BY LOGAN MCCOURTNEY –
Texting, phone calls, Facetime, emails, and conference calls…each of these are forms of communication that are thought of as necessary, but could more accurately be thought of as a blessing and luxury. In the 21st century, there isn’t a shortage of means of communications, allowing for people all around the world to be more connected than they ever have been. The Ouachita Amateur Radio Association of Mena is using their hobby to continually grow in knowledge and service.
Amateur radio first started in 1914 with Hiram Percy Maxim organizing the American Radio Relay League [ARRL], a non-commercial organization of radio amateurs. Today, there are more than 161,000 members, making ARRL the largest organization of radio amateurs in the United States. Each individual radio enthusiast is called a Amateur Radio Operator; or, in the radio world, they are called “Hams.” This is no reference to the meal at Christmas, no, the term started with the frustration of those in commercial radio in the Genesis of radio. In those early days of radio, there were many, both commercial and amateur fighting for time and signal. Two amateurs, working together across town, could effectively jam all the other operations in the area. Frustrated commercial operators would refer to the ham radio interference by calling them “hams.”
The ARRL operates from five pillars: Public Service, Advocacy, Education, Technology, and Membership. Locally, the Ouachita Repeater Association is a club or entity of the ARRL. Members in the local club, Chris Masters and Samantha Shores, explain the aspect of community service behind their club, “Our primary component is community service. We have run the communication services for the Athens-Big Fork marathon, the Ouachita Challenge, a 60-mile epic mountain bike race, and the Talimena Half Marathon.” Like the national organization, the Ouachita Repeaters group is committed to educating their members and advancing their technology through radio experimentation. For “hams,” the joy is manifold in their service to the community, “We are always looking for opportunities about how we might share our knowledge to serve the community, but even in doing so, it is just a lot of fun for us to learn new things each time,” says Chris smiling.
Recently, amateur radio operators joined together all over North America for the purpose of education, demonstration, and practice. Each year in June, more than 40,000 “hams” gather to set up temporary transmitting stations in public places. “More than anything, the day is for preparing for emergency communications. It is a good natured contest to prepare us for any future or potential emergency. During the Field Day, we operate in abnormal situations as if it were a real emergency. So, several people ran their transmitters off of solar panels or generators,” states Chris. As ham radio operators from around the world use the 24 hour period from 12 noon on a Saturday to 12 noon on a Sunday to broadcast their call signs (W5HUM for the local group), they wait for someone to send one back and see how far they come. “The field days allows for us not only to have an emergency communication exercise, but to have the potential opportunity to connect with somebody thousands of miles away,” explains Samantha with a smile.
So what makes a good “ham”? Anyone. There is a wide range of amateur radio operators, nearly all of the operators working a job outside of their favorite hobby. “That’s one of the things we love about amateur radio and our group specifically. We have people from all walks of life that are a part of our group, each bringing a different level of experience,” states Chris. Although there certainly is a lot of technological knowledge that is needed at times, that doesn’t exclude anybody from being a member of the group, after all, one of the pillars of AARL is promoting education through radio experience and experiment. One of the ways that the Ouachita Amateur Radio Association most serves the community is also one of the biggest draws for the various members in the group. “A lot of what we do at each of the races, the mountain bike race and marathons, is safety and rescue. We are spread along the course making sure nobody gets lost or seriously injured. We have several members who are retired military and the safety and rescue speaks to them. They start out just interested in that part of what we do, but over time, their interest grows. That’s what happened to me,” states Samantha.
The Ouachita Amateur Radio Association is open to anyone to join that may be interested in exploring the world of communications and radio. “We do learn a lot as we go. We all teach other new things, but honestly what we enjoy the most is the friendship and fellowship we get to enjoy. We would encourage anyone to come check it out, even if they don’t have any experience.” Although for many, amateur radio is just a hobby, but as the 2009 tornado in Mena reminded us, in which the Ouachita Amateur Radio Association was an instrumental tool of communication for the community, their hobby may just save lives. For more information about the local Amateur Radio Association, join them at their next monthly meeting at Limetree. They meet on the second Saturday at 12 noon.