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North Hills Amateur Radio Club has role in times of crisis

The North Hills Amateur Radio Club still sends a strong signal in its 25th year of operation.

The club's amateur radio operators have provided communications services in such public venues as the Great Race, the Race for the Cure and the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Behind the scenes, the all-volunteer, privately funded public-service club has been upgrading its radio communications with the installation of the Digital Smart Technologies of Amateur Radio (D-STAR) system. The club's repeaters, which receive a signal on one frequency and retransmit it on a different frequency, are located on the WPXI-TV tower and on the WQED-TV tower.

Last week, the North Hills club installed its second D-STAR repeater on a frequency offered by a fellow club, the Skyview Radio Club in New Kensington.

The D-STAR uses radio spectrum more efficiently than analog repeaters, making it easier to link repeaters and provide communications anywhere in the world.

The amateur radio operators work with many public safety groups and emergency responders to enhance communication. Their system, commonly called ham radio, is the last line of communication in disasters and emergencies when other systems fail.

"Many hospitals have paid to have ham operators either come in from the community or have employees become licensed ham operators," says Fred Peterson, vice president of Professional Services and Emergency Management for Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvania.

"For decades, RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) offered services to hospitals," Peterson says. "Volunteer ham operators would pull up in a car and used a radio for communication. We've really been impressed with the need for redundant communication systems. Phones collapse when public phone systems don't work.

"D-STAR, in the past year, has hit the medical community. It enhances capability to transmit data and it is more effective when other systems don't work. It's an ideal technological development."

Communication is a major priority of the federal Hospital Preparedness Program, which includes funds that can cover the the cost of implementing D-STAR, Peterson says.

There are 625 amateur radio operators in Pennsylvania's 33 western counties, according to Larry Keller, section emergency coordinator for Western Pennsylvania Amateur Radio Emergency Services.

"If you think about the hundreds of individual ham-radio stations spread around, you can appreciate that this decentralized system cannot be broken," says Keller, of Murrysville.

"Each ham station is independent and connected only by radio waves. It is elegant in its simplicity. All you literally need is 12-volt power, a radio and a piece of wire. Unlike public-service systems that are designed and dedicated to serving specific tasks and areas, ham radios can transmit across the street or around the world."

In a drill last year, Keller says, ham operators participated in a simulated emergency of a hospital being flooded. A list of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals was compiled and transmitted to relay stations at Skyview, which is located near New Kensington and has been operating for 50 years.

"The list was accurately received in Maryland and a response sent back to the hospital in minutes," Keller says. "Using digital transmissions is like being able to send a computer file or a fax, but in emergencies, phones and Internet are prone to failure."

Ham radio is flexible and is not as limited as other communication systems because hams can use different frequencies to communicate. They usually use voice communications, but they can also transmit by Morse Code or with computer digital signals. Digital signals can send a higher volume of information accurately and in a shorter period of time.

"The Amateur Radio Emergency Response System is primarily people and not just equipment," Keller says. "Each amateur is completely independent and probably none have exactly the same equipment. There is a long tradition of hams using their equipment to aid in an emergency."

The amateur radio service contribution is recognized in the FCC rules that regulate radio use. Through the American Radio Relay League, there are standing agreements with organizations such as the Red Cross, FEMA, National Weather Service and local governments.

"Amateurs handle what is generally referred to as 'health and welfare' communications where other systems are overtaxed with 'tactical' traffic," Keller says. "We provide trained communicators with their own equipment and broad communications capabilities at no cost to the public. Keeping a system with the extensive capabilities of ham radio including trained operators would be enormously expensive for the relative infrequent use."

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