By Papa Osei

When the phone lines went down during Hurricane Katrina, the Sichuan earthquake in China, and many other emergencies, amateur or ham radio operators were the only ones who could talk to each other to coordinate emergency aid.

“[Amateur radio] is the last resort when [electricity and phone lines] are down,” said Stephen Presti, president of the Rockbridge Amateur Radio Club.

Presti passed his ham license test as a 13-year-old boy in Maryland. In the 58 years he’s been operating ham radio, he’s reported severe weather conditions to Skywarn, a program of the National Weather Service, and provided messages to aid emergency services during an ice storm in Massachusetts.

There are more than 700,000 radio amateurs licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, according to American Radio Relay League, the largest organization of radio amateurs in the U.S. Rockbridge County and its surrounding areas have about 100 hams, 33 of whom are in the Rockbridge Amateur Radio Club.  The origin of “ham” as a synonym for amateur radio is unclear.

Ham radio is strictly for noncommercial purposes. The radios operate on frequencies known as amateur bands, and relay signals through a repeater located on mountaintops or tall buildings. The Rockbridge area’s repeater is on Rocky Mountain, 13 miles east of Lexington.

What Presti calls a “public service” starts out as a hobby for many radio amateurs, and can lead to a profession.

“I call it [moving from] advocating to vocation,” Presti said. Ham operators learn technical skills that help them become engineers who support government and schools.

Presti worked as an electronic engineer at Litton Industries, a large defense contracting company, for more than 20 years. He now teaches classes aimed at getting people interested in entry-level amateur radio operation. The classes require participants to learn electronic theory, radio technology and ham operation. The next class meets March 24 in the county administration building at 150 S. Main St. in Lexington.

Technological advancements have made communication faster, but the Internet and cell phones are vulnerable to natural disasters that leave communities powerless and cell towers damaged.

When the power goes out and the phone lines are down, hams are often the only ones who can relay messages, Presti said. Ham radios can operate using a car’s 12-volt power outlet.

The Rockbridge Amateur Radio Club hasn’t had to deal with emergencies yet. However, to remain prepared, the club holds simulations with Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital.

Local hams relay messages across Virginia about the simulation. Operators request doctors, describe the simulated disaster and tally casualties.

The club’s receiver on Rocky Mountain is frequently tested, Presti said, just in case it’s needed.

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