Ham radio helps close communication gap

Nixa man relayed message from president to New Orleans' mayor.

By Sarah Overstreet

If you've been unsuccessfully trying to get information about someone living in Hurricane Katrina's region of havoc, here's an avenue you may not have considered: local ham radio operators.

While cell phones rely on towers and traditional telephones rely on intact land lines, ham radios transmit from radio to radio, bouncing waves off the ionosphere in the upper atmosphere far above the Earth's tantrums. They can run off batteries, generators and sometimes even the sun.

Two Ozarks amateur ham radio groups — the Nixa Amateur Radio Club and the Christian County ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Services) — have been relaying messages from people all over the world to those whose communication has been cut off by Katrina.

David Beckler, a ham radio operator from Nixa, even relayed a message Tuesday from the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Texas to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

"He had a message from President Bush to the mayor of the city of New Orleans," says Beckler, a New Orleans native who moved to Nixa six years ago.

Since the message was an emergency communication, the dispatch needed to go through the net control station on an emergency frequency, Beckler said. He knew it was important, because the ham operator had said, "break, break, break," which requires all other communications to yield and give that one priority.

"The net control station or other stations on this frequency could not hear this message," Beckler says. Beckler contacted the net control station, and people there asked him to contact the sending ham operator and relay the message back to that operator. "That's when he told me it was from President Bush."

Joe Hargis, another Nixa ham club member, also helped with an urgent message. "I was monitoring the SATERN network (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network)," said Hargis, a retired elementary schoolteacher.

"A person called in with a piece of emergency traffic and the (receiving) person could not hear him. He said, 'Is there anyone on the frequency who can copy this?' I broke in and told him I could hear it fine."

Hargis relayed the message back to SATERN, and the operator there could hear Hargis well. "It was a 90-year-old woman and her elderly neighbors. They were afraid to leave their home because of the unrest in the neighborhood, things that were going on, and they needed assistance to be evacuated. They were running low on medicine, and one was running out of her oxygen supply."

Nixa ham club member Rod Kittleman says their members helped save the lives of a couple in New Orleans.

"A weak, disabled elderly couple were trapped in their attic. Their phone worked, but they couldn't get through to local authorities," the KADI radio program manager explains.

Too weak to break through their roof so emergency personnel could find them, the couple called their daughter in this area. She contacted the Nixa club, which relayed the message to a local ham operator who is licensed to operate on emergency frequencies.

"He got through to authorities in New Orleans over the radio, and they were rescued. (The ham operator) relayed the message back to their daughter. That's the reward we live for."