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Hams bridging the communication gap

Posted: June 26, 2010 8:38 p.m.
Updated: June 27, 2010 4:30 a.m.

Steve Ioerger, left, of Stevenson Ranch, looks on as Ron Klein, of Valencia, tries to raise a fellow operator.

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Jim Molenda found himself climbing over fallen file cabinets in a darkened City Hall just hours after the earth shook on Jan. 17, 1994.

Armed with a hard hat, neon vest and glow stick around his neck, he made it onto the second floor to find the emergency phone systems had gone down.

Freeways had tumbled, fire station radios had stopped working and Santa Clarita residents needed clean drinking water.
Molenda, the city’s radio officer at the time, called upon volunteer members of the Santa Clarita Amateur Radio Club. He dispatched the group of federally licensed radio operators to the hospital, fire stations and the Sheriff’s Station.

The volunteers came in contact with the county’s emergency operations bureau and later that day, trucks of water began pulling in, Molenda said.

“You can have the best resources down the street or over the hill, but if you can’t communicate than you’re in serious trouble,” Molenda said.

More than fifteen years have passed since the Northridge earthquake, the last major disaster that called for the expertise of the volunteers, otherwise known as Hams.

For the group of techno-enthusiasts, playing with radios isn’t just a hobby; it’s a necessity. In the wake of a disaster like the 1994 quake, communication is key.

“In a catastrophic event, we’re not going to have commercial power,” said Valencia resident Mike Siwula, 68, a chairman of the local field day event.

“We can help bridge that gap,” Molenda, 55, added.

The radio club gathered atop a hill overlooking Central Park on Saturday, operating station W6JW from the Castaic Lake Water Agency’s Rio Vista Water Treatment Plant as part of a national field day. They strung wires and antennas from a flag pole and PVC pipe and spread out several voice or Morse code radios, powered by generators or solar-powered devices. 

Field Day is a competition sponsored by the American Radio Relay League. The club joined hundreds of other amateur radio clubs across the country and in Canada on Saturday, observing the annual competition that ends today at 11 a.m.

“This is like running a marathon only on radio and there’s a lot more donuts involved,” Molenda said. The club contacts as many stations as possible during a 24-hour operating period.

“We’re taking a gamble when we fire these radios up,” Molenda said. “We don’t know who we’re going to talk to.”
Molenda turned his radio dial back and forth.

A voice came in: “Two alpha Alaska.”

“That means there are two operators on emergency power, coming in from Alaska,” Molenda said.

Winning the competition was not the club’s ultimate goal this year, Siwula said. The most important purpose was to to practice and show new enthusiasts how to set up and operate radio communication equipment in situations where electrical power is limited or unavailable, he said.

When the Internet is down and cell phone lines are clogged — that is where the Ham operators come in. “Besides being a hobby to talk on the radio around the world,” Molenda said, “this is also the vital link; without communication, we can’t get a lot done.”

The radio club’s website is www.w6jw.org.

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