BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON - There is a group of nicely aged hams in Northern Kentucky just waiting for their next call to action.
These 42 amateur radio operators are the last line of communication when all other forms fail.
Known as ''hams,'' these hobbyists provided the links emergency operators in Falmouth needed when flooding cut that Pendleton County town off from the rest of the world.
''Any disaster, any place in the world, hams are always the first line of communication in,'' said John Meyers,
seventh district emergency coordinator. He covers Boone, Campbell, Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Kenton, Owen and Pendleton counties.
Members of the Northern Kentucky Amateur Radio Club got the call March 2 when Rick Watkins, state Disaster Emergency Service district director, asked for help.
These men, most of them retired, went to Falmouth with hand-held radios, keeping the city's emergency workers in contact with one another and helping outside the county.
They returned tired, with burned-out
equipment ruined from being used so continuously.
''We're called amateur because we don't get paid,'' said Ken Rood of Union. Most in the Northern Kentucky club have at least 20 years invested in the hobby.
Members buy their own equipment and are trained and licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. They are obligated to respond to disasters.
Normally the men - retired aviation specialists, teachers, utility company employees and railroad workers - meet regularly.
March changed that routine.
Jake McHendrix of Florence set up at
Pendleton County High School, making long-distance telephone calls to notify authorities in Frankfort.
Mr. Meyers set up an amateur radio station at the Emergency Operations Center at the St. Luke Care Center.
Dick Wyatt, a Falmouth resident who lives high on a hill, had set up operations to act as a middleman; he sent the radio signals to repeater towers at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights and in Walton.
Hams were spread throughout Falmouth and Campbell, Grant and surrounding counties, providing backup communications, many of them working more than 24 hours straight.
The radios are two-way, with the ability to call phone lines.
Unlike police and emergency radios, amateur radios can operate on various frequencies.
''We couldn't have done what we did without them,'' said Craig Peoples, Pendleton Disaster and Emergency Services director. ''They were a tremendous help.''
Jack Thompson of Taylor Mill was stationed at the Southside Christian Church. He helped save lives. ''We had three heart attacks in a matter of minutes,'' he said. Ham radio operators called ambulances.
When National Guard or private boats took the radio operators across the water to emergency operations sites, rescues were made along the way. Food and supplies were delivered on other trips.
''We gave a lot of muscle power,'' said Larry Steinart of Independence. ''When we were on those loaded boats, we helped unload them, too.''
And it was these radio operators who had some of the first contact with flood survivors.
''There were times when our radios were silent. That's when we could talk to people who lost their homes or family,'' Mr. Meyers said. ''You were more of a counselor or a friend.''
Hams also started the list of missing persons later taken over by the American Red Cross. Once word got out the ''old men with the radios'' could make calls, they were deluged with requests to contact persons thought missing.
Amateur radio operators worked in Rabbit Hash and Sparta, too.
''All eight counties had emergency operations centers and needed hams, and we didn't have them to go around,'' Mr. Meyers said. ''We could have used 80 more. We had no relief. All of us are old guys.''
The Northern Kentucky Amateur Radio Club meets at 7:30 p.m. on the second Monday of the month at Lakeside Presbyterian Church, 2690 Dixie Highway in Lakeside Park. Anyone is welcome.