They don't play Words With Friends, but some have friends across the world.

Their electronic accessories don't begin with "i."

In the event of an actual emergency, you would be glad to have one for a neighbor.

Ham radio operators have always been a subset of society, but with digital devices making everyone a communications guru of sorts, it's easy to forget this small segment of the population. Yet, for the civic-minded sort with a hankering to connect and serve, there's a local source for would-be radio folk.

East County has an enclave of hams with a vivid social life. Delta Amateur Radio Club members meet in person at 7 p.m. the last Thursday of every month at the Pittsburg Environmental Center, 2581 Harbor St. They come together to swap stories and equipment and technical tips. Newcomers are welcome.

"If you think you might like to become a ham, come to a meeting!" club president Mary-Jane Walker insisted.

Or maybe take in a breakfast with members of the larger county club, club treasurer Drew Hanson said.

The perception that amateur radio operators are shut-ins is untrue. Walker started hamming it up 30 years ago. Newly widowed, her daughter and son-in-law encouraged her to join them in their hobby.

"I joined to meet people," Walker said. "I've made a lot of friends over the years."

Hanson is an active ham operator who belongs to three clubs, fitting in meetings between bowling.

Some operators are homebound. One member of the Delta ARC is in a wheelchair and can't make the monthly meetings. He and the approximately 20 members of the club do check in via their radios during "net time" Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.

Some members of the club compete to see who can collect the most connections to other operators or to reach the farthest operator in a given set of time. Others volunteer at parades, horse riding events, bicycle tours and other gatherings where quick communication with emergency personnel is important. The work is always voluntary.

"You can never be paid if you are a ham, ever," Walker said.

There is a serious side to amateur radio. The Federal Communication Commission licenses operators because it counts on them as a source of information in the case local emergencies such as earthquakes or storms. Operators are volunteers and take their responsibility seriously.

Hanson said he can respond to emergencies from three home bases or a mobile radio he carries in his vehicle. He trains monthly with the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service under the county sheriff to be ready for any emergency situation.

"We're instantaneous. We have a radio going right now," Hanson said. "In a big disaster your cellphone is going to be useless."

Walker has never worked an emergency, but she has worked alongside city and police at parades and used her handheld radio as part of a team that saw tipsy partiers home on New Year's Eve.

It's not difficult to join the world of ham, but it does require a license. The base "technician" license can be obtained in three lessons. "General" and "extra" licenses require more classes, but come with more perks, like contacting operators in other countries.

Knowing how to handle a radio comes in handy for personal emergencies, too, Walker said. She has a cellphone now because it's convenient, but would be fine without one.

"I didn't worry about not having a cellphone for years," she said. "You can just get on the radio and there's always somebody listening."

What: Delta Amateur Radio Club
When: 7 p.m. the last Thursday of every month
Where: Pittsburg Environmental Center, 2581 Harbor St.
Info: or 925-458-3164


Source: - Tammy Hansen

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