When disaster strikes in Waupaca County, among the many professionals and volunteers who respond are members of the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES).
ARES members are amateur radio operators ("hams") who work with the county's Emergency Management office and provide storm spotting reports to the National Weather Service in Green Bay.
ARES members also provide communications for the Waupaca Triathlon and weather spotting for the Iola Old Car Show. They have emergency stations set up at the Waupaca County Red Cross and at the courthouse. Ham radio antennas and operating stations are also located at Riverside Medical Center and the Wisconsin Veterans Home.
"If the infrastructure goes down in a storm, we're able to come in with our equipment and keep communications open," according to ARES member Scott Zastoupil of Waupaca. "We pass messages on as part of the regular routine of our hobby. It's a natural fit."
David Chroninger, an ARES member from Iola, noted that even with the wide array of communication devices currently available, storms or other natural disasters can result in the loss of cellphone towers, telephone wires and Internet access.
"When everything else goes down, our equipment still works," Chroninger said.
Amateur radio operators were called upon after Hurricane Katrina and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Zastoupil and Zastoupil were among the local ARES members who participated in a 24-hour national Field Day exercise this weekend. The drill ran from Friday evening to Saturday evening, June 22-23, and involved more that 30,000 amateur radio operators nationwide.
The hams took their radio equipment out of their homes and set up temporary stations in fields, parks and parking lots. The goal is to test their ability to communicate without having a standard power source, under adverse conditions.
Waupaca County ARES set up a station in a camper beside the tower at the Iola Old Car Show.
Chroninger climbed the tower to install ARES' 120-foot antenna, which ran at an angle from the top of the tower to the ground.
Zastoupil made his first contact Saturday with a group out of Arlington, Va. The messages were crystal clear.
For Zastoupil, amateur radio was a teen hobby that influenced his choice of a professional career.
"I got involved when I was a freshman in high school," Zastoupil said. "My parents had a short wave radio that I listened to. Then I heard about a ham radio club."
Zastoupil said the adults in the club taught him basic electronics, Morse code and helped him build his own equipment.
He remembers building his first radio and speaking to the cosmonauts aboard the Russian space station when he was 14.
"There were a couple of people in the club who pushed me to pursue an engineering degree," Zastoupil said. "If it wasn't for ham radio, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today."
He estimates that half his college costs were funded from ham radio scholarships. Today, Zastoupil is an electrical engineer for Plexus Corp. in Appleton.
Chroninger, who began putting together radios when he was young, said the older model radios were easier to work with because "they had wires and tubes and you could see what you were doing."
Chroninger sees ham radio as the pioneer in social networking.
"Ham radio is a tight-knit community and they are great people to talk to," Chroninger said.
Both men see amateur radio as a way to provide an essential community service when it is needed and as a way to meet people who share their interest in technology and communications.
Those who are interested in learning more about amateur radio may contact Zastoupil at 715-256-2849 or at email@example.com. Go to www.waupacacountyares.org to learn more about ARES.
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