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Published April 06, 2009, 12:00 AM

‘Hams’ show chops in flood

Radio groups relay important news during flood fight
The ham radios sitting in the city of Fargo’s public safety building were quiet Wednesday afternoon.

By: Kevin Schnepf, INFORUM

The ham radios sitting in the city of Fargo’s public safety building were quiet Wednesday afternoon.

For Jason Beck, Mark Johnson, Don Galitz and Val Tareski, the silence was a good sign.

“For as much as we like to keep busy with our radios, this is OK,” Galitz said. “That means the flood isn’t nearly as dangerous as what it was.”

Galitz was referring to the floodwaters of the Red River. After a record crest of 40.82 feet March 28, it receded to under 35.5 feet by Friday afternoon.

But since March 21, when members of the Red River Radio Amateurs club set up their ham radios at 11 locations in the Fargo-Moorhead area, these amateur radio operators have been instrumental in relaying vital information during the flood fight.

The term “amateur” is not a reflection on the skills of the estimated 6 million people worldwide who take on ham radio as a hobby. Instead, it indicates that amateur radio communications are not allowed to be made for commercial or money-making purposes.

That was the case during the recent flooding when 29 local ham radio operators and the 30 who came from South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota volunteered their time.

“You get pumped up,” said the 74-year-old Galitz, who worked 146 hours in the past 10 days. “At my age, I never thought I would be able to do that.”

According to Red River Radio Amateurs President Mark Johnson, the biggest role for these “hams” was coordinating messages between the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. In the past nine days, they logged 1,120 hours of transmission and delivered 721 messages in the past five days.

“There was a lot of activity and meaningful messages on both sides of the river,” said the 37-year-old Johnson, a computer administrator at Union Storage in Fargo.

When a busload of volunteers were being deployed from Moorhead’s Nemzek Hall for a sandbag operation, the Red Cross and Salvation Army knew when and where to provide water and food.

When Red Cross officials had trouble getting a cell phone connection inside an evacuation center at the high school in Casselton, N.D., they relied on ham radio operators.

The operators were also able to alert the nurses station at Fargo’s Innovis Health about incoming Coast Guard helicopters hauling in evacuees. There were six ham operators directly involved with the evacuation of Fargo’s MeritCare Hospital.

“You can inform 20 people at once,” said Tareski, a 67-year-old who also worked the 1997 Red River Valley flood as a ham operator. “With a cell phone, you would have to make 20 calls. You can get the information out much faster.”

Sherri Thomsen, executive director of the area American Red Cross, said the additional layer of communication is invaluable.

Adam Moore, captain of the local Salvation Army, said the local ham radio group is so reliable, he doesn’t have to call in the Salvation Army’s national radio team known as SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network).

“They are invaluable to us,” Moore said. “And in the event we lost all communications, we would rely solely on our amateur radio operators.”

Beck, a 22-year-old North Dakota State University student from Andover, Minn., acted as a rover by monitoring flooded streets in Moorhead and the need for food and water at sandbagging sites.

Two out-of-town ham operators slept in their cars for two nights, unable to find a place to stay.

Brian Ward, a 36-year-old from Sioux Falls, S.D., has been stationed at the Red Cross evacuation center at West Fargo’s Veterans Memorial Arena for the past week.

“This reminds me of the military,” said Ward, who was an electronics technician for the Navy. “Once that message comes in, you relay it to the entire ship.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize just how many people these ham radio operators have affected. It’s just nice knowing I’ve been able to use my hobby and give it back to the community.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com