Pastors offer 'ministry-on-go'

BY SUSAN KIM | Santa Fe, NM | May 14, 2000

Marla Dwire sits in a local emergency operations center (EOC) in Santa Fe, quietly speaking into a handheld

microphone. As an amateur -- or "ham" -- radio operator, she describes her job as "trying to put loved ones


On Friday, when a man at a shelter for fire evacuees wanted to find four of his friends to make sure they were

safe, one ham radio operator contacted Dwire, who put the word out across her entire network. The man

found his friends -- and Dwire chalked up another instance of doing what she regards as her civic duty.

Already experienced in search and rescue operations, Dwire got her ham radio license in September. "But really

I cut my teeth on ham radios," she said. "My dad was an operator while I was growing up."

Both Dwire and her father are members of Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Systems, a national group of

operators that volunteers in post-disaster situations and during other times of need. Dwire is closely connected

with relief groups and with the Federal Emergency Ma nagement Agency (FEMA), willing to serve as a

communications hub whenever she's asked.

"I'd been listening to the reports on the fires, and listening to the radio operators talking about it. I knew I had a

civic responsibility to be here."

Meanwhile Dwire's father is pulling shifts at the state EOC and, along with his daughter, they can relay

information about everything from people's safety to who has a four-wheel-drive vehicle or motorcycle

available. In the winter, she might communicate who has cross country skills or a snowmobile.

Even though ham radio is an older way of communicating than today's wireless modes, the field has its own

advances and has come a long way since the days of oversize antennas in the backyard. Ham operators can operate via "invisible antennas," or thin wires,

and even through flag poles, vent pipes, and gutters. They can keep their systems operational via solar panels and with quick-charge batteries. Ham radio

operators have their own Web sites and they can have e-mail routed into their communications system.

Novice users don't need to learn Morse code when they earn their operating license, though the word "ham" is said to have originated from the mutation of

a Morse code word for "amateur." Dwire didn't. "I went to a class once a week, three hours a night, for four weeks, then I took the exam," she said. "Some

people who like to cram might do it more quickly."

With three levels of examination -- technician, general, or extra -- operators can get as simple or sophisticated as they want. The technician's option has a "no

Morse code" requirement, making it the most popular one to learn. The highest level, "extra," requires not only a tough written exam but also a

20-word-per-minute Morse code exam. Most communities have local ham radio clubs that offer the exam. Operators can purchase a low-end radio for under

$300 -- or lay out $3,000 for a two-way transceiver.

There are about 600,000 hams in the U.S., which are part of a larger global network. When severe earthquakes hit Turkey, ham radio operators ran a special

communications network and Web site that allowed people to check on the safety of their family members. The Salvation Army, among other groups, has a

worldwide network of volunteer operators. Ham operators are, as a group, active in disaster communications response and in other community service --

and their license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) comes with the stipulation that they can never use their radios to make money.

Dwire brought mostly her own equipment to the EOC, where she worked Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. "A friend brought me lunch so I wouldn't miss it if

somebody needed something," she said.

A battery about as powerful as a car battery can sustain her operations for about 24 hours. That means if the power goes out, she can still get through. Ham

radio operators off a Voice Repeater network that transmits a weak signal over a wide area. The network is available to any amateur operator who is

licensed by the FCC. They also have access to making telephone patches so that local calls can go through and, in many areas, direct access to the 911

emergency system. When wireless phone networks are clogged, and local phone lines are constantly busy - which was the case on Friday - people like

Dwire can still get through.

"The whole system is very freestanding and it's very portable."

It's also a godsend for disaster responders who want to get in touch with each other. It makes Dwire a popular local information hub, even when she's not

at the helm of her radio.

"I was in the coffee shop, and I had my antenna on my car, and the lady behind me came up and said, 'Can you let people know that St. John's College could

be opened as a shelter if people need it?' "

"She was so open and willing to tell me whatever I needed, just because she knew I was a ham radio operator," said Dwire.

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