If telephone land lines and cell phones were knocked out during a major storm or power outage, how would people communicate?
Armed with solar- or generator-powered transmitters, antennae on trailers and many years of experience, members of the Beaufort Radio Amateur Group know they can get the word out across the country.
"We can set up a communication center and talk all across the United States without having to worry about infrastructure," said Jim Gish, ham trustee for BRAG.
The 35-member club participated in a National Field Day on June 25 and 26 for all amateur radio operators throughout the United States.
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The event lets ham operators showcase their abilities and test their equipment.
Most years the Beaufort groups make contact with 1,000 people. This year the group contacted a Savannah hospital which allowed the operators to test equipment between the two areas.
"Ham" is an informal term for an amateur radio operator who uses designated radio bands for recreation and emergency communication. People began experimenting with wireless communication, sparked by Morse code, in 1898 and by 1906 people were building and running their own radios. Their equipment has expanded to include digital signals which allow the operators to communicate with voice, pictures and even video with people across the world.
To help transmit their messages, the clubs rely on electronic repeaters (like an antenna) in higher locations that receive a weak signal which retransmit it at a higher power, allowing the signal to cover longer distances.
The Beaufort group started to help support the local repeaters north of the Broad River, as well as a social group for people who live and visit the area.
Gish and his wife, Barbara, also a ham radio operator, grilled home-cooked meals including sausage for breakfast during the 24-hour event.
The Beaufort group set up its base in the parking lot of Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where the group would work if a disaster struck.
Mostly comprised of military retirees, the club made contacts with as many others as possible for a display of their emergency communications capabilities. BRAG is a part of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, an organization of licensed amateurs who volunteer during emergencies.
Ham operators have been used in recent disasters such as fires in Georgia and Florida, and tornadoes in Alabama.
"This is why we do (things such as National Field Day)," Gish said, referring to disasters elsewhere.
"If a hurricane hit here, ham radios would be the only means of communication."
Ham operators are not the characters you might remember watching talk on Citizen's Band radios in the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies. They are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. And while it might sound like hams just sit around and talk, they actually keep things moving. They work with the American Red Cross and participate in statewide hurricane and earthquake drills. They are the communication behind the Beaufort Water Festival Parade and the Hilton Head Island's St. Patrick's Day Parade.
They also help with events such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's "Light the Night Walk," the Multiple Sclerosis Society's 50 Mile Walk and the Department of Health and Environmental Control's Pandemic Flu Triage drill.
According to Gish, there are radios at area hospitals including: Colleton Medical Center, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Hilton Head Hospital Center, Coastal Carolina Medical Center, Hampton Regional Medical Center and the Beaufort Naval Hospital.
When there are no emergencies, Gish and his wife use their radios to meet new people.
"I personally use it to stay in touch with friends," Gish said.
They make new friends, as well.
"We have fun with it. You put out your call and you have no idea who is going to answer," said Gish, who has met many of his contacts in person at hamfest events -- large gatherings for radio operators. "You can put a face with a call sign."
Dr. Paul Grace runs a group to encourage newcomers called Get On the Air.
"Most of us are old gentlemen, and we'd love to get young folks into it," Gish said of current members, who range in age from 40 to 90.
Want to ham it up?
Beaufort Amateur Radio Group members meet for coffee from 9 to 10 a.m. most days at Hardee's in Port Royal. Listen on New 145.130, Repeater tone 88.5.
Hilton Head Island
A group of hams meet at 8 a.m. Sundays at the Plantation Cafe in Port Royal Plaza. A group meets for lunch on Wednesdays at different restaurants. For location, listen from 9:30 to 10 a.m. on 147.240+ (tone 100).
A group of early risers, these hams have breakfast around 7 a.m. on Saturdays at the Old House Restaurant in Walterboro. Listen on 146.910.
For those who don't own radios, contact Jim Gish, KD4KOJ, at 843-263-0432 or BeaufortRadio@embarqmail.com.