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LOCAL NEWS    Wednesday, October 02, 2002         Subscribe!
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Ham radio buffs tune in during crises

By Eve Thorsen

After last year's terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center towers, amateur radio operators like Mitch Stern wanted to help, and they knew exactly how they could be of use.

The towers' destruction had knocked out the local phone system, and officials put out a call for amateur radio operators to patch together a communications network.

"My wife wouldn't let me go, but I know one radio operator who went," Stern said. "He was moved to one of the dump trucks ferrying the debris to the river."

The vital role played by operators of amateur radio -- also known as "ham radio" -- in post-Sept. 11 New York made government officials realize the importance of the resource. As a result, the federal government recently pumped $181,900 into the American Radio Relay League to extend training of amateur radio operators across the country, as a way to support emergency communications such as those needed at Ground Zero.

The first step toward receiving that training is passing a test for basic and intermediate licenses. Stern is offering a training session Oct. 12-13 in Essex to help enthusiasts who want to attain those first two levels of licensure.

"I try to run a course twice a year for people to get their license, because this is one of the few hobbies where you have to take a test and pass it," Stern said.

Ham radio allows people to communicate with others anywhere around the world by radio, but users must be licensed to transmit on amateur radio frequencies. The Federal Communications Commission issues those licenses to people after they have studied for and passed an exam on rules, regulations, safety and basic electronics.

There are about 2,300 licensed amateur operators in Vermont, including 800 in Chittenden County. They are linked to the state's Emergency Management Team and have offered help during regional crises, such as the 1998 ice storm, when many parts of the area lost power.

"We train for disasters, and the way in which we do that is we get involved in the communications for a lot of the public service events," Stern said. "The biggest example of that is the Vermont City Marathon."

About 40 radio operators help out at the marathon by keeping communications open between water stands and at various points along the course.

Stern said the October training session is almost full, with about a dozen people signed up. He said the course requires homework in advance. His next session will be in March.

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