DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
BURNET — When all other communication fails — the Internet no longer interconnects everybody or land lines and cell phones quit working — one group of people still will be able to communicate across the world or across town.
They are called “hams,” a name for amateur radio enthusiasts.
“Yeah, you have the Internet, but ham radio offers you so much more than email or even the Internet,” said Riley Carruthers, a ham and member of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club. “How many times have you emailed the International Space Station or bounced signals off the moon to talk to people on the other side of Earth. We have. We’ve even arranged for school classes to speak with the space station.”
And the Highland Lakes club is offering an invitation to anybody interested in exploring the world of ham radio to attend a course Aug. 23-25 to earn their passage into this hobby.
“The training will be so you can pass the initial technician test,” Carruthers said. “It gets you the introductory level of ham radio.”
Ham radio operators also assist communities and emergency services in case of natural or man-made catastrophes. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, amateur radio enthusiasts helped with communications. The Burnet County Sheriff’s Office and the Burnet County Courthouse have ham radio setups in case other forms of communication fail or become unavailable.
Ham radio clubs often train alongside law enforcement and emergency services during mock drills to prepare for disasters.
Carruthers first felt the pull of ham radio in 1957 when he met two guys who got him hooked. He, like many other enthusiasts, enjoyed the communication aspect as well as the tinkering part. As ham radio operators, Carruthers explained, the fun comes from trying to connect with other folks around the world as well as building your own equipment.
“We have guys who like to build their own equipment,” he said. “There’s a group who will build a system that uses only five watts of power, but you’d be amazed at what they can do with just that little amount (of wattage).”
To put that into perspective, a typical household lamp or light requires 60 to 100 watts of power.
Carruthers pursued amateur radio for many years but drifted away from the hobby for a period of time. Then, in 1997, after about 15 years away, he re-discovered the ham in him. But the amateur radio world, like almost everything related to technology, had changed.
“I came back into a new environment,” he said. “It had become very digitized.”
The change doesn’t close the door for the less techie people to enjoy ham radio. While enthusiasts still can build their own systems and gear, Carruthers said amateur radio fans can purchase gear for very reasonable prices.
“The hobby is very accessible,” he added.
The first step, however, is earning the technician rating.
The club’s training class starts 6 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Herman Brown Free Library, 100 E. Washington St., with an introduction and some basic information. The program continues Aug. 24 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“That’s a long day, but it’s when you’ll get most of the training,” Carruthers said. “Then, we’ll return (Aug. 25) for a brief program in the morning when people can ask questions before the test at 2 p.m.”
The test has about 25 questions on it, he said, but the study manual students use will have all the possible test questions in it.
Once a person earns his or her technician certification, he or she is ready to enter the world of ham radio. But the club and other ham enthusiasts won’t abandon them. Carruthers said the club will assign newbies an “Elmer.”
Basically, an Elmer is a ham radio mentor for a new hobbiest.
“That person will help you and answer all the questions you didn’t ask during the training,” Carruthers said.
The class is free, but the exam fee is $15. Club officials also ask for a voluntary donation from attendees to cover the cost of the training manuals, which typically are about $29 each from a retail outlet.
As for learning Morse Code, Carruthers said it’s not required anymore.
While Carruthers enjoys tinkering with equipment — he is an electrical engineer — he said the best part about ham radio is the people, both the locals and the ones you meet on the other side of the globe.
“You’ll meet some of the nicest and most interesting people in ham radio,” he said. “With ham radio, you can talk with people in Russia, Africa and Japan. It’s incredible.”
Go to hlarc.org for more information or to register for the training session.