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Ed Thornburg, president of the Chickasaw Amateur Radio Association, “takes the air” to make a contact with a long-distance operator during Saturday’s Mississippi QSO Party with the Olive Branch Amateur Radio Club and the local Civil Air Patrol. A base station was set up in the Pleasant Hill Elementary School parking lot where operators were making contacts for 12 hours on Saturday.

Having a good time enjoying a hobby interest that also serves an important service when severe weather or disasters strike was a good reason for a “party” Saturday in a school parking lot.

Amateur radio operators from the Chickasaw Amateur Radio Association (CARA) and the Olive Branch Amateur Radio Club (OBARC), along with the DeSoto Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, spent 12 hours in the parking lot of Pleasant Hill Elementary School attempting to make contact with the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the country.

They joined other operators in what OBARC president Shawn Braddock called, “The Mississippi QSO Party.”

“The reason for today is to do two things: first, have fun, and second, test our emergency communications throughout the state,” said Braddock. “A contest is in place to allow operators around the United States to try to reach Mississippi.”

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), in existence for 105 years, has about 154,000 amateur, also called ham, radio operators. About 7,000 of that number are in other countries. It exists to work with the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, and the International Telecommunications Union. It also promotes amateur radio’s importance as a medium for communications on a social level.

The use of amateur radio to serve the public in times of severe weather, natural or man made disasters, is where they provide a needed service to the general public, however.

“It’s absolutely vital and is a very important part of any kind of emergency,” said Braddock. “Every time there are tornado warnings and watches in this area, our local repeaters and clubs and associations get on the air and direct that everybody get off the air and then we put a net control station in place.”

It is that station that receives and then forwards on reports of tornado sightings from storm spotters and other information that keeps the public updated on impending weather danger. Amateur radio also assists law enforcement, local and county emergency services officials at the same time.

“One person is in place for somebody to call in and report weather or damage or our local storm spotters who are all amateur radio operators so we have clear and concise communication throughout the entire tri-state area without a lot of people getting on the air,” Braddock said. “That happens each and every time that there is weather in the area.”

Operators likely got into action Saturday when weather watches and warnings were issued for the Mid-South, including DeSoto County.

“Every time we open up a net for emergency communications, we are patched in to all of the Emergency Services, we’re patched into the Sheriff’s Department and even the media,” Braddock pointed out. “There’s been many a time I’ve heard a tornado spotter mention a tornado on the ground at a specific location and not but five minutes later I would hear a news reporter say the exact same thing, because they are all monitoring that.”

As much as radio serves an important service, the hobby is still an enjoyable way to stay in contact and communicate with others. Braddock said the operators at Saturday's “party” were trying to make as many “contacts” with other operators from across the nation, and elsewhere. “There’s an ARRL award that you can win that is called Work All States, where we have to have a confirmed contact with at least one person in each state, including Alaska and Hawaii,” said Braddock. “Once you have those, you submit to get the award. Mississippi is a particularly hard state to get, especially for people in the far East and the far West because there’s a lot stronger signals in those areas that typically bleed out operators from Mississippi.”

So, those who spent the day at Pleasant Hill, with their base station set up, were making calls out to whoever would answer, in hopes their “contact” would get them one closer to reaching that level. Each contact must be verified to become official, however.

“Through ARRL, there is a log that is online and goes through them,” said Braddock. “What happens is when you make a contact, you have to write down a few things, such as what frequency you were on, who you talk to by call sign, and then the time and date. When that is uploaded successfully from each operator into the main system, they have to match within a couple of hours and a couple of frequency digits to recognize that there was a confirmed match.”

Braddock got hooked on radio when he attended an event with his son through the Boy Scouts several years ago.

“OBARC set up at Camp Currier one day as a demonstration to the Boy Scouts,” he explained. “My son and I walked by and I had always been interested in amateur radio having been a CB operator in the past. We walked by and they let my son get on the air and it was loads of fun.”

Radio operators have also raised money for worthy causes, such as the annual Memphis FreeFest, set for Bartlett, Tennessee next week, and hosted by the Mid-South Amateur Radio Association. It has raised more than $30,000 over eight years for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

Bob Bakken is Managing Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.

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