When disaster strikes somewhere in the world, ham radio operators are uniquely qualified to assist with communications.
Their battery-, solar- and generator-run equipment works even when cellphones, landlines and broadcast towers are out of commission. That's why ham radio operators sometimes arrive with the first responders after hurricanes and earthquakes.
But that rough-and-ready crew is struggling with its own serious situation: Aging amateur radio operators worry that not enough young people are getting involved to keep the hobby thriving.
That's the most common concern Rick Roderick hears when he attends ham radio conventions across the country in his role as president of ARRL, the national association for amateur radio. The organization represents about 180,000 of the 750,000 ham radio operators in the U.S.
Roderick was among the visitors, vendors and staff at Memorial Coliseum's Expo Center on Saturday for the 46th Annual Hamfest & Computer Expo. About 2,000 attended last year over the two-day event. Jim Boyer, the event's chairman, said this year's attendance was on track to match 2017's numbers.
Roderick, who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, praised the local gathering.
"This is really a nice one here," he said. "Everybody's been just great."
Roderick fell in love with amateur radio when he was a teen about 50 years ago.
"What interested me was I could talk to people around the world from my bedroom," he said.
Among his personal highlights were times when Roderick bounced signals off the moon and off the Leonid meteor shower. He has also talked to astronauts on the International Space Station and struck up a friendship with the late King Hussein of Jordan when both were boys.
"There's something in amateur radio for everyone," Roderick said, adding that there's a lot about the hobby that would interest today's teens. "I don't know what I'd do without it."
Dr. Mark Young, who has a family practice in Sidney, Ohio, buys a radio for any of his young patients who earn a ham radio license. His wife, Jeanie Young, said that's his way of passing on their hobby to the next generation.
"He's trying to promote ham radio so it's not a dying sport," she added.
The couple also encouraged their four grown children – and one son-in-law – to get licensed. Between weather spotting and other activities, the Youngs go live on air about four nights a week.
Boyer, this year's hamfest organizer, said some people are attracted to the social aspects of the hobby. Others, like him, enjoy the technical aspects.
The 70-year-old electronic engineer has built his own radios from parts. Various modern forms of communication, including cellphones and texting, are based on technology created by amateur radio enthusiasts, he said.
"They're all geeks," Boyer said of his fellow hams before correcting himself. "People who are into technology is the nice way of saying it."
Kermit Carlson, ARRL's central division director, also sees a lot in his hobby for kids to love.
He said: "It's the original social medium."
If you go
What: 2018 Hamfest & Computer Expo including a flea market with new and used computer supplies
Who: Allen County Amateur Radio Technical Society organized the 46th annual event
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today
Where: Memorial Coliseum, 4000 Parnell Ave.
Admission: $3 for adults; free for children 11 and younger when accompanied by an adult; $6 parking