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Radio Stars

The sky is falling: Erik Dyce and Tim Armagost (right) will man the hams if everything else fails on New Year's Eve.
Brett Amole

Erik Dyce won't spend the waning hours of December 31 partying like it's the end of 1999. He'll be ringing in the new year in a windowless office in the basement of the Denver City and County Building, bracing for the worst.

Dyce will be one of hundreds of amateur radio operators, or "hams," as they are called, stationed throughout the state on New Year's Eve, ready to dispatch police, firefighters and paramedics should their normal communication systems fail when the clock strikes midnight. It's a job they are well prepared to do. "Whenever there's a hurricane or earthquake and phone lines are down, it's amateur radio operators who get communications out," says Dyce, whose clear booming voice sounds like it belongs to a professional radio DJ.

But the possibility that the millennium computer bug could have disastrous consequences all over the world has forced amateur radio operators into a brighter spotlight than they have ever known.

Under Federal Communication Commission guidelines, hams are not allowed to use their radios for commercial purposes. They take to the airwaves as a hobby or to help out in times of crisis, and they must be licensed by the FCC. To get a license, all an amateur radio buff has to do is pass a multiple-choice test and pay a $6.25 fee; in Colorado, there are approximately 14,000 licensed ham-radio operators, about 400 of whom will be on hand New Year's Eve to provide communication backup for various cities and counties.

"Ham radios don't care what date it is," says Larry Cerney, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service's coordinator for Denver and the Front Range. "They're generally battery-powered and therefore not restricted to commercial power. It's an old technology that's immune to the Y2K bug. If sophisticated communications systems fail due to embedded processors not recognizing the date, amateur radio operators will be able to step in and pick up."

On December 31, approximately 75 people, including Dyce, will be stationed in the Denver Office of Emergency Management in a bleak, cavernous room filled with computers, telephones and machines with blinking lights. Their work stations have already been labeled: police, public works, aviation, parks and recreation, RTD, public service. At each of the tables is a radio -- though not a ham radio -- that will allow the person sitting there to access any channel in his prescribed area; for example, the emergency coordinator for Denver International Airport will be able to communicate with all airport personnel. But if those systems fail, the four ham radios in the back of the "war room" will be able to relay messages.

"The first midnight will start somewhere around New Zealand," says Dyce, who also serves as director of marketing for the city's division of theaters and arenas. "As those different New Year's celebrations occur, we'll be listening in to make sure everyone's okay, and if anything has happened, we'll know what. We'll be able to communicate what we learn to the powers that be." Staffers from Mayor Wellington Webb's office will relay messages to members of the media who will be camped out across the hall, Dyce says, ready to inform television viewers and commercial radio listeners about how the world is running as the century comes to a close.

There will probably be only two ham-radio operators at a time in the city's bunker, and each will work a four- to six-hour shift (other emergency personnel will work twelve-hour shifts) until it's clear that the new millennium has dawned smoothly. "Ham-radio operators are a standard recognized resource when we lose our communications," says Tim Cuthriell, director of Denver's Office of Emergency Management. "We wouldn't do this without them."

"If telephones go down -- which we don't think will occur -- we would immediately be employed, because telephone traffic would resort to radios, and their capacity would be exceeded," says Dyce, adding that the worst-case scenario would consist of normal radio systems failing entirely when their back-up power supply runs out. "If that happened, we'd be able to get ahold of people at the state Department of Emergency Management, which will have a bunker at Camp George in Golden or at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the federal center."

Tim Armagost, the Colorado section manager for the American Radio Relay League, the national organization that oversees ham-radio operators, will be coordinating hams on New Year's Eve. "We'll have hams scattered throughout the state -- at hospitals, fire stations and sheriff's offices. And we'll have a ham-radio link between the National Poison Control Center at the old Lowry [Air Force base] and the headquarters in Virginia," he says. "Normally, people aren't aware that we perform these duties. Suddenly, everyone is looking at us and saying, 'Gee whiz.'"

Armagost, who has been dabbling in amateur radio for forty years, compares communicating via ham radio to "standing in a crowd and yelling, 'Anyone want to talk?'" He says any number of hams can be tuned in at the same time in any given country; to speak to someone in a certain locale, all a ham has to do is tune his transmitter to the correct frequency and say, "CQ, CQ, this is WB0TUB [Armagost's own call number]. Does anyone want to talk? If someone happens to be listening and wants to talk, they talk."

The "CQ" greeting evolved from people saying "seek you" on the airwaves, explains Dyce, who developed his love for ham radio 31 years ago, when he was a Boy Scout. A kid in his troop who had been blinded in a hunting accident used his radio to "see" the world and invited Dyce to join him in his overseas travels. "As an eight-year-old, that was the coolest thing I'd ever been exposed to. I could talk to people in Russia, Turkey...countries I'd never even heard of," the 39-year-old Dyce says with an excitement that is still fresh. "Hams talk about everything from politics and electronics to what equipment they're using."

No one is sure how ham radio got its name. Dyce has heard that the letters stand for the names of the first guys who experimented with radio communication in the early part of this century. "You know, like Harry, Arthur and Mike." But Armagost's favorite story is the one about telephone operators who knew Morse code. "They'd earn their ham and eggs by tapping on keys," he says. "But the ham operators just earned ham -- they were just doing it for fun."

When Dyce is not working, he volunteers his time responding to 911 outages -- he says they occur weekly due to the disturbance of phone lines by construction equipment -- and other emergencies. During World Youth Day in 1993, when droves of Papal Mass attendees passed out in Cherry Creek State Park from the hot weather, it was hams who radioed for more water. When a tornado tore through Limon a few years back, communication was restored by ham-radio operators. And two years ago this month, when a blizzard stranded motorists on I-25, Dyce was called in to dispatch emergency workers to transport people from their cars to a makeshift shelter at Park Meadows Shopping Center. "They were evacuating people from their cars in Hummers. It looked like a military zone," recalls Dyce, who used his own four-wheel-drive vehicle to pick up prescriptions for people at a 24-hour Walgreens.

Last month his hobby hit closer to home when Hurricane Floyd ravaged his native Rocky Mount, North Carolina. "I learned that my dad's house had been flooded, and I got on a plane to help him. Most of the roads were flooded, so I got the frequency of the state's emergency management office and contacted them to find out which roads were closed," says Dyce, whose ham-radio credentials also gained him access to parts of town open only to emergency personnel. "I would not have been able to reach him if it weren't for being an amateur radio operator."

"There's a long tradition of using ham radios in emergencies dating back to the early days before telephones were widespread and when telephone wires were aboveground," adds Cerney, who has held an amateur-radio license since 1991. "Even below-ground telephone wires are subject to failure due to weather."

But no one needs to worry about ham radios going on the fritz, he says. "I have batteries in my house that will run my station for two weeks and a generator that will recharge those batteries, if need be."

Cerney will be at his home in Denver on New Year's Eve, dispatching operators and listening to his radio. "Most ham operators have cigarette-lighter chargers that plug into their cars. Some radios are solar-powered. So as long as there's gasoline in cars and generators, and as long as the sun comes up in the morning, ham radios will work."

So for people who regard New Year's Eve with dread, Dyce says the best thing to do is to spend the evening with a ham.

However, there will be no champagne toasts for the ham-radio operators assisting local governments. "It will be a dry night -- no alcohol allowed," he says. Although hams see Y2K as a great opportunity to show the public how their hobby can help people, deep down, Dyce would rather be celebrating like everyone else.

"It's a bummer," he says. "But it's the right thing to do."


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