Stray Signals

Ham radio groups work behind the scenes of floods, crashes and emergencies to help community

With the advent of cellphones and all things tech, one might wonder if there is still a need for amateur radio operators.

Any local radio operator will readily tell you there is — or as Orem operator Keith McQueen explains, “We’re a backup communication resource when everything else goes to pot.”

Amateur radio, also dubbed ham radio, has been around more than 100 years — and in a small way it was the world’s first internet, the world’s first cellphones. By bouncing signals off multiple radio towers, amateur radio operators could chat with people all across the state, and often across the world.

Wade Starks, another Orem operator, said Utah’s current radio towers make it possible for local operators to talk to anyone from St. George to Las Vegas.

More often than not, these radio operators are mostly all volunteers and hobbyists who educate themselves on technology needed.

If you’ve been up on Mount Timpanogos this summer, you may have noticed the Timpanogos Emergency Response Team volunteers there. Every TERT team has medical personnel, climbers and a communications specialist — a certified amateur radio operator. Multiple TERT teams set up at the Timpooneke, Aspen Grove and Stewart Falls trailheads, ready to aid hikers on their way up or down the mountain. In addition, another team heads up every weekend to the TERT high camp closer to the top of the mountain. That group also includes a certified radio operator.

Not every amateur radio operator is on TERT, though. It’s a long road before local radio operators can get to that point. Operators must first join and certify with the Utah County Amateur Radio Emergency Service organization, known as UCARES. This group is part of the national organization of amateur radio operators trained in emergency communications, and are a part of a larger community willing to serve as communication points when emergencies and disasters hit.

The UCARES coordinates directly with, and are supported by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. UCARES operators with additional certification work as the Sheriff’s Communication Auxiliary Team, or SCATeam, putting in hundreds of volunteer hours to local agencies every year, helping search and rescue efforts, and with wildfires and the like.

“We’ve done everything from flood watch to crashed aircraft to escaped felons,” McQueen said. “When something crazy happens, they call us.”

While some radio operators were up on Mount Timpanogos just this last holiday weekend, others have spent the last couple of weeks working in Spanish Fork coordinating communication for the Tank Hollow Fire.

“We spent day and night helping with that fire,” Starks said.

Anyone with an interest and a willingness to invest in the time and money needed to become an amateur radio operator can, Starks said. He’s retired now from his career as a professional genealogist, but he still keeps up with his radio work. Though his health doesn’t allow him to get up on the mountains anymore, he’s been on teams in the past that have worked the emergencies. He and other members of the SCATeam and TERT also have been the main ones to maintain and repair the radio towers in the county, with three on Lake Mountain, one on West Mountain and one in the mouth of the Provo Canyon.

“Cellphones still don’t cover all the mountains. Radio is still the best way to communicate on the mountains,” said Glen Meyer, co-founder of TERT.

To learn more about these organizations, visit ucares.org, scateam.org, tert.org. To find pics and current conditions before hiking around Mount Timpanogos, visit the TERT Facebook page at www.facebook.com/terteam.

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