Calling all hams 

About 50 hams flipped burgers in Greenough Park on Saturday. Sound like a scrambled message? The hams can clarify: “Hams” translates to “amateur radio operators” (the abbreviation was easier to send via Morse code when amateur radio clubs first started around 1914), and when they’re not home using their two-way radio stations to communicate around the globe, they like to get together to talk shop.

At the Hellgate Amateur Radio Club’s 2004 Hamfest in Greenough’s picnic shelter last weekend, Montana hams were selling hulking radio transmitters and receivers, oscilloscopes and speech processors that dwarfed the occasional cell phone lying beside them.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but are hams being rendered moot by modern-day technology?

No way, says Al Cristaldi, assistant emergency coordinator for Ravalli County. “Technology is wonderful,” he says, “but it definitely has an Achilles, a weak point.” In a natural disaster, it doesn’t take much for cell phones to stop working, he says. “And that’s where we come in. We fill the void.”

During last summer’s fires, Cristaldi says hams were able to assist with emergency supplemental communications because they have hundreds and hundreds of radio frequencies available to them, while the Ravalli County sheriff may have only two.

Chuck Hammack, a 37-year ham, recalls his father-in-law running phone patches from his home to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica in the 1980s. Just this year, Hammack got a call from a man wanting to thank his father-in-law for enabling him to talk to his son in Antarctica over 20 years ago.

Forty-year ham Donnie Fort, whose four-digit call sign W7XY ranks him in the highest ham class (the FCC issues three classes of amateur radio licenses), remembers military hams who were invaluable during WWII for their mastery of Morse code. Hams have a legacy of “providing communication in times of emergency,” he says, and have been around since “you invented the ways of doing things.” While they may prefer bouncing signals off the atmosphere to instant-messaging, hams say the Internet has been a great way to shop for equipment.

And they do use phones, too:

You can call 1-800-32-NEWHAM, reads the National Association for Amateur Radio’s website, “to talk to a real, live ham.”

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