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The power of ham radio

As a child, I remember being fascinated by telegraph communications, especially when I learned about Morse code, a secret language I wanted to learn.

Moving into adulthood, I learned this language of dots and dashes was used with the development of wireless or radio communications around the world. It was an intriguing feature of the drama of early war movies. I’m revealing my senior citizen status here, and with the development of new technologies, the world of amateur or ham radio operators slipped off my mental screen.

While the use of Morse code is less prevalent today, ham radio communications are certainly not a thing of the past. (For an interesting read, check out the etymology of the term “ham” for an amateur radio operator.) Amateur radio is a popular hobby as a way to talk to people around the world — without cell phones. The Boy Scouts offer a merit badge for getting a ham radio license when you turn 18 years old.

In addition to the enjoyment of using ham radios, licensed operators serve as a cornerstone for communications in times of disaster when regular communication channels fail. Picture the 9/11 tragedy and the floods, fires and earthquakes that are a growing part of our daily reality.

In the Seattle area, as in many parts of our country, amateur radio operators are encouraged to become part of emergency communication hubs. If you are a licensed radio operator, consider connecting with your local emergency hub team. In Madison Park, long-time ham operator Bob Edmiston has spent over a decade volunteering as a cornerstone of our emergency preparation work. Bob is eager to share his knowledge and help others gain experience on the team before he leaves the neighborhood in the coming year. Bob stresses you don’t have to be “a techie” to get involved.

Susanna Cunningham, a licensed radio operator in a north Seattle neighborhood, says she doesn’t have an intuitive understanding of electronics, but she loves learning new things and knows she’s a scientist at heart. I spoke with Susanna about her choice to devote some of her retirement years engaging in amateur radio work after a career in nursing. What she described was some of the enjoyment of being involved.

Three reasons to become a volunteer

Susanna recalled once hearing someone outline three reasons to engage in volunteer work:

· Volunteering allows you to be of service, to make a difference

· Volunteering offers a way to continue to learn new things

· Volunteering offers opportunities to have fun

“Especially in amateur radio work, I’ve met a whole group of people I might never have otherwise encountered,” she said. “They are all terrifically willing to be helpful, and we’ve had fun together. For instance, during the intense period of COVID lockdown we played radio games in our cars, staying safe while roaming our neighborhoods to learn and radio interesting features to each other. Periodically some of us volunteer to work community events like foot races, transmitting information up and down the course. This is not only helpful for the event, but provides an opportunity for ongoing practice, giving our neurons something to get used to doing.”

I learned that some hams just have a handheld portable radio resembling a simple walkie talkie. Others like to build and experiment with electronics. Some enjoy competing in contests to see how many hams in distant locations with whom they can get in contact. Many use ham radio to form friendships over the air, an early form of social media.

How to get involved

Susanna pointed me to a national association for amateur radio, the American Radio Relay League (, as an easy place to learn more and find ways to get involved. This is a noncommercial organization in which active radio amateurs share information and get technical support and online resources. While you can listen in on communications, you can’t transmit until you get your license, so ARRL provides basic study materials and a listing by zip code of local groups for people who want more interaction.

Susanna said the test is really about memorizing material and, depending on what kind of a learner you are, you can access what you need through ARRL, including free practice exams using questions from the actual FCC examination pool. Basic study materials for an initial license usually cost less than $40, and simple equipment can be purchased new from between $100-200, or often far less for good used equipment.

In the Seattle area, the Mike and Key Amateur Radio Club ( operates and loans from a constantly expanding free library, including electronic testing equipment to properly install and manage your operating setup station.

Toku Okumura is the library owner and can be reached at

Giving and receiving

Once you have your license, a whole new world is opened up. This might include making an important contribution by getting involved in your local emergency hub communications. Our Madison Park Emergency Preparation Volunteer Team would welcome you with open arms and, if you join us soon, you’d have an experienced mentor in Bob Edmiston before he leaves the ’hood.

At the end of our conversation, Susanna Cunningham returned to the three reasons for volunteering — you can make a difference, learn new things and have fun.

“The experience is very reciprocal: You are giving, and you are receiving, just as you do with anything meaningful in your life,” she said. “It’s what friendships are about.”

To get involved with the Madison Park emergency communication hub, contact:

• Sarah Armstrong:

• Mary Beth McAteer:

• Margie Carter:


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