When all else fails, amateur radio club stays on air

In today’s technological age, being prepared means a fully charged phone battery and a backup electronic device in case that fails.

Members of a local amateur radio club, though, know relying on modern communication in times of need may not always be the best option.

On April 27, 2011, those in the city of Tuscaloosa and the surrounding areas were in desperate need of communication when an EF-4 tornado ravaged the city, cutting off most forms of traditional communication.

Joel Black, the president of the Tuscaloosa Amateur Radio Club, said his group’s radio was one of the most reliable sources of communication immediately following the tornado.

Black said they were able to utilize direct two-way communications between people in the field and their agencies.

“In the days after the tornado, relief shelters were manned by radio operators,” Black said. “Health and welfare traffic, in addition to requests for supplies, were passed via amateur radio.”

Black said some texting will get through, but it’s unreliable despite what the cellular companies say.

“Cellular service can only accommodate a finite number of subscribers at a time,” Black said. “I was amazed at the number of people who thought they were ‘prepared’ because their iPhones and iPads were charged up.”

TARC consists of more than 70 members and focuses on serving various agencies, such as DCH Health Systems and EMA, through communication in times of need. Black said TARC also practices emergency communication regularly.

“The Simulated Emergency Test, usually held in October, tests the strengths and weaknesses of our communications network,” Black said. “TARC also holds a weekly net, the West Alabama Emergency Net, to test our equipment.”

Most importantly, Black said the main purpose is to preserve the “magic of radio.”

“For me, the ‘magic of radio’ is the ability to pick up a microphone, key it and, using a radio transceiver with something like a simple wire antenna, talk to someone halfway around the world using the radio frequency spectrum that occurs naturally,” Black said. “Some of my more exciting contacts were with 4X6UO in Israel, EM1KCC in Antarctica and my first ever Morse Code contact with WG4F, Tom Devilice, who became a Silent Key in 1998 or 1999.”

Black said all of those contacts were made with not much more than a radio transceiver and simple wire antenna.

Black has been an amateur radio operator since 1993 and has been in telecommunications since 1986.

“Being a member of TARC and an amateur radio operator has been a fulfilling hobby and has helped me in my professional career as a telecommunications technician too,” Black said.

Black said the most challenging task as president of the TARC is finding new ways to make amateur radio interesting for younger generations, which are those who have never known a time without cell phones and the Internet. Black says it helps to have a group with a common interest.

“The most valuable thing that anyone can have with an organization is finding a group of folks with a common interest and trying to give back to the community,” Black said.

Todd Kirby, vice president of TARC, has been an active club member ever since he first got licensed in May 2011. As the second youngest official on the board, Kirby said he helps the president as needed and is responsible for all club programs during its meetings.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know these guys whose ages varies from teenagers to folks in their 70’s and 80’s,” Kirby said. “We have a wide array of people in different backgrounds too such as computer technicians, doctors, mailmen, policemen and truck drivers who will bend over backwards to help anyone out.”

Kirby said there are many amazing things the TARC can accomplish using nothing more than a transceiver and a wire for an antenna.

“We hope to show this to the younger generation and get them involved and have them realize that a cell phone won’t help in an emergency,” Kirby said.