Washington — WASHINGTON--Think of ham radio, and the image that crops up may be of a '50s whiz kid building his own receiver, or a retiree tapping out Morse code in some darkened room: at best an antiquated hobby. After all, why bother, when you can chat with someone a world away using the Internet?
But that's the thing, amateur radio enthusiasts say; an Internet chat can't compare to an actual conversation with a new friend in a foreign country. And during times of crisis, like now, the skills of the ever-increasing ranks of amateur radio operators are even more vital.
"It's the magic of radio. It's hearing the human voice rather than just words on a screen," said Jennifer Hagy, media relations manager for the American Radio Relay League, the hobby's national membership association. "And ham radio operators are always ready to help. They're very skilled in different types of disasters."
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11--when an overload of traffic left telephone and cellular services unusable in New York and Washington, which could have hampered rescue efforts--emergency agencies relied on volunteer ham radio operators to serve as their communications systems.
More than 500 hams worked with the Red Cross and Salvation Army around the World Trade Center site, said Jim Haynie, league president. A hundred more spent a week helping at the Pentagon.
"In times of emergency, amateur radio has always been there," said Haynie, 58, of Dallas.
In fact, thousands of operators around the country train several times a year with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local authorities, and hams are often called in during natural disasters.
"Right now the No. 1 thing on our plate is homeland security," Haynie said. "The popularity is not going the other way, as some people might suspect," said Hagy. "It appeals to a lot of different people."
The hobby cuts across genders, age groups and professions, she said. And why are they called "hams"? According to the league, the label "ham" evolved from the earliest days of radio, when commercial and government operators used it as a derogatory term for amateurs who interfered with their signals. But the amateurs soon co-opted the term as their own.
Amateur operators use radios that can send and receive signals on the wavelengths the FCC has set aside for them--various frequencies between the AM and FM bands as well as on frequencies above FM. Hams are licensed by the FCC after they show proficiency at Morse code--which is still widely used--and pass a test on rules and regulations.
"One of the rules is, 'Embrace international goodwill.' We do that all the time," said Haynie, a traveling salesman who got interested in amateur radio to ease the boredom of long drives through Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
"Flip on one switch and the whole world is out there waiting. Other countries can talk to us without being censored. We can tell them what it's like to go to Wal-Mart."
Hagy called it "a fast friendship that develops on the air. People here can teach people in other parts of the world about America, and people in other countries can teach about their cultures."
In addition, the league works to get ham radios into schools, because the hobby can be used to teach about electricity, physics and geography.
Many enthusiasts credit their careers in engineering or the sciences with the interest that ham radio sparked in them as youngsters. "You can do so many different things with amateur radio," Haynie said, including talking to astronauts on the International Space Station or bouncing signals off the moon. "It's the only hobby I've ever had where I can have fun and benefit my fellow man."
Another aspect of that public service is the Military Affiliate Radio System, or MARS. Civilian volunteers aid military and civilian authorities by using military frequencies to broadcast messages in emergencies.
This is similar to other emergency services, in which hams pitch in when normal communications won't work, but the MARS operators also offer a personalized service for troops overseas that's been available for 76 years, said Chris Moreno, the Army MARS director for Southern California.
Military personnel can go to MARS stations on their bases or ships to send messages home via radio. A MARS volunteer stateside, who lives near the parent or other loved one the message is destined for, gets the call. He or she then phones the family, relaying the message as if it were a telegram.
With the right equipment, the ham can simply patch the soldier's radio transmission through the phone line for a direct link from Bosnia, Korea or wherever.
"The thanks we got from folks here, being able to talk to their sons and daughters overseas, was just tremendous," said Moreno, 47, a former aerospace engineer.
"It became almost an addiction [for ham operators]. People would fight over them, because it's so gratifying to be able to do that. It's the best thing I've ever done."
The substance of the messages is limited, to ensure security. And Moreno said restrictions have prevented the service from being used by troops in Afghanistan to contact Southern California relatives.
"Everything has kind of changed with this war. We're put on hold," he said, though MARS messages may start flowing from Central Asia once the situation there gets more settled. "I hope that happens pretty soon."