First Posted: 9/18/2009
LUMBERTON Its a hidden service.
Equipment tucked away in a basement where few go. Inconspicuous antennas and repeaters outside.
It is a voice that waits to be called. They never know when the call will come. They never know what the situation will be.
But they know why to help save lives.
Were not decision-makers, Jim MacLeod said. We are communicators. … we operate when we are called upon to do so.
The 23 members of the Robeson County Amateur Radio Society know who they are and what they will give.
We are not amateurs in the sense of professional operation, MacLeod said. When there is an emergency, it ceases to be a hobby and we are down to brass tacks.
Should communication systems across the county fail in a disaster, the volunteer ham radio operators of Robeson County will step forward and call code until they are no longer needed.
If everything goes down, we can function, MacLeod said.
The club call sign W4LBT, or whiskey four lima bravo tango in radio lingo to abbreviate Lumberton was established around 1941 when then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for each city in the U.S. to organize a civil defense unit. The 89-year-old MacLeod volunteered then and is still active.
My first emergency operation was with Hurricane Hazel in 1954, he said. I think the only hurricane I have missed since then and I dont remember the name of it was when my wife was dying. I couldnt tear myself away.
During disasters such as Katrina in 2005 and 9/11 amateur radio operators relay messages for hospitals and police when other communication systems are disabled. A new system called Winlink mixes the 100-year-old ham radio with computer technology to provide e-mail, weather bulletins, emergency and disaster communications and message relay with other systems go down. All Winlink requires is a generator.
When the Internet is down in Lumberton, we can get on Winlink and connect with nodes theres nodes all over the world and send e-mails. Theres one in Virginia Beach thats pretty easy to link up to, said 70-year-old club member Bill Chism.
MacLeod did not think much of Winlicks capabilities until another club member called up a node another amateur radio center in Antarctica. Now he says the system gives Robeson County virtual unlimited access to the world.
In the early 1900s, amateur radio operators began fiddling with receivers and transmitters. Using Morse code, they talked with each other across miles.
By the time MacLeod was born in 1919, ham radio enthusiasts had formed clubs, organized the National Association for Amateur Radio and boosted their ranks from about 1,200 to 6,000. MacLeods interest in radio sparked during the childhood summers he spent sleeping out on the porch of his Lumberton home, which was near that of Neil Jennings an amateur radio operator.
When Id go out there to go to bed, Id hear him out there copying code and I wondered what that dit-dit-dit-dot was about, MacLeod said. So I went to see him. … He built me my first receiver. Man, I was proud of it.
He soon became licensed operator with the call sign W4NHV nasty, hateful, vicious he said jokingly.
Chism came to radio in the 1950s because of the flu. He had learned Morse code in Boy Scouts and his uncle was a ham, then the flu sent him to bed with a book about ham radios. At 15, he built a transmitter and decided obtaining his license call sign WZ5X might be a good idea as he was operating illegally. Fifty-four years later, he is one of 107 practitioners in Robeson County and about 6 million worldwide.
I enjoy the fellowship of talking to other people and putting up antenna, he said. I like to work DX, which is distance stations. Ive talked to the South Pole a couple times.
Talking the talk
When Chism recently fired up one of the radios in the basement of a county building in Lumberton, he scanned the frequencies sending combinations of numbers and letters out through his handset. In his search for someone to chat with, he missed a contact.
I dont believe he likes you, Bill, MacLeod said.
Not yet, Chism answered, then decided to spin the dial again.
After about five minutes, he found John in Southern California. They swapped locations, call signs and said farewell as Chism clicked his radio off.
The Federal Communications Commission licenses each operator and assigns that person a call sign. As with license plates, hams can pay an additional fee for a vanity call sign that includes numbers or letters with personal significance.
Gary Pittman, a retired emergency coordinator for Robeson County, has been K4TH since 1965. His license lapsed only once while he was overseas with the military.
I saw a little booklet about building a crystal radio in Cub Acouts. There was no turning back, Pittman, 62, said of his discovery as a 9- or 10-year-old. … I learned the code in Boy Scouts.
For the quiet Pittman, it is the electrical engineering aspect of amateur radio that holds his interest. Radio messages travel by way of antennas and repeaters that basically amplify the signal and send it farther.
Theres a real art in building antennas, MacLeod said. Its not just a wire you throw up there.
Carlton Bryant, W4JCB, also enjoys tinkering with radios, electronics and antennas and competing in contests to see how many contacts you can make in a certain time, he said.
Bryant, 45, got into radio in 1996, then persuaded his wife, Lee Anne, to join him. Using N4RSA, she operates in digital mode because it allows her to type to contacts.
When the people call
When MacLeod recounts the history of W4LBT, he does it in a rush of events that have no dates, just memories of hours spent helping.
The time Southeastern Regional Medical Center called upon them during an outage of its phone system and operators stayed at each nurses station.
During that time, a couple of code blues had to be called by our operators, MacLeod said.
The time an F-14 hit the wires of a broadcast tower near Rowland.
Our man was on the site within 20 minutes which was Bill French, by the way, he said. … The incident was reported to the area and consequently the state by handheld radios in the swamp.
The tornadoes of 1984 when amateur radio was the only communication out of Red Springs for three days.
We had just organized our amateur radio group as an integrated group of two when the tornado hit, he said.
A wildfire in Pender County 15 or 20 years ago where repeaters helped firefighters.
At that time it was the ability to link the repeater that allowed our men to coordinate information between the various fire departments and that link stayed up for about a week while they were fighting fires, he said.
A fire at the hospital years ago that sent Billy Pitman to the ambulance dispatch center and MacLeod to the hospital. Pitman sent the vital signs of incoming patients to MacLeod and he relayed them to emergency room personnel.
Hurricanes, floods, ice storms, a toxic spill on the railroad MacLeod has seen them all and some more than once, but he has never worked an earthquake.
At the beginning of amateur radio, a ham was an unskilled operator who linked up to a commercial frequencies and jammed them with chatter, according to the National Association for Amateur Radio. The amateurs picked up the term of annoyance and wore it with pride, the association reports in a history on its Web site.
Hams can be anyone, Lee Anne Bryant said, regardless of education level, career or income level.
They even let preachers on the air, she said jokingly, motioning to MacLeod who was a minister for years.
Amateur radio offers something to everyone, MacLeod said.
Its a common bond that brings us all together, Carlton Bryant said.