Guests at last month’s Juneau County Historical Society open house found themselves connected to the wider world thanks to two amateur radio operators from Mauston.
Howard Fischer and Lloyd Vodvarka set up their equipment in the Boorman House’s second-floor ballroom during the Nov. 25 event and conversed through Morse code with people far from Wisconsin.
The station was set up for other operators to call the operators in Mauston.
“People called in on our ‘Special Events Boorman House Christmas Program,’” Fischer said. “We had a lot of calls from Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Georgia, Rice Lake, Cleveland, Minnesota and Alberta, Canada,” he said.
A crowd of children clustered around their table as Fischer transmitted and received voice communication through a headset while Vodvarka signaled and tapped replies in Morse code using a telegraph key. Guests also were able to examine antique equipment, which Fischer called “vintage stuff” and compared with the modern-day headphones.
Amateur radio operators, also called ham radio operators, use radio equipment in two-way communicators with other operators. They use specific radio frequencies assigned for ham radio and have call signs — W9JCJ and KC9LLI are examples — as identification.
According to the Juneau County Amateur Radio website, www.jcaresraces.com, there are 37 operators in the area, which includes parts of Adams, Sauk and Wood counties.
“Each amateur radio operator has their own license issued by the Federal Communications Commission (in order) to be on the airwaves,” said Fischer, who has had his license since 2006. “Everyone needs to prove that they are competent (before licensure). The levels of licensing include technician or entry level, general and extra class, which is the most difficult. Both Lloyd and I have the extra class license,” Fischer said.
Amateur radio operation is a hobby, but operators also sometimes play serious roles.
“We get used all the time for natural disasters such as during Hurricane Sandy (which hit the East Coast in October),” Vodvarka said. “There, local ham radio operators in the affected area needed to contact local (Wisconsin) operators to reach the American Red Cross in Wisconsin, or they could also contact a local operator to let family members know that their relatives in the affected area were safe.”
Locally, the La Crosse weather service radio station sometimes gets in touch with amateur radio operators, for example if a tornado has been spotted near Mauston, he said.
“They would contact us to put up a net to hold all the (airway) traffic unless it was an emergency call,” he said.
Ham radio operators can not only contact others worldwide, they can also converse with astronauts orbiting Earth.
“Education is a big part of the program,” said Vodvarka, who has been an operator since 1992. “They have a radio in the (international) space station and also a mobile unit that is shaped as a rocket (model) that goes to schools by invitation. Students can talk with astronauts from the mobile unit.”
The Russian space station Mir also had an amateur radio station.
“I was able to talk to Russian astronauts when I called there, and they all spoke English,” Vodvarka said.