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Ham radio lovers put emergency response skills to the test in Great Falls

Posted at 2:40 PM, Jun 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-23 13:36:28-04

GREAT FALLS – Saturday marked Amateur Radio Field Day for members of the Great Falls Amateur Radio Club. It was a 24-hour marathon of high-frequency practice for lovers of a hobby that plays an underrated role in keeping communities safe across the country — and world.

Sometimes called “ham radio,” amateur radio not only connects thousands of people across the United States, but also has the potential of providing surefire assistance to emergency responders in the face of major electrical outages and natural disasters.

Rod Jackson, public affairs officer for the Great Falls Amateur Radio Club, explained to MTN News that amateur radio (despite the moniker) attracts true professionals. It requires a federal license through the Federal Communications Commission, which doles out certification only after thorough training and testing.

“It allows us access to the radio airwaves very much like you see public service vehicles,” Jackson said, pointing to policemen, fire departments and ambulances as examples. “They all have radio frequencies. Amateur radio is a part of that spectrum as well.”

This year’s national Amateur Radio Field Day represents an annual tradition, dating back to 1933. Ham radio operators across North America set up this weekend — and put their skills to the test.

“Every year in the third weekend of June, clubs like ours will go out and set up their mobile equipment, and primarily it’s to demonstrate our capability to operate in an emergency,” Jackson said. On Saturday, the Great Falls Amateur Radio Club even switched things up a bit by flashing a new emergency communications trailer and a public information display.

“They’ll come and work a radio system for three or four hours, take a break, and then somebody else will come and take over,” he explained.

Jackson added Saturday’s event was primarily focused on practicing high frequency radio, which gives operators a global reach. Jackson said the hobby has connected him with people across the world, including England, Nova Scotia, several countries in South America, Central Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina. According to Jackson, millions of ham operators take part in the hobby worldwide.

And experts in the field don’t need internet or cell service to do their jobs, making their skills necessary oftentimes for emergency officials to communicate with each other during major power outages or system failures.

“Down in places like Florida,” Jackson said, “where they have hurricanes, and central United States, where they have a lot of tornadoes, amateur radio has been very beneficial, helping local authorities re-establish communications, working to manage shelters [and] guide emergency responses, particularly when their infrastructure has been damaged or eliminated.”

Jackson, a retired member of the military who worked in communications, said learning ham radio was on his bucket list, and now that he’s been doing it for nearly a decade, he’s earned “expert” status: the highest classification offered to lovers of the hobby. He has also come to appreciate how important amateur radio can be when it comes to helping keep communities safe.

“We’re not dependent on having a fixed tower,” he said. “If it breaks, we can be back up in minutes.”

The Great Falls Amateur Radio Club meets on the first Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Cascade County Disaster and Emergency Services office, located at 512 1st Avenue NW in Great Falls. There is no age limit to join; in fact, Jackson said the club has recruited members as young as 8 years old.

To learn more about the Great Falls Amateur Radio Club, visit the organization’s Facebook page here.

“Come to our meetings, learn more about it, and if you’d like, we can get you some training,” Jackson said.

Story by Zachary Schermele, MTN News