They're All Connected:
Radios To The World
Listening through the cracks and pops of
the airwaves with his headphones fixed firmly around his head, Norbert Chwat waits
patiently. The weather is fine outside his home in Forest Hills, but a hurricane is raging
in Jamaica and Chwat is on the cutting edge.
Norbert Chwat rendered his radio services to the community for
Tribune Photos By Ira Cohen
His phone rings off the hook, as
people from all over the city call to see if he can contact their vacationing loved ones
and make sure theyre safe. And the 75-year-old ham radio operator sits watch over
his equipment . . . a member of the Queens Radio Club and the ears for relatives in fear.
Known only as KA2VVO to others like him
around the world, Chwat keeps up his arduous search for a fellow Jamaican operator.
For decades before the advent of the Internet and up
until now, when the latest in telecommunications still fail in the face of natural
disasters, members of the Queens Radio Club have connected the borough to the rest of the
country and world.
Though many men have
contributed to its expansion, the radio clubs genesis is credited to the efforts of
two Queens menJohn Mulloon and John Komp.
In 1963 Mulloon, a licensed amateur radio
operator, was the community affairs officer at the 103rd Precinct in Jamaica.
Wishing to start a ham radio club for the
boroughs youth to engage in, Mulloon initially proposed that the Police Athletic
League (PAL) incorporate the hobby into their program.
Yet, because the activity was not viewed as
an athletically oriented pursuit, PAL directors shot down the idea.
Undeterred, Mulloon soon came in contact
with John Komp, manager of the Queens Chapter of the American Red Crossthen located
on Merrick Boulevard in Jamaicaand coincidentally a licensed ham radio operator.
Ironically, around the same time Mulloon
was pushing the PAL to start a radio club, Komp too had pitched a similar idea to the Red
Cross. His plan called for the creation of a Queens amateur radio club, run in conjunction
with the Red Cross of Greater New York in Manhattan.
Komp envisioned that while the organization
would serve recreational purposes, the members could also engage in community services and
aid communications in times of local emergencies. Red Cross officials were extremely
supportive of Komps plan.
A short while after Mulloon and Komp met, a
constitution for the American Red Cross Emergency Radio Club, Central Queens Chapter was
drafted and adopted and 18 members soon joined its ranks.
"Whats the probability of that
happening," said George Sau, the current president of the Queens Radio Club,
whos been with the organization for 35 years. "They both had the same idea and
they both conversed."
About 15 years ago, leaders of the club
began a series of classes teaching ham radio in an attempt to recruit more members and,
although their purpose remains the same, the clubs membership has swelled to its
current 67 volunteers.
"The members are primarily from
Queens, they have their roots in Queens at one time or another," said Sau, who now
lives in Long Island, but originally hails from Jamaica.
While hams in the Queens
Radio Club primarily classify amateur radio as a hobby, thats not to say it does not
have a serious face.
In the 36 years they have been in existence
they have assisted in countless local, national and international emergency efforts when
regular communication channels have failed.
Chwat, standing by his ham radio.
"Ham radio is a hobby but
its not really a hobby because the federal government is giving you a license so
that in case of an emergency, they will have a core of people who will be able to help
out," said Chwat, a member of the Queens Radio Club since 1984.
According to William Cross of the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC), the public service aspect of ham radio predates the
regulation of radiowhich began in the early part of the 20th century.
"We provide for the Red Cross an
in-house communication infrastructure that they can use in a time of emergency and a time
of disaster," said Sau.
The New York City blackout of 1965, the
U.S. Air disaster at LaGuardia in 1992 and the World Trade Center Bombing in 1993, are
just a few of the events the Queens Radio Club has participated in. Theyve also
aided in the communications of numerous agencies during several natural disasters over the
During local emergencies, the radio club
forms an emergency net, which in turn lends its services to the local
authoritiesaiding in correspondences in order to maximize the allocation of
Yet the Queens Radio Club has also rendered
its services in international crises, most often natural disasters when ravaged countries
can only communicate through wireless radio because all other systems have been destroyed.
"On an international level a lot of
countries, especially in the Caribbean, dont enjoy such a protective infrastructure
of communications as we do. So when a hurricane hits, everything goes," said the
50-year-old Sau, who works for Bell Atlantic.
"In connection with the Red Cross, we
coordinate a lot of the logistics in finding out the well being of individuals down there
and more importantly, what kind of resources, supplies and medicine is needed," Sau
For instance, during Hurricane Hugo, a
Queens ham coordinated an emergency shipment of insulin to a Caribbean island.
"I got into an emergency net with hams
in Trinidad and Jamaica during Hurricane Gilbert," said Chwat, referring to the storm
that ripped through the island of Jamaica in 1988, knocking out the countrys phone
According to Chwat, during the storm the
Jamaican prime minister, on vacation in Trinidad, got in touch with a nearby radio
"The ham in Trinidad tells me, and I
almost dropped dead so to speak, I have the prime minister of Jamaica next to me
here and we got to have something resolved," said Chwat, a retired U.S. foreign
Requesting information regarding when
emergency planes would arrive, and with what supplies they would bring, Chwat acted as a
link between the prime minister and the United Nations, who were already organizing a
The Queens Radio Club also engages in what
they refer to as "health and welfare" services, in which they aid locals in
their search for loved ones caught in remote disasters. Chwat, whos partaken in many
health and welfare searches, said the job is exhilarating but can also take an emotional
"During a hurricane there was a ham
who said he was on the top floor of a hotel and was looking at the sky because the roof
just blew off," he said. "He said hed keep talking as long as he could,
which he did. Then he said, and Ill never forget this, and furthermore as far
as Im concerned (silence)."
After the ham was cut off mid-sentence,
Chwat deduces that either he was injured or his equipment was destroyed.
For many the term
"ham" is associated just as much to amateur radio as it is to pigs or an
overacting performer, yet few know how the word came about.
"Theres a number of explanations
that have been used," said Bellerose resident and Queens Radio Club ham of 33 years
Larry Lutzak. "There are several stories."
Although several stories exist regarding
how the word ham came to describe one who operates an amateur radio, one of
the more widely accepted stories maintains that the word was first applied in the early
According to the story Albert Hymen, Bob
Almy and Peggie Murray, three members of the Harvard Radio Club, operated one of the first
amateur wireless stations that they referred to as HymenAlmyMurray.
For the sake of brevity, the three
shortened their stations call letters to, Hy-Al-Muin the early and unregulated
days of radio, amateur operators picked their own frequencies and call letters, which are
now controlled by the FCC.
In 1909 confusion between the signals of
Hy-Al-Mu and a Mexican ship named Myalmo, convinced the group to use only the first letter
of each name, thus identifying their station as HAM.
With the passing of the Radio Act by
Congress, licensing fees and other requirements threatened the existence of many amateur
stations. Hymen chose the controversial bill as the topic of his thesis, and sent a copy
to Senator David Walsh.
Impressed with Hymens work, Walsh
invited him to speak before the committee on how the bill affected amateur radio.
Hymens testimony opened up the debate between commercial and amateur stations, and
once the bill reached the congressional floor, speakers often mentioned Hymens
little station HAM.
Since then the term ham has come to
encompass all those participating in amateur radio.
The licensing of all radio
operators started with the Radio Act of 1912. "Prior to that it had been a
free-for-all," said Cross.
According to Cross, those wishing to be
hams must take tests for three levels: technician (beginner), general (intermediate) or
extra (advanced). The tests, which vary in difficulty depending on class, cover a range of
topics including basic regulations, operating practices and electronics theories.
Depending on rank, a ham is allowed access
to certain frequenciesextras are authorized to operate on all frequencies allocated
to the amateur service.
Jennifer Hagy, spokeswoman for the Amateur
Radio Relay League (ARRL), recommends that anyone wishing to become licensed, contact the
ARRL at 1-800-32-NEWHAM. Callers will receive a booklet on amateur radio, a list of clubs
in their area and local FCC test sessions.
Once certified, a ham can purchase a radio for as cheap as
$250 or as much as $6,000.