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Hamming it up: Amateur radio is a booming form of communication

Doug Nelson, District Emergency Coordinator for 11 counties in Minnesota and amateur radio liason to the National Weather Service, plays the dial on a transceiver to contact another ham in the Netherlands. He was working from the Douglas County Emergency Operations Center in the amateur radio room recently. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Doug Nelson taps out Morse code with an iambic key to communicate with another ham in Lithuania. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 5
A radio used by ham Doug Nelson reads out the radio frequency of another ham he's contacts in the Netherlands. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Dave Miller, emergency coordinator for the Douglas County Amateur Radio Emergency Service and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, describes the role of "hams" in assisting the National Weather Service with real-time, on-site reports of dangerous weather. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Doug Nelson describes how the amateur radio community provides an important role in helping out during emergencies by providing crucial communications between government agencies and the public. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

They are considered the last line of communication. When everything else fails, they can bridge the communication gap and connect people.

Doug Nelson and Dave Miller are just two of the 750,000 registered amatuer radio, better known as ham radio, users.

“I wanted to be available to help people,” Miller said is why he got involved in ham radio. “That was my main interest.”

He is now the Douglas County emergency coordinator.

Nelson (call sign AAØAW) has a list of coordinator positions and responsibilities after his name as well, and both Nelson and Miller are involved in multiple groups throughout the Twin Ports area, lending their experience to the emergency side of things.

Ham radio uses AM radio frequencies, amateur bands, to communicate. According to the National Association of Amateur Radio, besides amateur, there are various other bands including government, military and police. Depending on the band the ham radio operator uses, they can talk across town, the world or even satellites in space. Amateurs learn and study before taking an examination for a Federal Communications Commission license to operate on the amateur frequency bands.

Nelson, who has been using ham radio for 31 years, said he tried it, “probably on a dare more than anything.”

Someone dropped out a of class introducing people to amateur radio, and Nelson’s friend asked him if he wanted to give it a try. Not wanting anyone to know, Nelson took the class — and became hooked.

‘“Being an old CBer (citizens band radio), I knew the basics,” he said, but “they had to teach the old guy a new trick.”

Since 1989, Nelson has logged 6,000-plus contacts in 278 countries.

“He is the mentor of mentors in this area,” Miller said of Nelson and his amateur radio abilities.

Miller (call sign WØNWO) got his start in ham radio a little bit later. He took a community education class on the subject 12 years ago — not that he wasn’t interested before that though.

“Since I was a kid, the crystal radio days, I was fascinated with it,” he said.

Once Miller was an adult, he took the community education class, and it was there he met Nelson.

After Miller tested and earned his license, he said he went to Nelson and said, “I have a license, now I need to learn.”

Both are a part of the local Arrowhead Radio Amateurs Club and the American Relay Radio League. The reason for the continued growth in ham radio popularity can’t be tracked, but Nelson said he thinks the numbers are at an all-time high due to an interest in electronics and for emergency purposes.

The fun side

While some amateurs may focus on just the hobby portion of ham radio or the emergency side (like Miller), there are guys like Nelson who partake in both extensively.

“Some don’t know how to say ‘no’ to any of it,” he said, pointing to himself.

Not only does he talk his way through the radio frequencies, he has another skill he uses often — Morse code. (His phone rings are all Morse code as well, so without looking at his screen like most people would have to do, he can tell by the sound of the ring who is calling.)

“It’s one of those fascinating arts out there,” Miller said of Morse code. He doesn’t know much about Morse code but would like to learn, he said.

Demonstrating his skills, Nelson holds a conversation with someone in the Netherlands. What do you say to someone in another country?

“Keep it generic,” he said. “No religion, no politics. Well, you’re not supposed to anyway.”

He can click out about 25 words per minute.

Nelson and Miller can easily tick off projects they have worked on, introducing others to ham radio or helping out at events. Those projects have ranged from helping with a high altitude balloon launch with Two Harbors High School students to helping kids at the former Children’s Museum club talk to the International Space Station. (The club has now been moved to the Harbor City International School to engage an older group of students and get them interested in ham radio.) During an event to help celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary last year, ham radio users — including Nelson and Miller — activated NPS units in national parks throughout the U.S. to promote the parks. The men said 1.2 million people made contacts with the parks within the year. This was the biggest event of its sorts ever done. They have also helped with communications during Grandma’s Marathon, the NorthShore Inline Marathon, the Superior Man Triathlon and more.

“This hobby has so many directions,” Miller said.

When Miller asks Nelson how much time he spends on ham radio a day, Nelson responds with ‘one.’ ” Then quickly adds, “one 24-hour day,” with a laugh. “No. It depends on what’s going on. Some days, I don’t touch it.”

The emergency side

Knowing the importance of amatuer radio users, Douglas County set up a space in the emergency communications portion of the courthouse to house the amateur radio members and three work stations. They have the high frequency station where they can talk to other radio users throughout the world, the voice station where they can talk regionally and the IP station where they can communicate through the internet.

While they can provide assistance for light or athletic events, ham radio users are needed to serve in possibly life-threatening and emergency instances. They are the eyes and ears on the ground, filling a communication gap during forest fires, storms and floods.

Amatuer radio users helped during the Pagami Creek fire in 2011; during Toxic Tuesday in 1992, when a train containing benzene derailed and 50,000 people were forced to evacuate Minnesota and Wisconsin; and during the 2012 flood in Duluth — and many more.

One aspect they work with on a regular basis is Skywarn with the National Weather Service. There are 15 ham radio operators that are notified when a storm is approaching. That group then decides the shifts they will take heading to the NWS office to help gather information. This is one of their most important jobs, Nelson and Olson agree. Doppler radar is only so good, Nelson explained, because it can detect weather, but it can’t see what’s actually going on.

“We coordinate a lot of eyeballs,” Nelson said.

Nelson added he’s been told by weather service people that they couldn’t do their jobs as well without the ham radio crew.

“They help us make warning decisions,” said Carol Christenson. She serves as the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Duluth, and she is a ham radio operator herself. She got into it about 15 years ago for her job. She said she felt that if she was working with ham radio operators, she better know what to do, too.

While there are other trained storm spotters throughout the region, “a large number of them are amateur radio users,” she said.

“The information they give us is extremely helpful in giving us information on what’s going on with storms,” Christenson said. That information then frees up the weather service meteorologists to do other things, like put out warnings, she added.

Not only are the radio operators the eyes and ears when lines of communications go down, they are the communicators.

“It does not go down; they are always there,” she said. “They are wonderful people and so willing to help.”

Miller said he saw that kindness among ham radio operators from the start, too.

“No one is trying to outdo you. If you have a question, they are willing to help you,” he said. “People who understand it really appreciate it.”

What’s a call sign?

According to the National Association for Amateur Radio, call signs — Miller’s WØNWO and Nelson’s AAØAW — are a random combination of letters and numbers assigned by the FCC to newly licensed amateur radio operators.

Once operators are assigned a call sign, and just like getting vanity licence plates on a vehicle, radio operators can request a vanity call sign of their choosing. Vanity call signs are usually alphabetical characters of significance to the operator, like their initials, names, hobbies, etc. Those signs must also be approved by the FCC, and then they take the place of the originally assigned call sign.

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