He has to listen closely to hear through the static, but University of Pittsburgh student Geoff Wolf can just barely make out the strained beeps of Morse code emanating from somewhere in the south Asian country of Sri Lanka.

Wolf, of Harrisburg, belongs to the Skyview Radio Society, an amateur ham radio group that draws members from throughout Western Pennsylvania. Members meet at their radio station and clubhouse in New Kensington and broadcast locally and throughout the world.

"All you need is a radio, a wire and a power source," said Larry Kelley of Murrysville, one of about 80 society members. "People will get on and see how many folks throughout the world they can talk to."

In today's age of cellphones, the Internet and numerous other modes of communication, it might seem quaint that ham radio is still around. But it has a distinct advantage over many other forms of modern communication.

Cellphones, telephones, Internet-connected computers and even satellite phones require electric power and must be routed through a variety of possible choke points, but ham radios can "go direct" and talk straight through to one another because each station is independent. That makes them indispensable from an emergency-services standpoint.

Even if a cellphone tower is operating normally, an emergency can trigger an avalanche of calls that easily can overwhelm the tower's capability.

"If a large group of parents are calling somewhere to check on their kids, that can overload a cell tower," said society member Dave Kleber of O'Hara.

When Hurricane Ivan caused widespread flooding problems throughout the area in the fall of 2004, Kleber said he was summoned to O'Hara's emergency services department because its director was having trouble making phone calls.

"We were called (upon) to help get information back and forth," Kleber said.

From casual fun to emergency broadcasting, ham radio runs the full spectrum.

"A lot of times it's guys comparing tomato-sauce recipes, but when it goes down, they're ready to help," Kleber said.


Source: http://www.pittsburghlive.com - Patrick Varine

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