The Last Line of Communicators

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Patsy and Jim Crosby
Patsy and Jim Crosby

The modern world is dependent on electronics on a scale new to mankind. Life is wonderfully easier when our gadgets working. What would we do if they crashed? We’d rely on our Crozet ham radio operators to hold things together.

“What I like about amateur radio is that the infrastructure can fall to pieces and we can still do our thing,” said ham Greg Faust. An electrical engineer for General Electric, he has lived in Albemarle for 28 years on the Earlysville side of Free Union and has served on the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad for the last five as a medic-level EMT (one notch below paramedic). He is also the supply officer for WARS and keeps food, medical supplies and snacks stocked at the station.

“When you look into it, you see that there is an infrastructure that’s making things work. It’s a great way to combine a hobby with something useful. We use these frequencies and we don’t pay for them. And this way we can pay that back. And it’s fun.

“It’s hard to say why people do it. I’ve seen that they are technologists and geeks and tinkerers and self-reliant types. People are users of technology today. When I started out, we built our technology. Amateur radio is the last service I’m aware of where the individual is licensed and you can make your own equipment.” Faust built his first radio when he was 13.

“What you’re responsible for is what you put on the air. And that better be right. There is freedom and responsibility on the amateur radio. Thankfully, it is still popular and it’s not just old guys.

“I wonder, what if things break? Then you have to be able to do the basics. I’m not sure if we’re giving that to our children. Technology is magic to some people. But it’s not magic. It’s a tool. What we need to be is communicators.”

Jim Crosby of Crozet is now the president of the Albemarle Amateur Radio Club (Faust is a past president), which has 130 members including about 16 hams in the western Albemarle area. Now retired, Crosby ran The Bulletin, Crozet’s broadsheet weekly paper, for 16 years from 1978 to 1994. He was instrumental in organizing the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad, whose necessity was clear to him after he once waited 45 minutes for an ambulance to come to Miller School from Charlottesville. He was also was instrumental—he wrote the incorporation papers—in the formation of the Crozet Community Association in 1978 and the Albemarle County Fair. He noticed that 4-H club members at Western Albemarle High School, where there was once an agriculture program, had no place to show off their projects. For 22 years Crosby was also a boating instructor and organized the Coast Guard patrols that now serve on Lake Anna and Smith Mountain Lake.

“Radio has been a life-long hobby,” he said. “As a kid I built my first crystal radio and used my wire bed springs as an antenna. All the wires annoyed my mother.

“Radio is a unique combination of science and art,” said Crosby. “The form of the communication is the art part. It takes talent to communicate verbally without pictures. In emergency communications, clarity and understanding are critical. You get into the International Phonetic Alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, etc.”

Crosby goes by the call letters K4JEC (He has them embroidered on a baseball cap.) and his wife Patsy, also a licensed ham and secretary of the club, goes by K4PMC. “A person’s call is unique to that person in all the world,” Crosby explained. “There are two types of hams. We are public service oriented. Some are hunting for contacts to put in their logs. They are talking to strangers. They’re collectors.

“In an emergency, when you are activated, you have to keep a log. I’ve gotten more involved since I’ve retired.” Crosby has five antennas at his home near Crozet Park. “We can transmit on all FCC-authorized frequencies.”

Greg Faust
Greg Faust

There are 16,000 licensed hams in Virginia, he said, including about 800 in Charlottesville and its surrounding counties. Hams must pass a written FCC licensing exam and the club offers classes to prepare for it. “Mostly you learn by doing it,” Crosby said. He said the origin of the name “ham” is unclear, but his favorite theory is that it comes from vaudeville slang, in which talkative comedians were known as hams. “It’s about talking a lot,” he said. “It’s not an acronym.”

“There a nice marriage between hams and emergency services,” said Faust. “We keep our skills and equipment up and we are ready to be put to use as needed. You’re by yourself and no infrastructure is needed. The last communicators to go off the air will be ham operators. When all else fails, we’re available.”

Equipment is prepostioned at WARS for a licensed ham to use in an emergency. The club maintains five repeaters on ridge tops in the county that pick up signals and amplify them for broadcast over long distance. One is on Bucks Elbow Mountain and allows local hams to reach Richmond. Others are on Afton, Carters and Heards mountains. Faust often carries a small radio and power supply with him that is capable of reaching anywhere in Albemarle county, including the relay tower on Bucks Elbow.

WARS could be used as a shelter or as a base for a ham who volunteers for RACES, the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. “When emergency flags go up, we work for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” said Faust. “Emergency evacuation plans for Tidewater and D.C. send displaced people to us, toward the shelter of our mountains.” Volunteers do regular “Net checks” to confirm the readiness of hams. “Nets have to practice to be able to work together,” said Faust.

Crosby now has spot 12 on the Virginia Fone Net, which has only 150 slots. A ham must make 50 contacts in 90 days to qualify. Net checks are held on the first and third Mondays of the month at 6 p.m. Net members must check in.

“Most of them are friends and they are socializing over the radio,” Crosby said. “The point of the Net is to keep your skills up in case of emergency. When the Emergency Broadcast System goes off for real, then we go on the air.” In last year’s snow storms, Fluvanna County lost communications, Crosby said, and hams went in every police car and to the 911 center, the rescue squad and fire departments and maintained communications for two days. “The county cited a dozen hams for their service,” he noted. A lot of hams went to the Pentagon on 9/11 and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he said. Most hams keep a “go-kit,” a complete mobile station—computer and radio—they can put in their car. “As long as I have gas, I’m good to go.” His Ford Escape sports twin antennas that touch the railroad bridge downtown if he has them up.

“Fortunately we’ve never had an emergency like that in western Albemarle where we’ve been called in in that way.” Crosby said a weather emergency would be the most likely cause for hams to activate.

“There are a lot of ways to participate,” said Faust. “You don’t have to join the army to serve. You can be a radio communicator. Communication is the most important thing we work on.” Careless or inexact talk can result in chaos, Faust said. “Our job is to pass information, not make it up or corrupt it. We try to teach people not to color it, don’t interpret it, pass it on to the people who really need it.”

“You’ve got to careful about what you say on the radio because any one on that frequency will hear it,” said Crosby. No profanity is allowed and no one without a license is allowed to be on the air. Crosby is also a “spotter” who makes reports about local conditions to the National Weather Service when they are asked for. He and Patsy also help at local running events by calling in runners’ times as they pass waypoints.

“The Internet has enhanced hams’ radios tremendously,” said Crosby. “Hams can now type on a keyboard, convert to encrypted sound, and send it by radio waves to another computer.”

“The advantage is,” added Patsy, “that in an emergency you can transmit names without saying them out loud.” Computers also keep the log up automatically.

On the other hand, some skills are now regarded as obsolete. “Amateur radio has taken a hit because of the development of modern radios,” said Faust. “We used to have to learn Morse Code, which still comes in handy in some circumstances.”

And though we have hams who are ready and willing to help us, let’s hope those circumstances don’t happen.