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Franklin County Amateur Radio Club keeps county connected

  • Franklin County Amateur Radio Club President Albert Woodhull tests communications at a radio tower in Leyden. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Franklin County Amateur Radio Club President Albert Woodhull tests communications at a radio tower in Leyden. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Franklin County Amateur Radio Club President Albert Woodhull tests communications at a radio tower in Leyden. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Franklin County Amateur Radio Club President Albert Woodhull tests communications at a radio tower in Leyden. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Franklin County Amateur Radio Club President Albert Woodhull tests communications at a radio tower in Leyden. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Franklin County Amateur Radio Club President Albert Woodhull tests communications at a radio tower in Leyden. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Members of the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club manage communications at the 40th annual Bridge of Flowers road race in Shelburne Falls on Aug. 11. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Members of the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club manage communications at the 40th annual Bridge of Flowers road race in Shelburne Falls on Aug. 11. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Members of the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club manage communications at the 40th annual Bridge of Flowers road race in Shelburne Falls on Aug. 11. Staff Photo/Dan Little



For the Recorder
Saturday, August 18, 2018

When an ice storm hit the Northeast in 2008, it destroyed millions of dollars in property and threw residents in small Franklin County towns into difficult living situations.

Albert Woodhull, an amateur radio enthusiast who lives in Leyden, remembers how his town of around 700 people was left without electricity, in turn causing those with well systems to be without water, too.

Fortunately, the American Red Cross set up a space in the basement of Town Hall, Woodhull said, providing essentials like food and water to those in need. In some cases, people also came to Town Hall for warmth, since the storm hit in December.

But there was one thing the Red Cross couldn’t provide: communication. That’s where Woodhull’s Franklin County Amateur Radio Club came in.

Woodhull is president of the club, a group of enthusiasts that use technology to communicate with others from around the county and the world, as well as keep people connected in times of emergency.

A vital need

The group has its origins in 1987, when a collection of ham radio operators — a title derived from the first initials of the last names of radio pioneers Hertz, Armstrong and Marconi — formed the Franklin County Repeater Club. (Repeaters are what is used to send radio signals on to other people’s radios.) Its early members were interested in communications and, according to the group’s website, “public service, particularly in emergency communications support,” as well as learning and enhancing their radio skills and “promoting good will.”

That is precisely what Woodhull and other members of the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club provided during the emergency situation in Leyden in 2008. With the help of the club, residents and emergency service providers were able to communicate with other outside services and agencies, keeping the outside world abreast of what may be needed until the elements gave way to relief. And the group didn’t just help in Leyden, but also in Gardner.

Damage was widespread once again when Hurricane Irene hit the Franklin County region in August 2011. Power was knocked out and flooding occurred, even washing out a portion of an Interstate 91 overpass. But in the immediate aftermath, relief efforts had to happen, and once again the American Red Cross came to Franklin County to help.

Woodhull said the Red Cross asked him and other ham radio operators to create a base for communications at Greenfield Middle School, where a shelter had been established. He said they were tasked with making sure the Red Cross could “communicate with town officials and people in the area.”

And while Greenfield was the largest Franklin County town that was impacted by Hurricane Irene, the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club helped smaller towns stay in touch with much-needed services, too.

“One of our members who lives high up in altitude in Colrain, she couldn’t go anywhere, but she directed our group meeting and was a means of communication for her neighbors in the area,” Woodhull said.

Practice makes perfect

But it isn’t just emergencies and natural disasters where you’ll see members of the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club setting up radios. The group, which Woodhull said has about 60 members primarily from Franklin County, helps with a number of events throughout the county each year, including races, long distance bicycle rides and other group-based travel excursions, with the goal of providing much-needed information quickly.

One example is the annual Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée, a bicycle ride on dirt roads that begins in Deerfield and can stretch as far as Guilford, Vt. Amateur Radio Club member Chris Myers said the group is especially useful when riders end up near Guilford, Vt., where cell phone service is spotty. They communicate with organizers and volunteers, Myers said, and if a medical emergency or something less critical were to happen, the club members may be the only way that help can be contacted.

Other events the club is involved in are the Bridge of Flowers Road Race in Shelburne Falls and the Greenfield Lightlife Triathlon.

But while participating in events keeps the talents of those in the club in use, there is still a need for practice to be sure they can handle emergency situations. To get this practice, the club participates in the National Field Day organized by the National Association for Amateur Radio.

The 24-hour event traditionally happens on a Saturday afternoon in June and ends the next day. Participants practice a slew of ham radio operation skills, including setting up a network, communicating with others and even using Morse code, which is still used in the field.

How it works

Woodhull said that at its simplest point, ham radio operation is done when a smaller radio transmits information to a larger station or antenna — known as a repeater — and that information is relayed to other recipients.

But the technology, even though it has been around since the late 1800s, is more complicated than that.

Woodhull said the radios that people are using will transmit on certain frequencies. This information is sent from a frequency on personal radios to a repeater, which then sends the information out on another frequency that is received by other radios.

The frequencies are a type of electric wave, Myers said.

“Electricity through a wire creates a magnetic field around it,” Myers said. “As the field expands, it turns into a radio wave.”

Woodhull said everything electrical can give off signals that could produce radio waves. As an example, he said that when you plug something into the wall that creates an alternating current — which essentially goes back and forth at 60 times a second — it would produce a sort of wave that could be received over a transmitter. Other radio waves, like those in the radios the club uses, are much higher.

“We operate over 60 million times a second,” Woodhull said. “You generate this electrical signal and manage to get it into a wire that it will radiate from and will go to all directions with a simple wire, or you can direct it in a particular direction.”

Then, Myers said a device within the radios modulates each wave, which helps to make it understandable information. The radios use a number of frequencies, with AM and FM stations actually making up just a small portion of the frequencies used.

A hobby with a purpose

Myers first became interested in shortwave radio when he was about 10 or 11, and got a novice license, which is a type of shortwave or ham radio operation license required by the Federal Communications Commission. But he lost his license because he “had to do faster Morse code.”

Still, he remained interested in ham radio, and when Myers joined the Northampton Medical Reserves 12 years ago, “after (Hurricane) Katrina and the flood in Greenfield that wiped out the (Wedgewood Gardens) trailer park,” he found his way back into the hobby and into the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club.

Similarly, Woodhull first got interested in ham radio operation when he was in high school.

“I was a geek, did all these things, took batteries apart, put them into different jars, filled them with different acid,” he said.

Eventually, he found his way into “crystal radios and one-tube radios,” and found that with this technology, he could hear broadcasts and people from around the world.

“I used to get up at 6 a.m. to hear the Australian Broadcasting Company’s kookaburra,” a type of Australian bird whose call was played at various times by the company on its radio program.

Woodhull’s interest waned a bit as he got older, but then “much later in life, I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa and Nigeria just before it broke into civil war (in 1967), so it was very important to know how to use a ham radio to hear what was going on in the world.”

Woodhull found his way into another war-torn area, this time Nicaragua, where a revolution was taking place. Woodhull said that at any time, something catastrophic could occur there, but because of ham radio, he knew he would be able to be in contact with someone from home. A friend from Northampton would get on his radio at the same time every day to make sure Woodhull was OK.

“If every wire fell down,” Woodhull said, “I could talk to my friend.”

How to connect

Franklin County Amateur Radio Club membership runs from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31 each year, according to the group’s websites. Members pay annual dues of $15, with family group memberships costing $18. For more information on how to join the club, visit www.FCARC.org.