Franklin County Amateur Radio Emergency Service member Albert McDaniel tunes into the radio, attempting to make contact with a net where amateur radio operators can chat with each other about anything under the sun. In front of McDaniel is the Franklin County ARES call sign, W1FCA. When McDaniel and other group members aren’t offering up emergency services, ARES operates as an informal club for amateur radio operators in the Franklin County region. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal Buy this Photo

FARMINGTON — In a small corner room on the third floor of the Franklin County Courthouse, there sits an important group you’ve likely never heard of: the Franklin County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). You’ve likely never heard of it for a good reason: ARES exists to serve in emergencies where the only line of communication that works is radio. Though ARES is sparsely used, its group is filled with much passion, knowledge, and readiness to jump into any situation.

On a morning weekday in May, I sat down with ARES members and amateur-radio operators John Tarbox, Steve Ewing, Randy Gauvin and Albert McDaniel to learn more about the purpose of ARES, the complexities of radio and the ways in which a passion for amateur radio links its operators.

ARES is a subgroup of the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency and offered via the American Radio Relay League. It’s a service meant to provide the public with radio operations in emergency situations.

What we’re designed to do is to be placed in situations, Gauvin said. “If something bad is going on, a flood, and somebody needs to keep an eye on that particular road by the flood, (the EMA) can say Randy can you go up there, set up your car there and monitor that area,” Gauvin said.

“If the phone lines are out, we are the communications of last resort,” Tarbox said.

In disasters like Hurricane Katrina, “radio amateurs were invaluable down South,” according to Tarbox. Likewise with the Boston Marathon bombing.

Anytime you see a major disaster, radio amateurs will be there literally saving lives,” Tarbox said.

You might be wondering: If a hurricane or flood knocks down power lines, how are radio frequencies still operating?

As long as we got a tree standing we can throw a hunk of wire in the air and throw that for an antenna,” McDaniel said. “Our transmitters all work on battery voltage, for the most part, so worst comes to worst we can haul a car battery out.”

In nonemergency situations, ARES offers communication services at “public service events” such as the Gravel Grind in Rangeley, Trek Across Maine and the Sugarloaf Marathon.

They also assist in emergency drills, such as an active shooter exercise run three years ago by the Farmington Police Department at the University of Maine at Farmington. Ewing said that in a mass-casualty event, ARES would be there confirming the status and safety of an individual for family members arriving on the scene.

ARES operators, aka “hams” also offered nonradio services by “helping out at the hospital (to) direct traffic for people getting their COVID vaccine,” Gauvin said.

Because the emergencies that knock out communications have been few and far between in Franklin County, ARES hasn’t helped in an emergency situation just yet.

The reality of most emergency services is that you aren’t used very often,” Gauvin said. 

“Which is good,” McDaniel added.

As a result, ARES members “need to train a lot” to stay prepared, according to Gauvin.

“We’re just so glad that it’s just training and we don’t have the real disasters,” Tarbox said.

While ARES offers necessary services, the group is entirely volunteer run.

“By the privilege of their license” acquired through the Federal Communications Commission, hams are not allowed to charge for their services.

The group started in 2009 when they were offered a room at the courthouse along with grant money and recently-retired radios from ambulances and police agencies.

Franklin County Amateur Radio Emergency Service member Randy Gauvin sends a message over the group’s radio frequency. Gauvin is an amateur radio operator, also known as a “ham.” He and other members of ARES train and volunteer their services in the event that all other forms of communication are down. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal Buy this Photo

Every surface at the Franklin County ARES headquarters is covered in radios. Midsize radios are stacked on shelves, desks are covered in hand-held radios — aka “walkie-talkies” — and other gadgets litter the room.

“We’re radio rich,” Gauvin said.

Because emergency services via hams are not always needed, ARES is also a tool to unite hams local to the Franklin County region.

“We act as an informal club anyway,” Gauvin said.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, ARES hams connected on the same frequency every night to “make sure everyone’s doing OK,” “touch base” and “tell jokes.”

Hams also have the privilege of chatting with people around the world via nets, where they gather on the same frequency for a chat network. Akin to online chat groups, these chat networks unite hams for just about anything: There’s the Young Ladies’ nets for female hams; There’s a maritime net, where people out at sea can send messages home, get weather reports, or chat about boat safety; nets for people interested in photography or RVs — you name it.

Via a tall antenna on Mosher Hill in Farmington, hams in the area can connect with people around the world.

Asked what they might discuss on these nets, McDaniel said “it’s more of what we don’t talk about than what we do talk about.” These days, the don’ts might be politics, though McDaniel said there are likely nets for political beliefs too. The definite don’t, he said, is music: the FCC bans the transmission of music, whether it be playing a song or even singing yourself because of copyright laws.

Tarbox appreciates amateur radio for its connecting ability to hams halfway around the world. He’s had conversations with people from Slovenia and sheep farmers in Australia and learned about the minutiae of day-to-day life, like what they eat for breakfast.

“You talk to these people you would never otherwise talk to and you learn about what their life is like and what it’s like in their country,” Tarbox said. “I find that fascinating to learn stuff and talk to people you could never otherwise meet.”

After connecting over the radio, hams have a tradition of sending each other postcards. They have a picture of where they’re from and their call signs, a series of characters and digits they are assigned when they first get their license, to say “thanks for the conversation.”

Ewing showed his binder filled with ham radio postcards from around the world signifying he’s had conversations with hams from St. Barts, Martinique, Guyana and Angola, to name a few.

Franklin County ARES member Steve Ewing shows a thick binder filled with postcards he’s received from amateur-radio operators around the world. “Hams” often send each other postcards with their call signs, location and pictures of where they’re from, after having a conversation over the radio. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal Buy this Photo

This binder is also filled with awards for participating in amateur radio events, such as the 13 Colonies event where hams try to connect during the Fourth of July week with stations throughout the 13 original states. In another event, hams try to connect with people stationed along Route 66.

“It’s amazing because its so competitive, people want to get to these stations,” Ewing said. “It’s like a swarm of people just trying to get through … It’s quite an experience.”

“There’s lighthouses on the air, parks on the air, there’s mountains on the air, there’s highlands on the air,” Tarbox said. “All these different programs. There’s just a million different awards you could go on to get.”

Those interested in getting involved with amateur radio to engage with the world in the aforementioned ways must get their general license (one step above the first level, technician) by taking a license exam and acquiring a radio, which is much more affordable nowadays than when Ewing, Tarbox, Gauvin and McDaniel first got involved.

There is a learning curve, but “you don’t have to be an expert to get your license,” according to Gauvin. And more so, he said local hams “will support each other.”

“You will get inundated with people wanting to help you because we support the service and want to make sure people do well,” Gauvin said of residents new to amateur radio. “Ham-radio operators support you along the way. If they know you’re having trouble, they’ll correct you.”

More information about amateur radio operations, obtaining a license, and finding nets and leagues can be found at ARRL.org. Local hams can tune into the frequency 147.180 every day at 7:30 p.m. to chat with Franklin County hams.


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