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If you go
What: Fort Wayne Hamfest and Computer Expo
When: 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to noon Sunday
Where: Memorial Coliseum, 4000 Parnell Ave.
Admission: $6 for both days, $4 for Sunday and free for ages 11 and younger; $5 Coliseum parking; go to www.acarts.com for more information
Boyer, who listens to radio signals on his laptop, is chairman of Hamfest, an annual convention for amateur operators.

Ham radios still relevant today

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
A “Go Kit” is what James Boyer calls his panel of emergency radios. In an era of cellphone technology, amateur radio plays a vital public safety role, he says.

The century-old science of radio transmissions and antennas seem archaic compared with the cellphones and tablets of today. However, James Boyer, known by his call sign KB9IH, says that most of the time, amateur radio operators are waiting for the world to catch up.

“The general public may not be aware that we are at the forefront of technology,” Boyer says. “We reinvent modes of communication all the time. Amateur radios are essentially the original cellphones – that’s where the technology came from.”

The Allen County Amateur Radio Technical Society’s 41st annual Fort Wayne Hamfest and Computer Expo will welcome thousands of amateur radio operators from Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio on Saturday and Sunday.

Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, has prevailed in the digital age, with more than 700,000 licensed operators in the U.S. today.

Boyer, the society’s Hamfest chairman and member of the Fort Wayne Radio Club, says there are at least 10,000 operators in Indiana. He expects 2,500 to 6,000 people to attend the two-day convention.

“It’s our way of saying we’re still here. Amateur radio is still very active,” he says. “Amateur radio is still relevant. We’re still involved with the latest and greatest technology; in fact, we probably invented it.”

Featuring vendors in the radio and computer industry, the event offers ham operators a chance to connect with people whose only contact may have been through radio frequencies. The convention will also offer the Federal Communications Commission licensing exams that are required for potential ham operators or operators who are looking to upgrade their license with special certifications.

There are several forums for both days that spotlight pertinent topics and special groups within amateur radio organizations. Carole Burke, known by call sign WB9RUS, will lead a discussion to encourage women to pursue a license and learn the special skills needed to upgrade their licenses.

Burke, chairwoman of District 9 of the national Young Ladies Radio League, says she became a licensed operator to spend more time with her husband, but during 38 years, she has fostered friendships across the world and made local history. She recently became the first female vice president of the Fort Wayne Radio Club.

“You have to learn the same things and jump the same hoops to get your license, and the men respect that,” she says. “There’s not a thing that a woman can’t do, so it’s very important to keep women interested.”

Boyer says that as an electrical engineer, he enjoys the technological advantages of amateur radio. For example, with the ability to wirelessly communicate with operators across the world, ham radios often play a part in rescue and weather surveillance. In 2006, Homeland Security formally included ham radio operators as members of the emergency communications community.

This year’s Hamfest will highlight the importance of amateur operators during emergency situations, Boyer says.

“When it comes to emergencies, we like to say we’re always there,” he says. “When the cellphones and telephones go down, we can still communicate. We can do national and local emergencies since we’re so spread out – we’re usually the first ones to reach out from a disaster area.”

Boyer and local operators participate in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Volunteering their time and equipment, the organization’s members are able to support communication during public events and emergencies.

ARES members were used for emergency communication during Fort 4 Fitness for the first time in September. Boyer says local operators also participate in the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program.

“We’re not storm chasers, but we just go out and look at the clouds. We say who we are and they know where we are located,” he says. “I think the new hams want to provide a service and benefit the community, and this is one way they can do that.”

Since operators volunteer their services, Boyer says it’s important that the growth of operators remains healthy to ensure an immediate response to any local or national disasters.

Before 2008, there was a decline in the U.S. as older operators died, and newcomers found it difficult to pass the FCC license exam because of the Morse code requirement. When the FCC eliminated Morse code from the exam in 2006, the license became much more accessible for a new generation of users.

Boyer says the local radio clubs have collaborated with the IPFW Radio Club and local Boy Scouts to show young people how the technology works, and hopefully continue the steady growth in the ranks of operators.

David Jones, an information technology major at IPFW and president of the school’s radio club, says he has been going to the Hamfest and Computer Expo since he was 5 years old with his father and uncle. However, his interest in amateur radio took off when he went to a meeting on a whim a couple years ago.

“For me, I don’t like to text. I like to talk to people and I like to build things, too,” he says. “When I drive around with my antenna on, people want to see what it’s for.”

Burke says amateur radio has revived the art of small talk in a digital world. Throughout the years, she has built close friendships with operators in England, New Zealand and Germany.

Although amateur radio has proved its value from a technology standpoint, there is much more left to explore from a social aspect.

“The friendships and bonds you can have – it’s so amazing. It’s really wonderful,” she says. “With all the texting and shorthand – it drives me crazy. With amateur radio, you just talk.”

kcarr@jg.net

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