In a late summer afternoon heat and humidity, a storm percolated in central Indiana.
Towering thunderclouds formed on the horizon. Great green globs, some with fiery yellow and red centers, appeared on TV station radar screens.
All over Johnson County, amateur radio operators fired up their radios, forming a network ready to pass vital information about the coming storm to emergency officials.
These men and women are carrying on a tradition that started with the pioneers of radio. From storm spotting to assisting officials during community disasters, amateur radio operators band together.
When the Internet is down and the electrical grids have lost power, radio is still able to operate.
“When all else fails, we get through,” said Rusty Kirts, a member of the Franklin-based Midwest Amateur Radio Club.
Amateur radio has been a hobby for people almost as soon as the technology to transmit sound became available. After Nikola Tesla developed the radio, and Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic broadcast, people clamored for the chance to make their own radios.
Those enthusiasts were derogatorily called “ham radio” operators. They were amateurs, and professional broadcasters saw them as playing around on this serious technology.
“They saw these people just hamming it up out there. It was meant to be a slur to us,” Kirts said.
All over the country, these people banded together to form clubs to promote amateur radio. In Johnson County, that has mainly been through the Midwest Amateur Radio Club.
The organization was founded 30 years ago and now has about 40 members. It hosts activities and contests, seeing who can connect with the most people and collect the most call signs from others.
One of the club’s signature events is its Field Day. Amateur radio operators from all over the world get on their radios and set up a tent or a temporary encampment. The point is to connect with as many other radio operators as they can over 24 hours.
Set up in a field, the members have to be ingenious with powering their radios. Some use generators or batteries, while others have solar panels that run their machines.
“One year, we had a group that set up an old airplane propeller mount and connected it to a car alternator, using the wind to generate power and keep the batteries charged,” Kirts said.
But one of their main purposes is to assist in emergencies and weather spotting.
During the floods of 2008, radio operators helped emergency crews figure out where the worst flooding was and helped relay messages when cell reception was down.
“We’re assisting with the police departments and sheriff’s department to cover more. If the power goes out or there’s flooding, we can drive around and let them know,” said Jacki Frederick, president of the Midwest Amateur Radio Club. “We’re here to assist.”
Using digital attachments, they can send photos over radio waves, which can be downloaded by emergency management directors of a potential disaster zone.
If a bad storm is approaching, radio operators can give updates on conditions at exact locations, something radar can’t do.
“The weather services, with their nice, high-tech toys, they still like what they call ‘road truth,’” Kirts said. “They’ll call, saying that their radar is showing something but wanting to know exactly what’s going on outside.”
In times of disasters, amateur radio operators could patch messages from family members to those in the middle of disaster areas.
That played out in situations such as Hurricane Katrina, when a network of radio owners helped people marooned in New Orleans connect with their families.
“They’ve become aware that when all else fails, radio will still work,” Kirts said.
Kirts started working with amateur radio as a boy growing up on a farm. His mother thought it would be a good way to keep him busy and out of trouble. He found the ability to talk to people all over the country just by getting on his radio to be fascinating.
“A lot of times, it starts out with us kids in science class, building a cat’s whisker radio or a crystal radio. There’s a lot of tinkering involved, even now,” Kirts said.
That’s how most operators begin working with radios.
A simple radio can be purchased for about $90 that allows you to do all of the basic things that amateur operators use. The costs can escalate from there, if people choose. But you don’t need to spend too much more, Kirts said.
Throughout the year, they conduct training classes to teach people about amateur radios and prepare them for the required tests needed to earn a radio license.
Before becoming an amateur radio operator, people need to take a written test on electrical principles, rules and regulations, as well as operating practice. Once people have general operators licenses, they can ride the radio waves to reach out to people around the world.
The service angle is an important role that amateur radio enthusiasts play. But what keeps them interested in the hobby is the ability to connect with so many different people, Frederick said.
“The appeal is just being able to talk to different parts of the country and the world,” she said. “We’re chatting briefly to them each time, finding out what got them involved in it. You meet so many people.”