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Amateur radio group marks 80 years of community service during disasters

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE 
                                Bob Mente, a member of the Steel City Amateur Radio Club and an emergency coordinator for Allegheny County, communicates with other stations at the Steel City Amateur Radio Club’s W3KWH club station.

    TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    Bob Mente, a member of the Steel City Amateur Radio Club and an emergency coordinator for Allegheny County, communicates with other stations at the Steel City Amateur Radio Club’s W3KWH club station.

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
                                Above, Mente, left, and Carl Pastorak, another member of the club, check out a receiver at the station.

    TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    Above, Mente, left, and Carl Pastorak, another member of the club, check out a receiver at the station.

PITTSBURGH >> After eight decades of providing emergency backup communications during some of the region’s worst disasters, members of the Steel City Amateur Radio Club hit the airwaves to sing their own praises.

The club of about 60 members hosted a special event each day at its clubhouse in Collier. Members spent the week taking turns sending messages to other amateur radio ­operators around the world, sharing the news of their 80-year anniversary and their volunteer work.

“Our club is capable of providing emergency communication services to the community if the need arises,” said Bob Mente, 56, emergency coordinator for Allegheny County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. “We have state-of-the-art radios and antennas at our clubhouse and have a backup generator to provide power if the main electrical grid goes down.”

The Steel City Amateur Radio Club is an official relay station for Allegheny County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Its partner agencies are the Pittsburgh Red Cross and the National Weather Service office in Moon.

Amateur radio — also known as ham radio — is a hobby that brings people, electronics and communications together. People use ham radios to talk across town, around the world, or even in space, without using the internet or cellphones.

While these amateur radio operators are hobbyists, they provide important communications, especially during and after emergencies. Most recently, Steel City operators played a role in transmitting messages that helped weather officials during a severe storm a couple of months ago, which included at least one tornado that hit Allegheny County.

John Jennings, 66, of Green Tree got involved in that weather emergency when he heard mobile ham radio operators report flooding in the area.

“I contacted the National Weather Service in Moon Township by telephone and reported that information,” Jennings said. “They track storm damage to measure the intensity of the storms.”

Club member Joe Fenn proudly remembers making his biggest contribution to public safety in 1977 when Johnstown experienced a severe flood.

“The local Red Cross woke me out of a sound sleep to help get in touch with someone in Johns­town that they were not able to reach,” he said. “Communications were down and we had no idea how bad things were.

“I put a message out over the radio and hams came out of the woodwork helping to get food and supplies to the right places. I was even relaying medical information between patients and doctors. That was very rewarding.”

For his role in that emergency effort, Fenn received a certificate from the Red Cross and Conemaugh Valley amateur radio operators.

Karl Pastorak, 69, took up the hobby at age 13. He lived near the Steel City Amateur Radio Club’s W3KWH clubhouse in Collier.

“I saw the antennas, but I didn’t know what was going on in the building,” Pastorak said. “I got curious and knocked on the door. They let me in and I never left.”

Club members celebrated the 80-year anniversary of the group by sending radio messages to other amateur radio operators about their milestone, inviting them to visit the club’s website to read more about its history.

“It takes one person to start a chain of events to make a difference in our communities,” Mente said. “My motivation for getting my amateur radio license is to help make a difference in my community and make friends around the world.”

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