From Left to Right, South Pasadena Amateur Radio Club Founder Bob Vanderwall and Vice-President John Aboud were on hand for the Field Day demonstrations to show people the importance of ham radios during an emergency. Photo by Steve Whitmore

The question is asked over and over again. Answers vary depending on who you ask. Police have an answer. Fire officials have an answer. City officials have an answer.

What do you do in the case of an emergency is the question that is traversed time and time again. One of the most essential elements to that answer, though, is overlooked because it’s like breathing. You take it for granted until it’s gone. That is communication. How do people talk with one another when a massive emergency knocks out modern technology? How, indeed?

A modern, powerful radio that can communicate with people around the globe. Photos by Steve Whitmore

Ham radios are, in large measure, the answer to that question, according to officials with the South Pasadena Amateur Radio Club, also known as SPARC.

“We are off the grid,” said SPARC founder Bob Vanderwall. “We are not part of the infrastructure.” The derivative for the word ham is debated by officials. However, one version deemed by some as credible was found in a 1959 Florida Skip Magazine article that explained it this way: “Ham as applied in 1908 was the station call letters of the first amateur wireless stations operated by some amateurs of the Harvard Radio Club. They were Albert S. Hyman, Bob Almy and Poogie Murray. At first, they called their station “HYMAN-ALMY-MURRAY.” Tapping out such a long name in code soon became tiresome and called for a revision. They changed it to “HY-AL-MU,” using the first two letters of each of their names. Early in 1901, some confusion resulted between signals from amateur wireless station “HYALMU” and a Mexican ship named “HYALMO.” They, then decided to use only the first letter of each name, and the station CALL became “HAM.”

A basic radio that is off the grid and cab be used during an emergency when modern technology does not function.

Meanwhile, Vanderwall, 77, who has lived continuously in the same South Pasadena house he built in 1967, was participating in a SPARC co-sponsored event known as “Get On the Air.” The event also was co-sponsored by amateur radio clubs from Pasadena, JPL and Caltech, according to John Aboud, SPARC vice-president. It was held Saturday on top of a hill overlooking the Rose Bowl area of Pasadena in a large parking lot at the Art Center College of Design.

There were a variety of demonstrations from Morse code – a method of transmitting text information as a series of on-off tones, lights, or clicks that can be directly understood by a skilled listener or observer without special equipment. It is named for Samuel F. B. Morse, an inventor of the telegraph – to a telescope capable of detecting sun spots along with a large selection of radios that connect the user to people around the world.

“I speak to people in Russia, South Korea, all around the world,” Vanderwall said, who founded SPARC in 1975. “I love it and it is a valuable tool.”

A Morse code expert demonstrates the use of the code that would be vital in an emergency.

The event is part of Field Day, a 24-hour radio event held every June. The idea, according to Aboud, is for visitors to learn about ham radios and make contact with participants across the nation and into Canada. 

Even more important, is for the ham radio operators to understand the vital part they play in case of an emergency, according to Vanderwall.

“The important part to emphasize is that the purpose of Field Day is to prepare for emergencies,” Vanderwall said. “In the event of a major earthquake this helps us be prepared to communicate. We can all get together and form a collaboration that allows people to talk to one another.”

SPARC meets the first Wednesday of every month at the South Pasadena Fire Department’s Emergency Operations center, 817 Mound Ave. For more information about SPARC, visit their website at southpasradio.org.

Steve Whitmore
Author

Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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