A mobile weather spotter, James Cope of Vilonia, was in his vehicle seven miles south of the city on April 25, 2011, when he "had eyes on the tornado" that would soon hit and cause destruction.
"I saw it as it came over I-40," he said. "I reported it to the National Weather Service as I saw it."
Before Cope could make the short drive to his house, however, trees were downed and houses were being destroyed.
Cope believes his reports as well as the reports of other mobile weather spotters, in conjunction with the weather service and media outlets, saved many lives that evening. Relaying weather conditions to the National Weather Service is an important aspect of being a licensed ham radio operator, Cope offered.
Cope was among a group of ham radio operators set up at the Vilonia Fire Department, Saturday, participating in the national American Radio Relay League Field Day. Cope is also a volunteer firefighter with the VFD. Some of the 30 or so participating in the field day was members of the Cabot Small Town Amateur Radio Society (S.T.A.R.S.) for short.
"While we are a small town amateur radio society, our neighborhood is the world," said Jesse Bear, S.T.A.R.S. president. Ham operators, he said, may run "emergency traffic" for disasters nearby or in around the country. At least one local operator, he recalled, provided assistance during Hurricane Katrina.
Ham operators, Bear said, range in age and occupation. Some are students while others are retired, he added. There are also active military and retired military. Some have participated in dispatching around the world.
Shane Lee, secretary in S.T.A.R.S., is also a control operator with the Arkansas SKYWARN Net that operates under the discretion of the National Weather Service. His FCC call sign is KF5FBR.
"Ham operators are always standing by for the call in any emergency situation," Lee explained. It is always the decision of the National Weather Service to activate the ham operators, Lee added.
"When they do, we provide the ground troops with our reports going directly to the weather service," he explained.
Larry Goode, who has been a ham operator for about 18 years, was also taking part in the Field Day. He said he enjoys operating independently rather than being a member of a club.
"Most of the time, I only know the call letters and the first name," he said. A shade of a building was partially shading his location.
He said "I’m a "general class." The highest ranking, he said, is "extra class." During the field day, he said, the intent is to set up as though it is a "live off the land" situation—no power. It is a day, Goode said, to practice emergency response capabilities.
Goode pointed to an antenna attached to a flag pole. Batteries and generators were also powering the ham operator’s equipment allowing them to communicate with other parts of the country.
With his radio tuned in, Richard Zelnick, listened to the voice of another ham operator who identified his location as in California. Zelnick had his two grandsons, Jessee and Matthew at his side. Zelnik’s motor home was also parked nearby with a generator running. Self-described as a newbie to the S.T.A.R.S., Zelnick said he is employed as an electrical engineer who began this hobby about six months ago. Ham operators participating will remain awake monitoring communications and logging, he said, from 1 pm. Saturday to about 1 p.m. Sunday.
"We don’t fall asleep," he added. "If they call for us, we will be here. This is how we know if we are prepared for emergencies. Ham radio operators live for emergencies—we live to provide a community service to others."
Information on becoming a ham operator may be found at www.arrl.org/helloradio-org.