they received via ham radio, helping to ease Broadbent’s situation and get him to proper care.
Amateur radio also ensured the quickest possible response in March 2009 when an avalanche on Gladiator Peak near Galena Lodge claimed the life of Ketchum resident Stella Keane. Fellow skier Jan Koubek of Sun Valley suffered a broken femur in the slide, and was airlifted by Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides through bad weather conditions shortly after other backcountry skiers in the area radioed for help.
Before the presence of repeaters, backcountry communications were nothing more than a shot in the dark. Occasional tragedies in the backcountry added steam to the radio club’s effort to give outdoors enthusiasts in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area a sort of safety net. Hikers, skiers or cyclists equipped with a hand-held radio and GPS device can now be certain help is on the way if they find themselves immobile due to injury or weather conditions.
For more information, including upcoming ham radio courses and events, visit the Wood River Amateur Radio Club online at www.WRARC.org.
Radio training
Joe Yelda will lead a round of testing in the fall for those interested in earning an amateur radio tech license, sufficient for monitoring and directing signals through radio repeaters. The two-night course costs $35, with an additional $15 fee to take the FCC examination. All proceeds from the licensing courses go directly back into radio club operations, including offering freshly licensed members an opportunity to train at local events.