Ham radio could save the day

by Natalie DeFord, News Writer

The key to Pacific Lutheran University student safety could lie in four antennas on top of the Morken Center for Learning and Technology.
During disasters or emergencies, ordinary methods of communication can fail. Internet is rendered useless in a power outage because cellphones stop working as everyone calls 911. Amateur radio, colloquially known as ham radio, routes around these obstacles.
W7PLU, the amateur radio station in Morken, has been operational for about four years. Originally proposed for starting a student club, the idea did not die out with the initial lack of student interest.
Rob Benton, PLU mechanic, and Douglas Oakman, religion professor, are currently the station’s primary operators. The two work as part of a larger team, linked with Campus Safety, and also help with search and rescue.
“Our basic reason for existence here is to keep students safe,” Oakman said.
Benton, W7PLU trustee, and Oakman, station co-chair, share a common love for radio. Both grew up building radios of their own and eventually became licensed operators active in their communities.
Normally, the presence of a control operator is required to make a call, but the station is arranged so anyone could do so in an emergency.
A sheet on the wall bearing the word “Instructions” in large, red font clarifies the necessary steps to operate the radios and communicate the emergency to other amateur radio operators. Each of the station’s four radios and satellite phone has a sheet of instructions, including labeled pictures.
W7PLU, directly linked with the state’s Emergency Operation Center as well as the Pierce County EOC, has three types of communication: voice, digital and Morse code.
Both Oakman and Benton can understand Morse code as it comes in through one of the radios.
Another of the radios can decode high frequency emails, received through the radio’s ability to tap into Internet anywhere in the world regardless of whether local Internet connection is available.
Additionally, the station’s satellite phone and other radios can be used by anyone to make voice calls.
All of these methods can be transmitted and received instantaneously, supported in a power outage by Morken’s emergency generator.
Though the station has yet to be used in a true state of emergency, Benton and Oakman agree that it may one day be the only option.
“Ordinary communications get wiped out,” Benton said. “Just in case, we are here.”
Amateur radio also has uses outside of emergencies and extends far beyond one’s local sphere. Oakman said he has used radio to have conversations with people all around the world. He once used it to call his wife, who was in the Seattle area, while he was in Scotland.
Radio checks, which include casual conversation with other stations and other people with licenses, are performed frequently to ensure the station has a clear signal.
“We try to work on our skills and be ready for anything that may come at us,” Oakman said.
W7PLU continues to welcome members to its team, willing to share the heritage of amateur radio with anyone.

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