The following article appeared in the “Sunday Standard-Times,” a newspaper published in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 17, 1996.
Hamming it up!
Radio buffs tune in to chat, to share information, and to aid in an emergency
By Gretchen Fehrenbacher, Standard-Times staff writer
All was quiet on residential Donald Street in South Dartmouth the night of Oct. 15 — all, except in a curious Quonset hut, hidden from view, where an all-out state of emergency was unfolding.
“This is N1VUF calling all amateurs to pass traffic net control for Southeastern Massachusetts Coastal …
“Message #3 is a priority from MEMA Area II headquarters. The message is as follows: Have confirmed Red Cross Shelter destroyed by tornado. There were 250 people in the shelter. Unconfirmed report is 35 people dead, 175 people injured, 40 people still missing. RACES and EMA officials requesting MEMA assistance to help with this situation.”
The masters of disasterdom had been put on alert.
All the while, Brad Anselmo sat casually on a desk, his feet propped on a chair, as he broadcast his bulletin. Not a bit of tension in posture or tone.
This was, after all, just another test, or “net,” as it is called, to check readiness of the amateur radio operators’ emergency service skills.
Since 1932, the Southeastern Massachusetts Coastal Amateur Radio Association — W1AEC — has been riding the airwaves night and day.
The station — which began in the New Bedford home of founder Alan Cooper and moved to the cellar of the old Ware Radio store at 813 County St. — has been operating at its present site since 1955.
“The funny thing is, very few people know we are here,” said president Bill Miller, adding he considers the club house “kind of a second home.”
For many of the 77 members — male and female, the young and the older — being a ham is a hobby with a mission: part and parcel of amateur radio is emergency response, be it providing assistance in a crisis or simply following the action.
“I have been out every hurricane, every major storm, in the last three years,” said Robert Peckham of Dartmouth.
“Other guys become hams because they like to talk on the radio — talk with their friends,” he said.
There are those who enjoy hooking up with other hams cross-country, relying on repeaters that enable weak signals to be carried farther.
Some hams make a game of contacting people in as many countries as possible. At the club, the end of the Quonset hut is virtually wallpapered with QSL cards, as they are called, from locations the world over — places such as Tartu, Estonia. The cards are postcards from one ham to another confirming they have talked on the radio.
By definition, amateur radio operators — hams — communicate by two-way radio. Communication can be by voice, Morse code or computer. Licensing of operators is required by the Federal Communications Commission to ensure responsible use of the airwaves. Years ago, the equipment would likely be assembled from a kit spread out on a cellar work table. Today, though, amateur radio operators buy pre-assembled equipment. Then they custom-design their set-ups by the accessories they choose.
The choices are staggering. The number of products has exploded as amateur radio has gone in new directions, including satellite link.
“There are some amateurs around here who actually communicate with the space shuttle,” said Mr. Peckham, who teaches the eight-week licensing course.
Rodney Rapoza, a member of New Bedford’s Emergency Management, the successor to Civil Defense, just likes to stay in touch with what’s happening on earth.
“I like to be in the middle of the excitement that is going on, and I like to be at the end of it to see what happens,” Mr. Rapoza said.
An avocational scuba diver, Mr. Rapoza has visions of becoming a member of the New Bedford Police Department’s diving team.
Ham radio operators render public service in many ways, from providing emergency communications to sharing meteorological data with the National Weather Service.
On a smaller, but no less human scale, hams may offer assistance to their fellows, especially those on the road. Brad Anselmo of Dartmouth recalled a ham whose job kept him behind the wheel overnight — and allowed him to radio on-the-spot weather reports from Cape Cod to Boston.
“He is great during storms because he is up all night and can report where the storms are,” Mr. Anselmo said.
Bob Peckham’s wife, Karen, keeps in contact with an 82-year-old ham named Cliff on her radio-equipped daily trips to and from Newport. He knows what time she’s on the road and keeps tabs to make sure her journey is safe.
But it is the crisis situations — the emergency management roles — that most captivate many amateur radio buffs.
As Mr. Peckham said of Hurricane Bob, “I was able to see things that other people weren’t … plus, you never know who you are going to help.
“If I didn’t do that during a hurricane, I would have to sit home, and I would go nuts,” he added.
He noted, “People tend to forget us until they need us.”
Dartmouth’s Bill Miller takes his radio everywhere he goes. Not having it would be like leaving home without his glasses.
And, as he says, “If I ever got lost and needed directions, I could get on my radio and say, ‘Hey …’ ”
A 38-year-member of the club, his forte is repairing, designing and building equipment. His projects include putting up the 160-foot tower on the club grounds and designing and building the club’s original repeater.
But there are many more niches, as he noted.
“Some people just like phone operations. Some like CW (Continuous Wave) or code. Some are into amateur TV. Satellite signals. Moon-bounce — they bounce the signal right off the moon.”
Only two women are members of the club. But an increasing number are showing interest. Of the roughly 15 people who showed up on the first night of the recent licensing course, three were women.
Among them was Susan Metivier of New Bedford, whose husband, Robert Metivier, recently earned his license.
“I find it very fascinating and decided I wanted to go for my license,” said Mrs. Metivier, who was joined by her son, Brian, 18, at the licensing session.
Ham radio operators include tradespeople, from truck drivers and mechanics, to doctors and lawyers.
They hold yearly “Ham Fests,” or flea markets, where they buy and sell such equipage as spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes and coaxial cables.
At these events, hams get to see other hams they may have spoken to for years, but never met. Members of a worldwide fraternity, of sorts, they talk ham talk and wear their call letters on their hearts, their hats and their sleeves.
In Zero Beat, the Southeastern Massachusetts’ club’s monthly newsletter, members’ names are followed by the call letters that make sense only to other members of the fraternity:
“Manny, N1JVK, and Bill, K1IBR, spliced 32 feet of half-inch hard-line coax onto the existing cable that went up the tower to the 440 Cushcraft Ringo Ranger antenna.”
On meeting nights at the club house, guys stride into the meeting hall, flaunting their IDs on their clothing.
Larry Houbre’s call sign, AA1FS, was on his baseball cap.
Ted Prgymierski of New Bedford wasn’t wearing his letters, but when he introduced himself, he said, “My call is N1WXQ.
Sometimes hams will gather around just for the sake of jawing with others who share their passion for a hobby.
One night, Edward Gadue and Peter Feldmar of New Bedford joined Bill Miller and brothers Manuel and Richard Cabral of New Bedford in a discussion on code.
“I have heard of guys listening to a two-meter band, and at the same time they are listening to (Morse Code) — they are actually picking up two conversations,” said Richard Cabral.
In other words, they can follow voice conversation while deciphering code, without any devices to help them along.
While amateur radio is not a new medium of communication, it continues to attract hobbyists.
Young ones, too, despite the advent of cell phones and computers.
Dartmouth 14-year-olds Tony Duarte and Brian Sladewski are hooked. Both routinely show up at the clubhouse, as does Richard Cabral, 17, of Dartmouth, a senior at New Bedford Vocational Regional-Technical High School.
“I like helping people in an emergency,” said Tony, who’s reported accidents on the spot to police.
A freshman at Voke, he said his hobby is out of the mainstream of kids his age. “Everybody else is in sports … ” he said. “I am kind of an oddball.”
But Brian, a buddy since fourth grade, loves amateur radio, too. A freshman at Dartmouth High School, he likes the thrill of emergency situations, such as storms, when he can ride around with another amateur radio operator and spot trouble.
“You are getting to help people out,” he said.
Brian takes his radio with him, as a matter of course, when he travels in the car. He took it with him when his family went to New Hampshire recently. He only listened to others’ transmissions.
“It is kind of like a telephone conversation, except it wouldn’t be anything too private that they wouldn’t want anyone else to hear,” he said.
The other members of his family are not radio buffs. So how do they feel about being a captive audience?
“It drives them nuts,” Brian said.
What do they say?
Photos by Mike Valeri
Photos: (1) Bill Miller, (2) Richard Cabral (father), and (3) Richard J. Cabral (son), operate the radio equipment.