OPED: Ham radios as emergency backup communications in Rio Blanco County

Pixabay Photo

MEEKER | When I was growing up in Meeker in the ’70s, I was introduced to amateur radio (a.k.a. Ham Radio) by Ray Keller (WA0SPS). As a teenager, I didn’t “get it,” but what Ray showed me about radio stuck with me well into adulthood. I got my amateur radio technician license in 2013 and later upgraded to a general license in 2014. Since that time, I have made hundreds of contacts associated with the hobby; both physically as well as on-the-air. I’ve talked to people in Austria, Venezuela, Alaska and even Japan. On any given day, I could easily speak to people almost anywhere in the continental United States and at night, the reach goes much further. So what got me interested in amateur radio? To put it succinctly, it was Emergency Preparedness that drove me to get licensed and on the air. Coming from an area that is notorious for severe (and often times, cataclysmic) weather, I wanted to make sure I had the means to reach out if other forms of communication were not available, both for myself as well as for others.

In ham radio, there are a number of different frequencies that can be used by amateurs. The licensing structure developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limits the “newbies” (i.e. technician licensees) to primarily five bands of frequencies; 10 meters (around 28 MHz), 6 meters (around 50 MHz), 2 meters (around 147 MHz), 1.25 meters (around 222 MHz) and 70 centimeters (around 440 MHz). There are some variations and restrictions but for the most part, licensees tend to focus on the 2-meter band as a mainstay for local communications. The radios are fairly inexpensive, easy to operate and come in base, mobile and handheld configurations. What makes the 2-meter band so restrictive is that it is somewhat limited in the distance it can cover. To overcome that technical restriction, ham operators around the world use something called a repeater. A repeater is basically a radio transceiver that listens to a specific frequency and when it receives a message, it takes the message and repeats with greater power. Most repeaters are typically higher power and are installed in locations that offer the most coverage geographically.

When I came back to Meeker a few months ago, I was surprised to find that there were very few active hams in the area. I was even more surprised to find that there was not a repeater in the area. Craig and Rifle have several. There’s a repeater in Rangely, but it’s at a higher frequency (the 70-centimeter band) which limits its reach and it’s strictly digital which requires a specialized transceiver which has only recently started to gain popularity. Consequently, I am in the process of attempting to get a 2-meter repeater set up in Meeker.

It is my belief that a well-placed 2-meter repeater could cover a great deal of central Rio Blanco County. Amateur radio operators could effectively have clear communications in areas where there is no cell phone coverage. Also, in the event of an emergency, local law enforcement as well as Search and Rescue teams could leverage an amateur repeater to augment their own system or use it exclusively in the event of an outage. My goal is to use my experience and the experience of hams outside of our area to assist in getting a repeater set up in Meeker for these purposes.

So what does it take to become an amateur radio operator? The licensing process has been established by the FCC however, the testing process is managed by fellow hams who volunteer to be test proctors through an organization called the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL). The multiple-choice test is not difficult and with a little study, pretty much anyone can pass it. Contrary to popular belief, there is no longer a requirement to learn Morse Code for the test. It’s just a written test now. As mentioned above, the technician class license is all that is required to use the 2-meter band. One test and you’re good for 10 years. When I was covering the Rally Colorado event in Rangely a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Emit Hurdelbrink, the Assistant State Coordinator of AuxComm which is an organization associated with of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He said that if there was an interest, he and his team (who are also ARRL testing volunteers) would be more than happy to come to Meeker and teach a one-day class and proctor the exam at no charge. He claimed they had a 99% success rate with their classes. If anyone is interested in becoming an amateur radio operator, please contact me by email and I’ll start making a list.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Meeker Volunteer Fire Department. After they switched over to the state’s 900 MHz radio system, the old system was abandoned. The old system’s antenna is very close to the amateur 2-meter band, so it could be “re-tasked” for amateur use, so they donated the old antenna and tower to the Meeker repeater project. It is my hope that their donation, along with assistance from other sources, we will soon have amateur radio coverage in our area.

By Brett Dearman | brett@ht1885.com