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SALISBURY — Every summer, amateur radio users gathers in Salisbury for the Rowan Amateur Radio Society’s Firecracker Hamfest.
“Ham radio” has been around for over a century, and some might expect it to be a dying hobby in the age of the Internet and iPhones.
Far from it. Organizers estimated about 500 people came through the Salisbury Civic Center on Saturday between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.
So many, in fact, that the hot dogs cooked up as a fundraiser for the Rowan club sold out.
The annual Hamfest — one of numerous such events held throughout North Carolina in the summer months by local clubs — is part radio swap meet, part social.
Tables loaded with large and small radios, from handheld VHF walkie-talkies to antiques, were bordered by vendor booths selling everything from replacement parts to testing equipment.
Still more were gathered outside, talking and sharing stories and tidbits.
In one of the Civic Center’s meeting rooms, behind closed doors, volunteers gave the exams required for Federal Communications Commission amateur radio licenses.
Jim Winters, of Concord, was one of the members of the Rowan Amateur Radio Society who gave those exams.
He said he’s been on the air since 2000, when he got interested in ham radio while working as a security officer on Manhattan island in New York city.
Unlike in the past, radio operators don’t have to learn Morse code before they can get a license — although many still do, Winters said.
Aside from a chance to get licensed, Winters said one of the best parts is “meeting people you talk to over the air all the time.”
For one operator, D.J. Wray of Gaffney, the hamfest has become an annual homecoming.
Wray, a native of East Spencer, said he’s known here as a former law enforcement officer and a former town council member in his hometown.
Today, in radio circles, he’s better known by his on-air callsign, KB4HJQ, which he wore on a nametag and hat Saturday.
So did other members of their own respective amateur radio societies.
Wray and his wife, Denise, made the trip up. Both are licensed radio operators — Denise said she got into the hobby because of her husband.
D.J. Wray said one of the things that keeps him involved in radio is also one of the main reasons people get involved today: amateur radio’s versatility in times of trouble.
One of the sayings you’ll hear over and over where “hams” are gathered: “When all else fails, ham radio works.”
“We can get the word out when nobody else can,” Wray said.
He recalled that, when Hurricane Hugo knocked out phone systems in 1989, amateur radio operators were able to relay messages between law enforcement agencies in different counties.
“There are many, many stories” of radio filling in the gaps in a crisis, Wray said.
The current president of the Rowan Amateur Radio Society, Neal Goodman, is also a lieutenant with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Dept.
“It kind of goes hand-in-hand with my profession,” said Goodman, who joined the club in 2011.
“One of the primary functions of ham radio is communication when all other forms of communication fail.”
Two weeks ago, Goodman and other members gathered at Sloan Park for the annual Field Day event.
For 24 hours, amateur radio operators take part in friendly competition. They set up their broadcast equipment “in the field,” some at public places, others at emergency response centers.
Their goal is to make contact with as many different stations as possible, but it’s not just a game, Goodman said.
Instead, it’s meant to simulate operations in a real emergency. For that reason, the transmitters at Sloan Park were run off of generators, with members sitting at picnic tables under a shelter.
Members of the Rowan Amateur Radio Society also take part in monthly “fox hunts,” competitions to track down a hidden transmitter, using handheld radios and antennas.
George Huffman, a member of the club, shot a brief documentary last winter that was featured on a recent episode of “Ham Nation,” a Web-based show about amateur radio.
Goodman and others point out that these events have a dual purpose.
The same direction-finding antennas and techniques could be used to locate an illegally-operated radio station, or any radio signal — even a transponder on a downed aircraft.
Billy Stewart, of Salisbury, said amateur radio technology continues to evolve, with new digital technology tied into computers and the Internet.
“In an emergency situation,” Winters said, “we can send emails and faxes, all sorts of signals, over radio.”
One such technology, packet radio, has been around for decades, but fell into disuse when high-speed internet began to come into wide usage.
Seth O’Neal, of Concord — a.k.a. KF4LLF — said he got his first amateur radio license when he was 16 years old.
Today, after 17 years of using radio, he’s trying to preserve some of those early Internet-like technologies which, he said, are still very useful.
“I’ve always had an interest in electronics,” O’Neal said. “Radio was always that mystery hobby, where you can take a signal and send it to anywhere in the world.”
Today, O’Neal said he’s seeing an increase in the number of people in their thirties getting involved in radio.
“This is the foundation of the technology we use today,” O’Neal said, standing near a table loaded with receivers. “It’s continuing to evolve, as well.”
In addition to packet radio, there are other technologies that allow pictures and video to be broadcast over radio.
The next generation may be able to embrace and build on those technologies.
Paul Van Doren, of Durham, brought his grandson, Gabriel Balderas, along to his vendor booth.
Van Doren is an amateur operator who also sells lead-acid backup batteries and solar chargers — useful, he said, in just the kind of emergency situations that radio operators can help deal with.
Balderas, 11, said being around radios and solar power have given him an interest in science, as well as technology.
“I’ve learned about solar power in school, but this helps me understand it more,” he said of the solar panels on sale.
Van Doren said he goes to between 10 and 20 hamfests a year, and Balderas accompanies him when he can.
Balderas hopes to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps — to study and get his amateur license one day.
He’ll be carrying on a hobby that’s more than a hobby, and one that is still a long way from “signing off” for good.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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