Radio club offers aid for hurricane recovery
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September, it left in its wake a trail of destruction as nearly 100 percent of the island’s telecommunications systems were lost. In the aftermath, citizens of the United States called upon a sometimes overlooked means of communication to aid in Puerto Rico’s recovery process.
This method of communication is known as amateur radio. It allows transmissions via the radio frequency spectrum specifically for individuals without commercial interest. This type of broadcasting has many purposes that can range from simple, private correspondence to assistance with emergency-related services.
Amateur radio even has a place at Michigan State University in the form of the MSU Amateur Radio Club, or MSUARC. According to Reece Cole, the president of MSUARC, it’s one of the oldest clubs on campus.
“We’ve been around since 1919,” said Cole.
Rebuilding communications with Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, Category 4 Hurricane Maria was relentless as it made landfall on the island of 3.4 million inhabitants: electricity was wiped out, cell towers went down, and internet became inaccessible. In the days following, media outlets in the United States reported the long road to recovery that Puerto Ricans faced. Emergency operations needed to be restored immediately to assist in the dispatch of aid to the island.
Ed Oxer, an amateur radio operator and a club advisor to the MSUARC, referenced a picture that had been taken in Puerto Rico. In the photograph, dozens of people can be seen holding their smartphones upwards, in the direction of a cell tower.
“They’re holding their phones up in the air, looking for a signal,” he explained.
MSU Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations Scott Westerman, also an amateur radio operator, spoke of how Puerto Rico’s case is a grim reminder to the fragility of humanity’s modern communications methods.
“We take all that for granted now,” said Westerman, speaking of specific applications such as FaceTime and the internet. “But when the grid goes down, thats is all that remains.”
An answer to crisis came in the form of these amateur radio operators – nicknamed “hams” – that could be found in both Puerto Rico and the continental U.S. Efforts to help reestablish the telecommunications system to and from Puerto Rico are front-and-center goals for amateur radio operators like Oxer and Westerman.
“Another thing that happens is that people on campus who have family in Puerto Rico will seek us out, to say ‘can you help me get in touch with our family members?’” Westerman described.
“So in my shop, for example, over in University Advancement, one of our trainers has a grandfather on her husband’s side who still hasn’t been heard of in Puerto Rico. So what we’re doing is, through the amateur radio communications, it’s still the primary communications method in and out of Puerto Rico because of the power, there's actually a website where you can go and say, "This is a message I'm trying to get to Puerto Rico ... and they get it over there.” Westerman explained.
Efforts to aid emergency services have not been limited to Puerto Rico. When the state of Michigan experienced a widespread power outage during a severe ice storm in December 2013, Cole said that the MSUARC was unaffected and remained operational.
“Our repeater system actually stayed up, even while the power was out, a lot of people relayed messages through the repeater,” Cole said. “So we actually did have some messages being passed through, that we did help support, by a repeater system on campus … it’s somewhat like walkie-talkie, but the distance you can get on it is much, much greater.”
“It’s really old-school, if you think about back before cell phones, there was a lot more communication that happened internationally by ham radio,” said Westerman. “If you look at a lot of the technology today, it kind of began with the hams.”
Long-time hams Westerman and Oxer referred to Morse code, a language of dots and dashes used in a communicative sequence by ham radio operators, as an example.
“A lot of times what the conversations are the same as you would have on the phone, like the ‘how are you’ and ‘how well are you hearing me’ and ‘where are you’ – those are common things that have shortcuts that we use,” Westerman said
“It’s like texting,” Oxer added. “Pre-texting.”
“It’s exactly like texting,” Westerman agreed.
A network of MSU Alumni amateur radio operators
Westerman spoke of the gains that come with becoming an amateur radio operator, and the connections an individual may establish in doing so.
“We actually have licensed ham alumni around the world. They’re in just about every corner of the country, and foreign countries as well, and they’re all very excited supporters for what the club is doing,” said Westerman
Oxer pointed out how one MSU alumnus has ties to Puerto Rico in the midst of crisis.
“Here’s a case example," Oxer said. This is a guy, Edgar Leon, call sign KP4EV, he’s from Puerto Rico. And he has doctorate from the College of Education, worked in Michigan, and a number of years ago went back to Puerto Rico,” “He’s the guy that we’ve been in touch with during Hurricane Maria.”
“This is a hobby that once you get hooked on it, there’s so many dimensions to it that no matter what your interest is, there’s something in ham radio for you,” Westerman said.
“But a lot of it is really the fellowship, right? I mean, we have this technological interest in common, but the commonality and the friendship are things that cross over into my world, cause you know, you’ll find out when you graduate, that once you’re a Spartan, you are a Spartan for life,” Westerman elaborated.
“Every single person who’s ever been in the club has added something, that has kind of lived-on to it,” Cole added. “It is an incredibly team-focused, incredibly cumulative effort that makes all of this just work.”
The MSUARC’s station, W8MSU, is located in Room 2121 of the Engineering Building on MSU’s campus.
Note: Each person interviewed has been allocated a call sign, which is a numerical-alphabetical code used to identify them as licensed amateur radio operators. A call sign is standard for identifying all radio operators and stations. Theirs are listed below, along with the call sign of the MSUARC’s own station.
Scott Westerman: W9WSW
Ed Oxer: W8EO
Reece Cole: KD8VNY
MSUARC station: W8MSU (also known as W8SH)