Amateur radio users gather for annual Rock Hill ‘Hamfest’

A smartphone app or an in-car GPS system could have helped most people find their way to the Hamfest in Rock Hill on Saturday. But, amateur radio enthusiasts had a different way – and some would say a more fun and reliable way – to get to their destination.

Rock Hill’s Ken Tedder sat in his car in the parking lot of the Faith Assembly of God church on Saturday morning, ready to rattle off directions over his ham radio. He’s one of the organizers of Hamfest – an annual event in York County for amateur radio operators, also called “Hams.”

Modern ham radio use began in the early 1900s, enabling people to communicate over long distances and find help during emergencies. When phone lines, electricity and Internet capabilities fail, amateur radio operators can still communicate.

There was no power outage or lack of cellphone reception at the 62nd Hamfest on Saturday, but some visitors still used their ham radio to find the location. On the other end was Tedder – on York County Amateur Radio’s ham radio call sign K4YTZ – ready to answer questions.

Most people at the Hamfest were longtime radio enthusiasts. Some had professional broadcast experience, others were veterans of the Army’s Signal Corps, and many were “QSL” card collectors – a way to keep up with all the people they’ve talked with worldwide through ham radios.

Gatherings such as Rock Hill’s Hamfest 2014 happen around the country, giving amateur radio operators a chance to meet in person, swap stories, and buy, sell and trade equipment.

Ray Thomas, a 77-year-old Elko resident, was one of the dozens of “hams” with equipment for sale on Saturday. An Air Force veteran, Thomas says he’s been hooked on ham radios since he was a child and learned the hobby from his older brother.

Ham radios use a specific band or radio frequency. Users are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. Unlike commercial broadcast radio operations, ham radio users aren’t allowed to make money from the communications.

For recreational use, amateur radio is a way to talk to strangers, or friends, around the world, Thomas said. Through his ham radio at home, Thomas has talked with other hobbyists from places such as Egypt as well as those working at the South and North Poles.

In South Carolina, there are tens of thousands of ham radio users, said Carl Bosard, club coordinator of the many local amateur radio groups across the state. Nationally, there are at least 770,000 licensed ham radio users.

Some people looking to join the community took the license test in Rock Hill on Saturday. Bosard said the exam “is relatively easy” and includes 35 questions from a pool of at least 350 questions. The test ensures that ham radio users understand FCC guidelines and radio communication techniques.

In the event of natural disasters or emergencies, ham radio operators are often turned to in order to provide a means of communication, Bosard said.

During a hurricane, Bosard said, ham radio users can station themselves along interstates and evacuation routes and call in traffic conditions, emergency needs or vehicle accidents. Ham users can use systems such as the S.C. HEARTS network to help during emergencies. HEARTS stands for Healthcare Emergency Amateur Radio Team.

Owning a ham radio is a fun hobby, but the practical use to benefit the community is important, Tedder said. He was one of many amateur radio operators around Rock Hill 25 years ago that helped maintain communications between emergency and public services officials when Hurricane Hugo struck.

A few weeks after the storm took out electricity, water service and other utilities locally, Tedder was deployed with the National Guard to Charleston, where the hurricane crashed into the coast, causing billions of dollars worth of damage. He worked 12-hour days in Charleston with the guard’s tactical operations center, helping the city recover.

People such as Tedder swapped their amateur radio stories on Saturday, ranging from helping out during critical times to talking to famous people such as Republican politician Barry Goldwater and Hussein bin Talal, the former king of Jordan, who were both avid ham radio users.

Ham radio enthusiasts have “a lot of good memories” stemming from their hobby, Tedder said. “It also has many other aspects and we’re on standby to help anybody that we can.”