Skip to content

Dade County Amateur Radio Operators Find Connection Over the Airwaves

Photo courtesy of Jeff Johnson – From first learning about amateur radio in seventh grade to now working with the kit and call sign shown here (KB5CT), Jeff Johnson has enjoyed ham radio for numerous decades.

By LYDIA BERGLAR
News Editor

“When you start turning that dial, it’s fascinating all the things you can hear. It’s invisible, but it’s there. With the right equipment and antennae, you can hear it.” These words from Jeff Johnson, a Dade County resident and amateur radio operator, explain why he and others around the world continue to tune in and invest in their hobby.

Amateur radio, often called “ham radio,” predates cell phones and the internet, and a number of Dade County residents are proud to call themselves “hams.”

Photo by Lydia Berglar – Pictured here, Riley Amoriello’s transportable kit works completely off-grid, no internet or electricity needed. “We can talk all over the world from right here in Dade County with this little box,” he said.

Johnson, who helps organize Dade County Amateur Radio Group (DARG), has been a ham for most of his life. Riley Amoriello, emergency coordinator for Dade County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (Dade County ARES), is newer to the hobby, and he is particularly interested because of its ability to help in emergency situations.

As to how the term “ham” came about, Johnson said, “No one really knows for sure. It goes back to the early 1900s. Some of the guys would ‘ham it up’ over radio waves. Other articles say that they were called ‘ham-fisted’ because of their poor Morse code abilities.”

Johnson also cited the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) website which explains, “Many of the amateur stations were very powerful. Two amateurs, working [with] each other across town, could effectively jam all the other operations in the area. Frustrated commercial operators would refer to the ham radio interference by calling them ‘hams.’ Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves. As the years advanced, the original meaning has completely disappeared.”

Johnson was first introduced to the hobby in seventh grade when his science teacher started an amateur radio club. At that time, (the 1960s), Morse code was required to get an amateur radio license, so the teacher taught interested students Morse code, some electronic and operational theory, and the rules and regulations of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Johnson explained, “It was very heavily regulated by the FCC, unlike Citizens Band radio which can only legally use five watts. Amateur can have up to 2,000 watts.”

Recalling his early days in the hobby, Johnson said, “What really got me invested is that it seemed almost magical to sit down at that radio, tune in, and listen to people talking all across the world. Before cell phones, computers, and the internet, it was amazing to experience.”

DARG’s monthly meetings (held the last Friday of each month at Guthrie’s) usually have around 15 people in attendance, but about 30 people are involved in the group as a whole. Johnson moved to the county in 2006 and became involved with the group in 2012. He’s since taken on more responsibilities with the group.

Keeping it fun and focused on the hobby, DARG doesn’t have bylaws, elections, or official membership dues. However, the group does take up collections which are primarily used to maintain the repeater.

The repeater is located on a water tower on Sand Mountain, and Johnson explained, “Nowadays, it’s very difficult to get permission to put an antenna and transmitting equipment on a site like that, but we’re grandfathered in.”

DARG members take turns hosting a weekly net on Thursdays at 8 p.m. during which the host calls out and those who want to check in radio back to join the discussion.

For future monthly meetings, Johnson hopes to facilitate demonstrations such as soldering, building a kit, and other radio-related work. The group also uses the meetings to plan for Field Day (a day when ham radio groups in the United States and Canada set up outdoor stations without commercial power and spend 24 hours seeing how many contacts they can make). This day is organized by the ARRL.

Amoriello explained that the Dade County ARES group is made up of  hams “who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment with their local ARES leadership for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.”

ARES is a national program through ARRL, and the local group began in June 2023 when the state section manager appointed Amoriello as emergency coordinator. This group has 15 members, and Amoriello said that many join ARES out of a desire to serve the local community.

Johnson noted that many hams (whether part of an ARES group or not) are interested in the ability to communicate during emergency situations and assist during events like races and parades. Amoriello encourages all interested in serving to contact him in order to gain training and practice prior to being called on in an emergency.

ARES works with Dade County Emergency Management (EMA) as well as Federal Emergency Management, Georgia Emergency Management, the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service, and the National Park Service.

Photo courtesy of Riley Amoriello – ARES practiced setting up on Lookout Mountain to test their equipment and capabilities.

Amoriello explained that as long as they have a radio and emergency power source, “We can send email and text messaging and data over radio waves. Once we send it out and they know that there’s a way in, they can communicate to us.”

He explained that ARES is able to set up a tactical address (similar to an email address but without the need for an internet connection) to receive information. If there’s ever a local disaster, ARES supports the communication needs of agencies such as Dade County EMA.

Amoriello explained that interest in ARES picked up after the 2020 Nashville bombing. “This stuff has been around for years and years, but it kind of died off as technology advanced. What got a lot of people back into it was when the Nashville bombing happened and AT&T in the Chattanooga area had no cell service. The only way that a lot of people around here could communicate was through two-way radio communication.”

While Amoriello plans to work on fundraising once Dade County ARES becomes a 501(c)(3), the group is currently funded through donations and individual members. Members (and hams in general) purchase as much or as little equipment as they would like, and ARES offers those interested in earning a license a discounted course and license fees.

Many hams like to gather equipment at hamfests. Dalton, Chattanooga, and Fort Payne all have annual hamfests. Johnson said, “They’ll have dealers who set up with new equipment and a lot of people bring their old equipment that they want to get rid of. They call it a boneyard, like a flea market.”

Johnson’s seen a middle school and high school radio team at one of these regional hamfests. “It’s kind of like how I got started. They’re learning and getting their licenses and getting started in the hobby.” Johnson has an interest in beginning a club in Dade County Schools to introduce the younger generation to this hobby.

While Johnson himself doesn’t compete, some hams enjoy “contesting” (also called “radiosport”). Johnson said, “They have a contest for everything, on different frequencies, modes (voice, code, digital, etc.), and there are specific rules to enter and compete. Some people go for 24 to 36 hours straight trying to get as many contacts as they can in that time period.”

As another way to spread information during emergencies, Dade County ARES hosts a live interactive map that shows third-party and first-party reports of storm damage, accidents, and road closures.

Amoriello said, “Dade ARES also maps the location of weather reports and verifies the info before submitting it to the National Weather Service. This mapping is open or closed to the public as needed. We also built a shelter reporting program. When shelters are used, members are deployed to their assigned shelter and communicate directly to ARES leadership and EMA to relay the conditions and needs of the shelter to better serve our community.”

While Amoriello and some other ARES members have careers in emergency response (making ARES a natural interest for them), Johnson reported that many hams find themselves in technical careers. “Because hams have to learn some electronic theory, their careers often go in that direction,” he said.

As for Johnson, his primary career was in photo finishing, but he also worked in equipment maintenance. He explained, “As time went on, equipment got more complicated with more electronics, but I was able to work on it because I already knew all the electrical theory.” He then became a corporate quality engineer for a subsidiary of Kodak.

Johnson noted that amateur radio also overlaps with space travel. “Many astronauts are hams, and there’s a subset of hams that like to try to contact them. You can only talk to them for the three minutes that they’re going over your location. These hams build antennas that they can aim to contact the astronauts, and a lot of them are very successful. There are also amateur radio satellites used to communicate with distant stations.”

For many hams, the appeal of the hobby lies in earning higher license levels (with each level allowing them to access more frequencies and reach further distances) and making simple connections with hams around the world.

Photo by Lydia Berglar – Some hams enjoy exchanging QSL cards after contacting another ham. These are some from Johnson’s collection.

Johnson said, “I’ve met people through radio many years ago who I’m still connected to, even though now we’re conversing through Facebook or some other means.” He recalled one long, interesting conversation in particular. Around 3 a.m. one night, Johnson connected with a man in Australia who lived on an island. “It was just fascinating talking to him. That’s what you call rag chewing, when you just sit there and talk and talk. I’ve never forgotten that.”

He continued, “I’ve recently started playing around with a mode called FT8 which is very simple. All that’s done is you exchange signal reports with another ham somewhere in the world. I’ve been talking to Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and all over Europe.”

There’s no language barrier in this mode because the simple exchange doesn’t involve spoken conversation. Johnson explained, “It’s just a ‘I’m out here. How strong is my signal? I’ll tell you how strong yours is.’ It’s fascinating because you never know what you’re going to see when you tune in.”

Some hams enjoy exchanging QSL cards. Johnson explained, “When you make a contact, you can get their address, and you mail a QSL card with your call sign to them. A lot of people like to collect them.”

For Johnson, ham radio became a lifelong hobby with ebbs and peaks. “You might be very active for a time, but then life gets in the way and you put it on pause. I’ve done that several times over the years, but I’ve always come back.”

DARG and Dade County ARES welcome anyone interested in learning more about the hobby. DARG’s Facebook group (Dade County Amateur Radio Group) shows meeting and event updates, or anyone interested in joining can email Johnson at kb5ct@outlook.com. Dade County ARES (with a Facebook group under that name) also has a website (www.dadecountyares.org) or can be reached via email (ec@dadecountyares.org).

1 Comment

  1. Tosh Hopkins on March 4, 2024 at 12:00 pm

    nice article!! Tosh, kl7ww/4

Leave a Comment