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Ham radio operators always prepared to help behind the scenes

Garrison Wells | The Colorado Springs Gazette

When these guys make long-distance calls from Colorado, it’s the hinterlands.

Russia. Iceland. Sweden. The Philippines. Not the normal calling radius of most Americans.

But there are no boundaries for Ham radio operators.

On Saturday, about a dozen local Hams, as they call themselves, were perched on the plains four miles south of Ellicott.

Five antennas hovered.

They wore purple T-shirts, hats to shield themselves from the sun and green name tags that included their call signs.

In this world, you are known by your first name and the last three letters of your call sign.

The group — members of Pikes Peak Radio Amateur Association — was taking part in an annual national event called “Field Day,” the climax of “Amateur Radio Week.” Last year, 30,000 Hams took part in the event nationwide.

In essence, it’s practice for what would happen in the even that a national crisis knocks out the nation’s communications infrastructure.

Hams use only emergency power supplies, such as generators and solar energy to power emergency stations for a 24-hour period that started at noon Saturday and runs until noon Sunday.

No cell phones. No Internet. Nothing that could be damaged or taken out during a crisis.

“This is to prove that if something happens, some crisis, we can put something together and talk to people around the world.” said Doug Nielsen, a board member of the 115-member local club.

It’s nothing new.

Hams are a vital piece of the National Weather Service as part of a program called Skywarn, where they keep track of severe weather such as tornadoes, hail and major thunderstorms.

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“The most dangerous thing is lightning,” said Jim Bishop, vice president of the Pikes Peak group.

But they were also helped out behind the scenes during the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon wildfires.

There are about 700,000 licensee’s nationwide, said local club president Michael Derbort.

On Saturday, Hams were at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and the Eightmile fire near Canon City providing communication.

This group of Hams in the middle of nowhere on the eastern plains of El Paso County could be part of the final line of communications in a crisis that knocks out national infrastructure.

Their slogan: “Ham radio works when other systems don’t.”

“If an emergency develops, we can be up and running in an hour,” said Lorin Schroeder, 48, one of three generations of local Hams.

Lorin’s father, Gerry Schroeder, 70, was at the event with 22-year-old Christopher Schroeder, who is also a storm chaser.

Lorin Schroeder got into Ham radio first. But then, he does this for a living. He’s the emergency preparedness officer for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.

Their site conatined a pair of long tables under a couple of blue tarp canopies, six radios and six handhelds.

The canopies were next to a pickup truck and camper, where the trio planned to spend the night while the youngest, Christopher, monitored the radios overnight.

For the Schroeders, it’s the camaraderie, said Gerry Schroeder. It’s also about being there to help the community if the need arises.

Under an ARRL program called ARES, ham operators have provided emergency communications during emergencies worldwide, at no charge. Ham operators were there for the Joplin, Mo., tornado, Hurricane Irene, the recovery effort for the Columbia Shuttle and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Most people, Gerry Schroeder said, “don’t even know we’re around.”

“When the Hams help on things like the Waldo Canyon fire, they get no recognition. Nobody ever talks about what the Ham operators are doing,” he said. “They never get the recognition for what they are doing. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is.”

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