By Lorie Ham
Many of us have picked up interesting hobbies during the pandemic, and some have had more time to enjoy the hobbies they already had. Mennonite Insurance Services board member Larry Miller has been involved with ham radio since he was just a kid. He was first licensed in the spring of 1963 while a Junior in High School. According to an article on the American Legion website, the term “ham” as a pejorative nickname for amateur radio operators was first heard in 1909 by operators in commercial and professional radio communities.
Larry was born in Oklahoma but moved with his family to Reedley, California when he was a teenager and has remained in Fresno County ever since. He has been on the board since 2011, when he was asked to consider filling an open position. In 2019, he retired from a 51-year career in electrical engineering. His career grew out of his interest in electricity and electronics. Recently we chatted with Larry about his love for ham radio.
Q: When and how did you get interested in ham radio, and what was it that appealed to you?
Larry: As a young boy, I was intrigued by the red glow of those old radio vacuum tubes and how the radio could pull voices out of the air. By the time I was 10 to 12 years old I was hooked.
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with it, what exactly is ham radio?
Larry: Ham radio is officially the Amateur Radio Service, a non-commercial use of the radio airwaves, established by international treaty. All Amateur Radio operators in the USA are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. The purposes of Amateur Radio as defined by the FCC are
(a) Provide voluntary emergency communications.
(b) Technical advancement of wireless communications.
(c) Provide an avenue of technical training.
(d) Enhance international good will.
Q: What all can you do on a ham radio?
Larry: My equipment enables two way voice, data, and Morse code communications with amateurs, mostly in North America. I have base station, mobile, and hand held equipment. I regularly check into a local net and often talk to others in casual conversation. In the past, I participated in a communications team that supported the American Diabetes Fresno Tour de Cure fundraising bike ride. I have operated from home, my truck, mountaintops, campground picnic tables, and aircraft with the pilot’s permission. I have also participated in a few contest events. Morse code is still alive perhaps similar to why people still ride bicycles when they could drive cars
Q: How have ham radios changed over the years?
Larry: There have been drastic changes in the technology. Solid-state electronics replaced power hungry vacuum tubes making compact battery powered equipment possible. Digital technology is now prevalent with most equipment having data jacks to interface with computers for programming, control, and data communications somewhat analogous to chat sessions on the internet. Radio based high-speed data networks are now developing. These provide regional non-commercial wireless data serves similar to the internet as redundant communications channels for emergency services. The 1980s and 1990s saw a large influx of operators that were attracted by VHF FM handheld radios using repeaters with access the telephone network via a “phone patch”. These were great for local communications up to 50 or 100 miles. After cellular telephones became prevalent, that part of ham radio faded to a degree.
Q: Are there people of all ages involved?
Larry: Ham radio is open to anyone willing to study and pass the licensing exam. Hams may be 10 years or 100+ years old, men, women, girls and boys. Amateurs come from all walks of life; construction workers, school teachers, university professors, medical doctors, farmers, policemen, engineers, astronauts, and even the custodian at the dormitory I stayed in while in college. There are currently 780,000 licensed Amateur Radio operators in the United States and about 2.5 million operators worldwide.
Q: Do you ever meet any of the people in person?
Larry: Ham Radio has since its inception over 100 years ago, functioned as a giant social network, meeting on the air with other operators. Contacts can be between two stations or a part of organized groups referred to as “nets”. These nets meet daily or weekly and may cover local, regional, or wide areas area such as the South Pacific region. There is a weekly Mennonite Amateur Radio net, which primarily covers the Eastern half of the US. There are radio clubs in most areas. Conventions, sometimes referred to as “hamfests”, are held around the world. We are fortunate that an international convention is held annually in Visalia which pre-COVID attracted around 1,000 attendees, many from overseas. These events feature seminars on technical and operational topics, exhibits from manufacturers and dealers of radio equipment, and usually a swap meet.
Q: I understand you were involved in helping out during a large dust storm in 1991 that caused a major car accident on I-5 west of Fresno.
Larry: The Friday after Thanksgiving, 1991, a massive dust storm just before dusk crossed I-5 in Western Fresno County and resulted in a 104-vehicle crash, 114 persons injured, and 17 fatalities. For those unfamiliar with I-5 in Fresno County, it runs North – South through an isolated rural part of Fresno County, about 40 to 50 miles west of Fresno. Cellular telephone service was scarce and in its infancy at that time.
I was a member of the Fresno County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), a volunteer communications organization that functions under the Fresno County Emergency Medical Services. I was dispatched to establish radio operation at the Fresno Veterans Hospital Emergency Department. All communications between ambulances and hospitals were handled by a hospital interagency radio system; our role was to assist uninjured victims. Fresno County sent busses to the disaster site to bring uninjured people to a shelter at a school in Fresno. The ARES deployment placed operators at each of the local hospitals, the shelter, and at the I-5 site. Our role was to gather patient information and relay it to the shelter, which in turn could pass it on to uninjured family members. Many of the uninjured arrived at the shelter not knowing where family members had been taken. It was a small role in a big effort. I will never know the stories of those involved in that disaster. Hopefully our radio team helped in a small way to assist those involved.
Q: Have you helped with any other emergencies?
Larry: Some years ago, we were traveling in a remote area east of the Grand Canyon when we encountered a traffic accident. I made contact with an operator in Paige Arizona who passed the accident report to the Arizona Highway Patrol.
Q: Do people just talk to others in their area, or does it cover the US and other countries?
Larry: Many operators focus on making international contacts. An awards program that recognizes successful contact with different countries or separate land entities currently recognizes 340 separate entities. Beyond the earth, there are Amateur Radio repeater satellites in orbit to provide wide area terrestrial coverage. There is usually an operator aboard the International Space Station that makes prescheduled demonstration contacts with K12 schools to promote Amateur Radio. In 2022, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency plans to include an Amateur Radio beacon station as part of a lunar landing probe. This is a joint Ham Radio / Space Agency effort where Hams will forward flight telemetry data to the Space Agency.
Thanks Larry for sharing your fascinating hobby with us! Anyone interested in learning more about Amateur Radio can visit www.arrl.org. Do you have an interesting hobby? If so, we would love to hear about it, feel free to share on our Facebook page!