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Radio operator uses hobby as community service

By Melissa Crowe
May 23, 2012 at 12:23 a.m.

Texas HAM radio operators John Wagner, left, and John Johnston listen and take notes about transmissions coming in on their radios, which are housed in the Victoria County Emergency Operation Center, as part of a drill simulating the occurrence of an electromagnetic pulse.

From his garage, John Wagner could see the damage Hurricane Claudette promised to bring to the Gulf Coast.

He had just fired up his generator when the phone rang.

"The city called saying they lost communications with the outside world," Wagner said.

The news wasn't good, but the city wasn't helpless.

Traditional channels of communication might break in an emergency - that includes some radio signals.

Amateur radio emergency system operators like Wagner can relay the information that keeps chaos from breaking out in communities.

Getting a ham radio license was always Wagner's goal, even as a child playing on a crystal radio receiver.

There's something about using the airwaves he cannot explain. Something as simple as taking a piece of wire and electrical components and communicating with people across the world is mesmerizing.

Licenses for amateur radio operators are separate from commercial broadcasting, public safety, or professional two-way radio services, including maritime, aviation or taxis. They cannot accept payment, and it is strictly for recreation.

But for many, it's more than a hobby.

Wagner received his ham license right out of high school, in 1966, five years after Hurricane Carla struck the Texas coast.

There are many types of radio operators: rag chewers, who will talk to anyone about anything; X and DX, distance and long distance talkers; and emergency communications, what Wagner enjoys.

"It opens up a whole field of giving back and helping your state to promote something the average Joe can't do," Wagner said. "I want to give back to the community."

He first hooked up his radio during Claudette, then again in Katrina, Rita and Ike.

Ham radio operators have a motto he likes to repeat: "When lines are down and the power is out, that's when amateur radio is talked about."

In emergencies, he works with John Taylor, a retired cellular engineer and the area's district emergency coordinator, to bridge the gap of communications.

"Ham radio serves as a fill-in until standard commercial communications come back," Taylor said.

The two, along with other amateur radio operators in the area, help coordinate information between the county's emergency operation center, hospitals, law enforcement, Red Cross and other public and private sectors.

Wagner was recently named Victoria County emergency coordinator for the Amateur Radio Emergency Services, an arm of the national organization, American Radio Relay League. He also serves in other related services, including Military Auxiliary Relay Services, which provides messaging for troops in combat areas who have no other conventional communication methods; the Civil Air Patrol and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, a division under the Texas Department of Public Safety.

At the Victoria County EOC, Taylor and Wagner have full ham capabilities, including voice and digital service. They can send emails via airwaves, which provides a tangible record of communication to avoid misinterpretations.

"We serve in a very specific capacity and we provide a specific service," Taylor said. "Our function is to provide communications to serve emergency organizations."

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