Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

September 13, 2011

'It’s basically ... helping people in emergencies’

Faith Harper
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — A lifetime interest turned into a lifetime hobby, and now Richard Nielsen is using his skills in amateur radio to potentially save lives in an emergency.

“When I moved here, I decided one of the things I wanted to do was get involved in emergency communication-type operations,” Nielsen said. “In the past, I have been what they call a DXer, or person who tried to talk to people all over the world in other countries, and I still do that. I decided to put more emphasis on this since 9-11 but mainly because I felt like I had so much fun for so many years that I would give back something and not just do it for me.”

Nielsen had been involved minimally in emergency communications work in the 70s as a tornado spotter in Dallas and Rockwall counties, but he didn't get heavily involved until his move to East Texas.

Nielsen, a retired school teacher, grew up in Dallas and lived in Rockwall County with his wife Billie. They had some land in the Jacksonville area and retired a few miles outside of the city in 2005. He is a member of an organization that appoints volunteers to help run communications called the American Radio Relay League (ARRL).

“These are people who do this as a hobby and the ARRL is all about public service,” Ronnie Kimbrough, emergency management coordinator for Cherokee County, said. “It's basically all about community service and helping people in emergencies.”

Nielsen said since 9-11, the ARRL and the federal government have advocated amateur radio operators, also called hams, to work with emergency management coordinators to help in an emergency and form groups called Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES).

“When I got down here to Jacksonville their emergency operations had  fallen apart a little bit because they hadn't had an actual event in long, long time, and the number of amateur radio operators (had decreased),” Nielsen said. “Many moved away and some of them had passed away.”

The Cherokee County Amateur Radio Club had been around for a long time, but it had gotten away from emergency-type operations, he said. They formed an ARES group, and now there are about 20 hams involved.

“We are kind of busy trying to get this new organization trained and also get some experience going through training exercises and just kind of getting it reorganized better than it was,” he said.

Nielsen said they work under the direction of Kimbrough and would help out if they were needed.

Nielsen has two large radio towers installed next his home. He can tilt the antennas in different directions to better send and receive signals. Inside the house, he has a command station with four computers and different transmitters and receivers. He said in an emergency other hams would also transmit messages and information.

He said he first became interested in radio in the fourth or fifth grade while home with measles. He said his doctor would not let him go outside because his eyes could have a reaction to sunlight, so he was tucked away in his dark bedroom for days with a radio as a companion. He said after several days of listening to the radio, he noticed the one he had featured a third knob.

“I decided to reach over there and rotate that knob and it went click, and when it did it switched frequencies from your normal AM broadcast bands where you get your normal local radio, it switched to a short wave frequency, and when I switched it over I started hearing all these weird noises and strange things,” Nielsen said. “I know what they were now. They were teletype and morse code and all this other stuff and I was hearing that on this radio and I was kind of surprised about it all.”

He didn't get a license until he was 14 and in the Boy Scouts. He used money he saved from his paper route to buy some basic equipment. His dad helped him set it all up, and he said he has been on the radio ever since.

His wife, also a retired school teacher, also became a ham, but she said it is mainly to communicate with him.

“I'm not anywhere as active as he is, and he would really like for me to be,” Billie Nielsen said.

The two do not use cell phones. Instead they have radios in their cars to communicate.

“His thinking is that cell phones will go down with a tornado or anything,” she said

All in all, Kimbrough said hams are an important part of emergency communications.

“It's a neat thing and it's all volunteers and they are always there to help,” Kimbrough said. “They are just a fabulous bunch of people.”