SARANAC LAKE - On a cool October morning in a residential neighborhood, amateur radio operator Roland Patnode sits in a yellow school bus that's been converted into a mobile communications center. He's leaning into a radio that connects him to other operators throughout the North Country.
"This is an open net, and we invite all licensed amateur radio operators to join us," Patnode says into the radio. "Your net control today is W-2-W-I-Z. My name is Roland, and I'm located in Saranac Lake, New York."
Patnode is acting as the control center for what amateur radio operators call a "net" on this particular Saturday morning. Those who want to talk during the net must check in with him, providing their call sign as written, then phonetically, then their name and location. The nets, which take place regularly, are practice exercises for the operators who also provide important communication services during emergencies and events.
Lee Foster of Saranac Lake (left) and Jim Purcell of St. Regis Falls set up an antenna for a renovated school bus that serves as the Adirondack Amateur Radio Association’s mobile communications center.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
After giving directions for how to properly check in, Roland lifts his thumb off the radio, allowing others to report.
After a few quiet moments, a woman's voice comes over the radio. She gives her call sign and introduces herself as Maureen from Bloomingdale. She is the first of about a dozen people who call in this morning.
Adirondack amateur radio
For the past year, Patnode has been working with other amateur radio operators to create the Adirondack Amateur Radio Association, an organization that Patnode expects will receive nonprofit status.
Right now, the organization consists of about 35 individuals, many of whom meet regularly and train together to sharpen their amateur radio skills. The group consists of a diverse group of people, including young children, nurses and emergency medical technicians, and it is looking to expand.
Amateur radio operators are licensed through the Federal Communications Commission and generally work out of their own homes, using personal two-way radios to communicate with each other.
Because the two-way radio stations often have self-sufficient power sources and there is such a wide network of amateur radio operators, these operators often play key roles in emergency situations such as hurricanes, floods and fires when phone lines and other communication infrastructure are damaged. They provided communications when the World Trade Centers were attacked, during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and when power went out throughout the North Country during the 1998 ice storm.
"In many of those instances, amateur radio operators are the first to get that information out, especially when the emergency has interrupted the normal chain of communications within the stricken area," said Patnode, who worked as the state Department of Environmental Conservation's regional communications supervisor before he retired in 1990.
Amateur radio operators also volunteer to provide essential communication services during events such as the 90-Miler canoe race and the Ironman in Lake Placid. They even assist the police department during Halloween, when they go on what is called "pumpkin patrol," providing the Saranac Lake police with extra sets of eyes and ears in case there are any problems around town.
Patnode said the new organization is hoping to expand these volunteer efforts.
"Our goal is to be able to provide a service to other emergency organizations within the Adirondacks," Patnode said. "For example, if for some reason the fire department should need assistance with communications, if they happen to be called out on a forest fire and their communications are not working good, we could go out and set up portable repeaters to assist them with communicators.
"We are not first responders. We don't respond until we are asked for assistance. We are not competing with any emergency agency. We don't respond if we hear something on a scanner. We wait until we were dispatched to do that."
It's actually written into the FCC rules and regulations that a key part of being an amateur radio operator is giving back to the community as a volunteer. Amateur radio operators, also called hams, can't charge for their services.
"Our price is generally pretty good, like zero cost to anybody," said amateur radio operator John McGrath, of Bloomingdale. "That's part of the ham thing. You have to give back. You have to do some public service as part of your privilege to be a ham."
Lee Foster of Saranac Lake said he is an amateur radio operator for this very reason.
"I believe in helping people, and during a disaster, we can help a lot of people," Foster said.
In order to provide the best communication services possible, Patnode has put together a mobile communications system in a renovated school bus. This communications center has just about anything an amateur radio operator would need, ranging from numerous standard two-way radios to GPS and televisions that work off amateur radio frequencies. Video feeds come from a camera that can be stationed on the front of the bus to provide footage for command centers during disasters.
"We could drive down the highway and we are actually taking live videos and sending them back to the command center and the control center," Patnode said.
The bus has two-way radios that are capable of communicating with other amateur radio operators as close as the next block or as far away as Japan. And in the Adirondacks, it's about as good a communication center as there is.
"As the book says, when all else fails, amateur radio works," Foster said.
For more information about the Adirondack Amateur Radio Association, contact Roland Patnode by phone at 891-6164 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Mike Lynch at 518-891-2600 ext. 28 or email@example.com.