When a derecho packing winds of 80 to 100 miles per hour — and gusts topping 140 miles per hour — hit Eastern Iowa in August, about 400,000 Iowans were left without power and many had no cell service.
That meant no television news, no cable updates, and for many that rely heavily on cellphones rather than landlines, limited phone access.
The Cedar Valley Amateur Radio Club has a motto for those times: “When all else fails, radio.”
“For some people, it’s merely a hobby, but for a lot of us, it’s much more than that,” said Scott Haney, president of the CVARC club.
“Ham radio operators are involved in emergency management, in large event management, in a large variety of things. A lot of times people don’t know we’re there, but we’re actually a large part of planning and carrying out many events and gatherings.”
And in times of crisis — like the floods of 2008 or the derecho in August — emergency management officers rely on amateur radio operators to relay information and keep communications going when other systems aren’t working because of electrical outages.
“We do need to be trained, we do need the licenses, to do that kind of work,” said Haney, who is a former emergency manager for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service in Iowa. “Just having a radio won’t do it. You have to have someone who is competent to run the system.”
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That includes being trained not only in emergency management but in coping and sustaining when conditions are less than ideal.
“People don’t realize, especially in weather events like hurricanes, amateur radio is a huge part of getting people in and out of dangerous areas,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for decades.”
Amateur radio — the nickname “ham” radio dates back to the 19th century and the age of the telegraph — uses a broad spectrum of radio frequencies to communicate.
Some ham radios operate on shortwave frequencies allocated by the Federal Communications Commission, also known as “amateur bands” and located just above the AM frequencies.
Unlike FM frequencies that are closer to the Earth and limited in range, amateur bands bounce off the Earth’s ionosphere from the transmitter to an antenna, giving them a much longer range. In fact, many enthusiasts enjoy the camaraderie of being able to talk to local friends as well as connecting with others around the world.
Many operators and clubs use frequencies close to those used by television and radio stations, as well as those near some police radar frequencies.
To use a ham radio, you must pass a written test and be assigned a unique call sign from the FCC. Until a few years ago, you also had to learn Morse code, but the FCC has done away with that requirement.
Several local clubs offer a class for beginners to learn more and take the exam. It’s possible to get started for under $100.
Although it’s called “amateur” radio, Haney is quick to make one important distinction.
“The thing with amateur radio is that the use of the word ‘amateur’ doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing,” he said. “It means we’re not allowed to be paid for our services. Ever. Everything we do is on a volunteer basis. We can’t take a nickel for any of it.”
What they do depends on the club and on the individual member, Haney said. Many members of the Cedar Valley Amateur Radio Club are active in a variety of activities. Early in November, for example, members staffed the Pleasant Creek Trail Run, setting up along the route and helping keep track of runners.
Haney has been a licensed amateur radio operator for almost 40 years, getting his first license in 1982 during a visit to his grandparents during his sophomore year in college. He’d always been interested in radio, and that interest was bolstered by a high school friend’s father, a civilian worker with the U.S. Air Force who was an amateur radio operator.
“My friend’s father showed me you could get involved with radio without actually doing it for a living,” Haney said.
He became more involved and during that 1982 trip to visit his grandparents in Gary, Ind., he took a train to the Federal Communications Commission office in Chicago.
“I took the test and got my license,” he said.
He graduated from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., with a degree in engineering and worked 30 years at Rockwell Collins, now Collins Aerospace, before retiring in 2019.
Although Collins Aerospace is the primary reason Cedar Rapids is home to the second-largest group of amateur radio operators per capita in the world, Haney didn’t work in radio or communications. That, he said, was something he did away from work.
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As president of the Cedar Valley radio club, Haney helps organize open house-type events that allow people to ask questions and learn more about amateur radios and the club. A popular program each year is the weather spotter training the club hosts with the National Weather Service. The annual event is likely to be a virtual event in early 2021 because of continuing COVID-19 restrictions.
“Registration for the weather class was really large in 2009 after the floods,” Haney said. “I don’t know what we’ll see this year.”
Though not everyone who registers is an amateur radio operator, attendees are introduced to ham radio and the ways it can be used in everyday life.
“For some people, it’s merely a hobby. For others, it’s more than that,” he said. “It’s just a broad area for people with very broad interests.”
To learn more of the basics of ham radio, check out the CVARC website, w0gq.org/licensing.
Interested in learning more about amateur radio?
Check out these Eastern Iowa clubs:
• Cedar Valley Amateur Radio Club Cedar Rapids: w0gq.org
• Collins Amateur Radio Club Cedar Rapids For Collins Aerospace employees and retirees: w0cxx.us
• Iowa City Amateur Radio Club Iowa City: icarc.org
• Jones County Amateur Radio Club Anamosa: qsl.net/w0cwp
• Muscatine Amateur Radio Club Muscatine: muscatinearc.org
• Washington Area Amateur Radio Club Washington: waarc.net
• Northeast Iowa Radio Amateur Association Waterloo: w0mg.net
• Eastern Iowa DX Association For those interested in DX (shorthand for communicating with distant stations) and contests: eidxa.org
Find more amateur radio clubs in Iowa via the National Association for Amateur Radio website: arrl.org/find-a-club