Radio Operators Get Mobile Unit

Education, emergency aid key uses of old ambulance

For Johnston County amateur radio operators, going mobile during an emergency just got a little easier.

If you’re not familiar with what the general public more commonly calls ham radio, it might not seem like much of a story. Johnston County Emergency Services had an old, outdated ambulance sitting around going to waste.

Instead of scrapping the vehicle, they decided it was a good idea to hand it over to members of the Johnston Amateur Radio Society (JARS) for them to use when out assisting with disasters or showcasing what ham operators are capable of providing, not only among themselves, but the community as well.

“A few years ago, Johnston County donated an ambulance to one of our members they wanted us to convert for communication purposes,” JARS President Mark Gibson said. “So, he has a passion for all types of communication in general, so, he put a lot of money into converting it into ham radio service.”

The vehicle is now a rolling ham shack or operating station. It contains radios capable of reaching across the county, across the state or across the world.

Included in the inventory of equipment are hand-held radios, high frequency radios and even a Morse code station.

“We can operate on most ham radio frequencies as it sits right now,” Mr. Gibson said. “Our goal is to be able to operate on every ham radio frequency that we can.”

Also included are back-up batteries able to power the station if no other source is available.

On top of the vehicle sits a variety of antennas needed to operate the various radios inside and the “array” as they are known, is raised up and down by a switch inside the vehicle.

The area for each radio is divided by Plexiglas, allowing relatively low background noise during communications.

Normally when hams are out in the field, raising an antenna can be one of the most tedious and time consuming tasks. With the setup on the vehicle, they simply need only to flip a switch and the antennas are deployed.

“It has a specialty built roof so we can add antennas,” Mr. Gibson said. “It has a floating roof so we can drill holes without damaging the vehicle.”

Ham radio operators have been a part of emergency communications during and after disasters for years. JARS members are no exception. They’ve been involved in assisting in emergencies since the club’s inception in 1975. With the rolling ham shack, the club can become fully immersed in a critical situation. They are able to not only provide ham radio services to officials, they can also open their doors to the county in multiple facets.

“EMS, the March of Dimes, anything they need for public service communications, we can roll that truck in and set up a command post,” said member Richard Futrell. “We can pull out our hand-held radios and within a five- or 10-minute radius, we can do communications with no problem.”

Members of the Johnston Amateur Radio Society benefited from a donation of an old ambulance from Johnston County officials. They converted it to a mobile communication vehicle. Above, JARS President Mark Gibson, left, along with members Eric Palmatier and Richard Futrell, pose for a photo alongside the vehicle.

Now, they’re able to take their involvement one step further. They have the ability to add educational and community opportunities to their activities.

“It is an educational machine, it is a community involvement machine and it promotes ham radio,” said Mr. Futrell.

Mr. Gibson stresses the uses of not only the truck, but ham radio in general, are many. Along with the visible projects there are many times ham operators simply talk to each other in what is called “rag chewing.”

He stresses how the hobby is unlimited as to who can join.

“Kids as young as 8 years old can get their license,” he said. “Older adults, you can be handicapped. A lot of handicapped people join ham radio.”

Currently there are around 475 ham operators in Johnston County and at least thousands in the state.

Becoming a ham radio operator has changed over the many decades it’s been a part of the communications community.

Now, for example, operators no longer are required to know Morse code to get their higherend licenses.

Before the change there were “no-code technicians,” general, advanced and extra class licenses. When the FCC did away with the Morse code requirements, it opened the door for quicker advancement through the ranks.

Now, only written tests are required to move up.

For more information about getting into the hobby, visit the JARS website,  Story and photo courtesy The Daily Record