When disaster strikes in America, amateur radio operators are a crucial tool.
"When hurricanes happen, one of the first things that goes down is communications," said Joseph Lawrence, scientist and ham radio operator who oversaw the 47th annual Fort Wayne Hamfest at the Memorial Coliseum this weekend. "Ham radio (operators) are already always involved in relief operations."
Locally, amateur radio operators, known colloquially as ham radio operators, drill with the American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security. Which makes sense, Lawrence said, because ham radio operators have the ability to work different signals and channels and bring together disparate law enforcement and relief agencies.
"Hams," as they are sometimes called, were silent heroes during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. With police and fire on different frequencies, "it was the hams that were able to talk back and forth," Lawrence said.
But the excitement of working together and the camaraderie operators feel when they transmit their signal out there and issue a "cq" in order to talk to other operators doesn’t seem to appeal to the younger generation, however you might define that.
At Saturday’s event, Lawrence reluctantly admitted that most of the 2,000 vendors and guests who attended the Hamfest were older, white and male.
Some of that, Lawrence said, has to do with cellphones and computers that allow a wide range of communication. And some of it may have to do with the discretionary income that older folks have once they’ve retired.
"We certainly welcome young people," Lawrence said.
At the Hamfest on Saturday, organizers set up a "youth lounge" and attracted a handful of kids for instruction on "make-it kits."
Ham radio operators are willing to share their knowledge with Boy Scouts, school radio clubs, just about anyone who wants to learn how to make kits and start sending out signals, like the 750,000 people with a handle in the U.S. Not all of those operators are active, Lawrence cautioned.
One teenager that needs no persuading is Homestead High School junior Madison Baxter, who described herself as a geek and someone who believes older technologies should be brought back and treasured.
"People keep on using newer technology. People are forgetting about the older technology. It’s frustrating to me," said Baxter, who was accompanied by two teenaged boys who shied away from the "geek" term and did not want to be interviewed for the story.
As an example, Baxter wondered why she and her peers aren’t taught how to sew and why, in the 11th grade, she’s never learned about money.
Baxter told Lawrence she’d bought a piece of equipment that detects frequencies. After she described it, Lawrence figured it dated back to the 1980s because it wasn’t transistor-based, but rather used vacuum tube technology.
Baxter, who said she loved all technology, bought the detector for $10.
"He said I could have it for five dollars, but I felt bad, so I gave him ten dollars," Baxter said, referring to the vendor who sold it to her.
Radio operations date back more than 100 years, Lawrence said, and don’t seem to be going away. Anyone with a hankering to contact the organizers to learn more about amateur radio operations can give a "73" or "best regards" to the Fort Wayne Hamfest on Facebook or call 260-579-2196.