Monica Yant Kinney: Amateur radio operators enjoy nondependence day

Posted: July 03, 2011

On a stunning Saturday in suburbia, in a hilly park where George Washington pondered an attack on Philadelphia, the hams prepare for modern disaster.

They arrive in SUVs clutching smartphones, then set up folding tables with old-school gear like generators and antennae strung up through the trees with homemade tennis-ball guns.

Call them the original Geek Squad. They toil in amateur radio in the event Mother Nature - or a cyber-terrorist - pulls the plug on our precarious computer-powered, device-dependent way of life.

"The Internet is cables, landlines, and satellites," says Rick DeVirgiliis (ND3B), an electronics technician for the U.S. Postal Service in King of Prussia. "That can go in a heartbeat. Look at Katrina."

In an era when some people no longer carry cash or own a manual can opener, "we're here to show that we can come out to the middle of nowhere, with no electrical wires, and communicate with people all over the country."

The ham is being modest. By day's end, one of his fellow operators will chat up an astronaut on the space station. Some hobby.

Ham to the rescue

Dick Moll (W3RM) is 79 but remains fluent in the Morse code he learned as a kid. To prove it, he writes my daughter's name on a piece of paper as a series of dots and dashes.

"Cool," Jane marvels, intrigued by any language she could use to keep secrets from her little brother.

Moll is a legend in the 100-member Phil-Mont Mobile Radio Club, having put his skills to use admirably during the 1955 flood along the Delaware River.

"My brother and I drove to Stroudsburg, where there were homes turned on their sides and no communication," he recalls. "A guy with an outboard motorboat took us across the rushing water, where we set up in the jail. I had Boy Scouts with walkie-talkies bringing me car batteries. Pretty soon I was in touch with Navy helicopters overhead sending search parties to find survivors and the dead."

Today, Pennsylvania's Emergency Management Agency director considers the state's 23,000 operators licensed by the Federal Communications Commission "a partner" in times of crisis.

Hence this Field Day operation at Fort Washington State Park, where members of the Phil-Mont Club, based in Abington, ready for hurricane, hailstorm, or hacker.

Speaking in tongues

To my no-tech ears, they speak in tongues as they describe mode, band, frequency, antenna lengths, and power sources. But Jane gets it when Andrew Furlong (KC2PMW), an 18-year-old incoming Rowan University student, shows her how to reach out and touch someone in eastern Massachusetts.

"Whiskey Three Papa Sierra Hotel," she repeats, reading the club's call sign and location into a microphone, giddy when a deep-voiced stranger answers back.

Ham radio may seem like an ancient sport - read the obituaries - but FCC records show 30 other hams in Oreland, where DeVirgiliis lives, and 46 more in Furlong's hometown, Woodbury.

Sisters Audrey (KB3UFX) and Michaela (KB3UFY) Uebelhoer of Chester Springs prove young people rise to the challenge.

Websites like Chatroulette, they say, make it "too easy" to strike up an international conversation with creeps who could be naked.

"This," Michaela, 14, declares, "is more like electronic fishing," where everyone is polite.

"We've met people from Ecuador and Venezuela," adds Audrey, 13. "You can talk for hours" for free.

Inside a tent, Caitlin Brady (W3CJB) connects laptop to radio, but scowls at the sound of silence.

"Our signal isn't strong enough," the incoming Drexel University freshman suspects. "We're just not being heard."

Brady, 18, multitasks while she waits. She'll be working later as a hostess, but isn't sure at what time. The manager isn't a ham, so Brady grabs her phone and sends a text.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or philly.com/kinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq

 

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