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Ham radio operators help out in emergencies

By Justin Reedy

When the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill blew through the Southern Crescent earlier this month, local residents were protected by the usual force of police, firefighters and other emergency personnel.

But in the background was an group of unseen helpers n amateur or "ham" radio operators.

The members of CARES, the Clayton Amateur Radio Emergency Services club, are ham radio buffs who volunteer their time to be on hand to help during storms, natural disasters and other catastrophes.

"We've been talking at 2 a.m. sometimes when storms are coming through the area, and going out and spotting them for the National Weather Service," said club member John Tilghman, a McDonough resident.

CARES members sometime work as weather observers in the field, relaying accurate information about weather conditions and storm damage back to local emergency personnel and meteorologists with the weather service. Others man a communications station at the Clayton County Emergency Operations Center, coordinating radio traffic between weather observers and public safety workers in the field.

And should a worst-case scenario strike during a catastrophe n the loss of the local Emergency 911 system or other communication systems n the CARES members stand by to lend their radios and frequency bands to anyone who needs them. That might mean a police officer who needs to talk with headquarters but can't because the police band radio is down, or it could be a local resident can't check on a sick relative because the phone lines are out.

"That's when our guys really shine," said Morrow resident Ralph Wiseman, a club member and ham radio operator.

Wiseman, a retired firefighter with the Fulton County Fire Department, knows how important it is for emergency personnel to communicate during a natural disaster or other catastrophe, such as a terrorist attack.

"The 911 system going down, that's one of those things that can happen at any time," he said. "I think we'll be a lot of help to the community if, God forbid, we do have an emergency like that. The main thing we're here for might never happen, but after 9/11 it's something you definitely take notice of."

The club is affiliated with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and one of its members is John Dalton, Clayton County's deputy director of emergency management. Several of CARES' 26 members in Clayton and Henry counties are certified by the state to perform dispatching of GEMA personnel at the county's Emergency Operations Center. The club members may be amateurs by definition, but they act professionally in the event of an emergency.

Like many other ham radio operator clubs, CARES is also heavily involved in local charity events and humanitarian work, according to club president Roy Baker, who lives in Stockbridge.

The club also has community outreach efforts in area schools, where they hope to start the next generation of ham radio buffs. Building interest through a student ham radio club has another benefit, though n it could provide an infrastructure for a communications center in the event that the school is used as an emergency shelter.

"If they have to use it as a shelter because of a train wreck or something, they're already set up and the kids are already trained," Baker said. "We would just kick in there and help."

In addition to the work CARES members and other ham radio operators do for emergency preparedness, amateur radio offers a great hobby for people of all ages, Baker said. With the right equipment, a ham radio operator can talk to other people just a few miles away or someone on the other side of the world.

Though it requires taking a test to get a license from the Federal Communications Commission, novices can get help from an experienced operator or take practice tests on the Internet.

"It's better than flying a plane, because you don't have to pay for gas every time you want to do something," explained Baker.

Those interested in learning more about amateur radio or getting involved in CARES can visit the club's Web site at http://home.bellsouth.net/p/s/community.dll?ep=16&groupid=123472&ck= or you can e-mail Baker at cares77@bellsouth.net.