Communication’s last line

LIHUE — The highlight of Tad Miura’s experience as a ham radio operator happened in 2010, on a particularly slow day in Hawaii’s amateur radio world.

In fact, had Miura not been on his radio, the ham operator attempting to communicate with Hawaii from the International Space Station may have passed over unnoticed.

But instead, the two of them were able to log the contact in their records, and had about eight minutes of uninterrupted conversation before the International Space Station orbited out of range.

“He knew about the Navy base here, about PMRF (Pacific Missile Range Facility), and he said he’d been there,” Miura said. “So we were able to have a conversation about that.”

Miura explained most astronauts who board the International Space Station are certified ham operators because some of the equipment on the station is amateur radio equipment.

He said many of them have a passion for amateur radio, but their schedule is so tight, most of them don’t have time to jump on the waves just for fun.

“They might have a half an hour of scheduled free time before bed, so this particular individual, he was using that time to try to communicate with different people on Earth,” Miura said.

The astronauts in the International Space Station do have scheduled chats with students, as well as ham radio operators on the ground, but their time is usually so constricted that people generally get time for only two or three words.

“I’ve spoken with the International Space Station twice, and the second time it was short like that, but the first time we were the only ones talking, so we were able to have a more in-depth conversation,” Miura said.

While touching base with the space station is thrilling, ham radio operators are usually making contact with people on the same planet.

“Most ham radio operators really enjoy making friends and talking with people they’ve never met before,” Miura said. “And some of them are in it to see how many states they’re able to make contact with, or to see how far their signal will reach.”

Depending upon the type of equipment, and the number of repeaters and remote base systems involved, radio signals can reach from a range of a few miles to around the world.

“The most basic radio, you can get that for around $35, and if you’re in Hanalei you can talk with someone in Waimea,” Miura said.

While ham radio operators are making friends, talking story and exchanging pictures to hang up in their shacks, many of them are also geared up to be the last line of communication in the event everything goes dark.

“Many people who are ham radio operators today are doing it in the realm of public service communication,” Miura said. “We’re not first responders, but we’re here to help if land lines, Internet and cell phones go down.”

And that’s where the training comes into play with events like the annual field day event, which is happening nationally on June 25-26, according to the national association for amateur radio.

“These kinds of trainings have that emergency communication component and we take our equipment somewhere outside, so we’re not operating in our houses, we’re outside and we’re using our own, non-commercial source of power,” Miura explained.

Establishing that self-sufficiency, and working in redundancies in case of malfunctioning equipment, is paramount for amateur radio public service communications, Miura said.

Ham radio operators really only need three components to be effective — a radio, a power source, and an antenna — but all three of them need to be functioning to get a signal out.

“It’s important because you may be stationed, say, at a Kilauea relief center and you might be the only means of communication between there and Lihue,” Miura said. “It wouldn’t be good for your reputation, or what you’re trying to do, if your microphone went out and you didn’t have a backup.”

Establishing those redundancies goes right in line with many of the personality types that often get involved with public service communication over ham radio. Miura said along with a strong desire to help people and a love for making new friends, many operators have a survivalist quality about them.

“It goes along the same lines as making sure you have enough food and water, stockpiling supplies for emergencies, and being prepared for an eventuality,” Miura said.

Those who want to take it a step further can register with Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES), which is recognized by the Federal Communications Commission as the only radio group that communicates by radio during a presidentially declared communication emergency.

Miura said in order to be part of RACES, radio operators have to pass a background check and go through a vetting process, but once that’s done, operators are put on a list with the governmental emergency management organizations.

“There are many different levels and hundreds of different things you can do with amateur radio,” Miura said. “It all depends on what you want to do and how far you want to get into it.”

There are three levels of certifications that can be achieved in amateur radio, and each is achieved by passing a $15, 35-question multiple-choice test. Once a ham operator receives his or her license, it’s good for 10 years.

Renewal can be done online, and only requires that the license holder update his or her address within the FCC website.

The next testing is scheduled for June 24 at 3 p.m. at Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.

Info: www.kh6e.org. For questions about the FCC test, or to register to take the test, email Elaine at hamexams@kauaimail.net. For information about Hawaii RACES, email Tad at zssq@hotmail.com.

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