Sunday, August 6, 1989
By Connie Shultz Gard
At 11:41 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1988, a massive earthquake lasting roughly two minutes ravaged the Soviet republic of Armenia, leaving more than 25,000 people dead and 100,000 injured. At least 500,000 people were said to be homeless, and medical supplies and hospital fasilities fell far short of the need.
Entire blocks of apartment buildings had collapsed, and everywhere could be heard the haunting, ghostlike moans of those trapped in the rubble. Leninakan, Armenia's second-largest city, was 80% destroyed, as were the two midsize cities of Kirovakan and Stepanavan. One town, Spitak (population 16,000) was wiped out entirely.
Armenia's telephone lines were down, rendering traditional communications impossible and bringing anguish to the 700,000 Armenians living in this country, 2,000 of them in Cleveland, who were unable to learn the status of relatives and friends. But soon they found help from people many of them never knew existed - amateur radio operators.
A small group of volunteers, comprised of members from Cleveland ham radio clubs, established a national communications network here to help Armenians in Cleveland, the country and the world obtain information about their loved ones in Armenia. This emergensy communications effort was a monumental development in international radio technology and a breakthrough in U.S.-Soviet relations. It came about because one man, David Speltz of Shaker Heights, had an idea. Speltz, 43, an international health-care specialist, had only recently returned from a trip to Australia, where he had discussed new uses for computers with a radio expert. Speltz is a veteran ham radio operator adept at using sophisticated radio equipment. He had been experimenting with packet radios, which are similar to cellular radios and have tremendous transmitting capabilities. What would happen, he wondered, if packet radios were interfaced with another sophisticated computerized radio system -AMTOR-which is used only in emergency situations?
AMTOR differs from simpler forms of ham radio communicationin that a computer hookup, complete with a screen monitor, is required. Invented 10 years ago by Paul Martinez of Great Britain, it only recently gained popularity as a communications sistem for emergency relief efforts, as computers themselves have become more available, according of Speltz Methods of computer communication have become standardized thus making AMTOR appealing to ham radio operators worldwide.
AMTOR's chief advantage is that information is typed and transmitted, rather than spoken. This system is crucial in emergencies because it is faster, thus saving precious time. It prints out correct spellings of names and therefore saves operators the laborious - and often exasperating - task of repeating, letter by letter, spellings of names over crackling airwaves. Since radio operators during the Armenian crisis mainly wanted to find out the status of individuals, the value of the AMTOR system was incalculable.
Combining the two systems, says Speltz, would create the most technologically advanced ham radio communications in the world. Packet radio, while incredibly quick, is very sensitive and therefore vulnerable to outside interference. AMTOR, he says, would make packet radio " bulletproof." It had never been attempted, though.
"As soon as I heard about the earthquake, I began to consider the communication possibilities," says Speltz. "I remember thinking, `This is incredible. Here is a chance to try the system and in the process help hundreds of Armenians in this country get information about relatives over there.'"
Speltz began contacting organizations, including the Red Cross and Salvation Army, to see who would be interested in setting up the system. While many were interested, too much time was required to get the system operational. He then thought of the International Amateur Radio Network, a ham radio umbrella organization for 45 countries. When he called its national coordinator, Glen Baxter of Belgrad Lakes, Maine, the idea was met with enthusiasm. " Let's do it," said Baxter.
Speltz set up and headed the Cleveland Amateur Radio Committee for Armenian Relief. The committiee's goal was to organize a national ham radio communications center to assist Armenians in the United States and around the world in obtaining information about relatives and friends. Speltz contacted area radio clubs to mobilize the dozens of ham radio operators needed to establish the center, which would be headquartered at Cleveland Veterans Hospital.
The VA center has maintained its own ham radio operations for patients since 1964, and is where the Guyahoga Amateur Radio Society meets. CARS members, it was decided, would operate the Armenian relief communications center, which was stocked with thousands of dollars worth of state-of-the-art equipment loaned by Kevin K. Braunschweiger, manager of Amateur Electronic Supply in Wickliffe.
Members of another radio club, Heights East Repeater Organization, offered their time to train volunteer operators on the AMTOR equipment. It was, says Speltz, an amazing sight at the VA center."There were piles and piles of equipment. We were training people, and at the same time hundreds of names began pouring in from all over the country as word got out what we were doing."
Louis Bloch, 71, of University Heights, another veteran ham radio operator, did publicity. When it was clear the communications center would work, he telephoned George Asadorian, an area businessman who headed local relief efforts. Asadorian is chairman of the Cleveland chapter of the Armenian National Committee.
We know many are trying to find out about relatives in Armenia, Bloch told Asadorian. " We can help."
Asadorian laughs as he recounts this conversation. "You know, I knew practically nothing about ham radio operators. I didn't even know these groups existed, and amid all the efforts we were undertaking, suddenly these guys appeared and offered assistance. It was wonderful."
Essentially, the process worked like this:
Armenian churches organizations across the country received names of relatives, the whereabouts and safety of whom were as yet unknown, and then provided the names to ham radio operators. The hams then transmitted the names to Speltz's station in Shaker Heights, which would send them to the VA center, or to the VA center directly. Because weather interference at the time made it impossible to transmit the names directly to the Soviet Union, they were transmitted digitally (by computer) to ham operators in Plymouth, England, which served as a relay station.
Because no operators in the Soviet Union had AMTOR capabilities, the names then were broadcast verbally from Plymouth. "This was the most difficult of the steps," says Speltz, "because the names were impossible to pronounce and took forever to spell. But it was the only way to communicate with the Soviets."
As word came in about survivors, the process was repeated in reverse, thus providing the information to relatives in the United States. It was, says Asadorian, a vital service. "The ham radio operators were able to give aid to families who were wringing their hands trying to find out about loved ones. Cleveland quite literrally became the communications center for the country."
At the time this was taking place in Cleveland, Speltz found himself faced with another challenge. Glen Baxter had another idea. The Soviet Union and Armenian-Americans oaganizations had requested a direct AMTOR ham radio link between the Soviet Union and the United States to transmit information on survivors. Baxter had one question for Speltz:
Would he go to the Soviet Union to establish this link?
Speltz could not go, but he and Baxter found two men who would. Charles Sheffer, 57, a Cleveland native now living in Apalachicola, Fla., and AL Vayhinger, 66, of Connersville, Ind., volunteered to fly to the Soviet Union at Soviet expense with more than $10,000 worth of computerized radio equipment donated by manufacturers.
Sheffer, a former Air Force communications specialist, and Vayhinger, a former Indiana State Police communications officer, were uniquely qualified to make the trip, having worked in radio communications most of their adult lives. But they needed intense, immediate training on AMTOR before they could leave. Did Speltz know anyone who could help out? The search was on, and time was of the essence.
Shaker Heights resident Fred R. Sharp heard of Speltz's dilemma through a friend and fellow ham radio operator. Sharp, 67, a ham operator since age 14, owns some of the most sophisticated equipment in the area. He can do everything from receive weather pictures from a Soviet satellite to send his own pictures within seconds to any ham operator with similar equipment around the world. He also has designed and marketed ham radio equipment.
Did Sharp, his friend asked, know anyone who could take in the two volunteers and train them?
Did he! "It was a very exciting time," says Sharp, a recently retired manufacturer's representative. "The United States had never been able to do this (send over volunteer operators) before, and I think we all had a sense of history being made." He would love to play host to the men, he said. There was only one problem: Sharp did not know the AMTOR system.
Speltz was undeterred. Accepting Sharp's offer, he then set out to find someone in the area who could come to Sharp's home to train the men on AMTOR.
He found his expert in Ken Akasofu, a Case Western Reserve University student from Fairbanks, Alaska, who was a member of the Case Amateur Radio Club. "He was a ham radio genius and a terrific teacher," says Sharp. "And, like all of us, he was very excited to be a part of history."
While the men were being trained, yet another ham radio club became involved as members of the Lake Erie Amateur Radio Association made neseccary modifications of the donated radio equipment.
On Dec. 13, Sheffer and Vayhinger arrived in Cleveland for four days of training on the AMTOR communications system. Sharp, too, became a student as Akasofu patiently taught, and by the end of the training, Sharp was too excited to sleep. "I'd contributed in disasters before, but never had I been involved in such a dramatic situation. These guys had lived and trained here. They were upstairs sound asleep because they had to leave for Moscow in the morning, but I stayed up all night. I was so high from the experience."
The following morning, Dec. 16, Speltz drove the men to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, and from there they flew to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The next day, they boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, taking with them the donated radio equipment and a place in history, as their journey marked a breakthrough in cooperation between the two superpowers.
Eight hours later they arrived in Moscow, where they were met at the airport by Soviet officials and representatives of the country's amateur radio community. The officils rushed them through customs and then whisked them to their hotel, where they were provided with a car, driver and interpreter.
Anxiously they waited for the chance to begin setting up the AMTOR link, but it was not to be. Three days after they arrived they were told that, unless they left that day, they would wait nearly a year before seats would be available on an Aeroflot flight home. Crestffallen, they departed, leaving the radio equipment behind.
Later, Sheffer was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that Moscow's priorities had shifted by the time he and Vayhinger had arrived. "They told us they had rescuers falling all over each other down there. Their hams are perfectly capable of knowing how to use the equipment. We had all the instructions."
Sheffer now says, though, that he wasn't as dissapointed as others might think. "I never had any illusions that I'd do anything except show the American flag, represent U.S. hams in extending a helping hand, and offer the 15 crates of equipment we'd brought with us. We accomplished that, and I was grateful."
In January, Sheffer returned to the Soviet Union, once again at its invitation with all expenses paid, and stayed for 11 days. "The `emergency' was over," says Sheffer, "but the Soviets were in desperate need of ham radio operations because so much had been wiped out by the earthquake. They had shipped hundreds of thousands of people out of the earthquake area, but then had no way of locating all of them again. Relatives were desperate to find one another."
So Sheffer not only set up the AMTOR equipment he and Vayhinger brought over on thier first trip, but he also helped establish the internal ham radio communications necessarry to begin the painstaiking process of reuniting separated families and providing informaton about survivors. "By linking our equipment with their computer, we were able to get the search operation, what they called Poisk, working."
By the time Sheffer left, not only was the search operation well under way, but the Soviet government had awarded its ham radio operators the coveted license authorizing them to communicate with their U.S. counterparts. As he boarded Aeroflot for the last time, he carried with him a written agreement between Soviet and American ham radio operators promising continued radio communications, as well as a letter signed by 15 Soviet hams thanking him and Vayhinger for their efforts.
Since that time, says Sheffer, ham radio communications between the two countries have changed significantly. "It's no longer just exchanging names and locations. Now we talk, compare and complain," he says, laughing. "They are very outspoken about their fellings, and some of them are pretty negative."
Area ham radio operators differ as to just how much of a breakthrough has taken place in Soviet-U.S. radio communications. Some, like Sharp, say they've been talking to Soviet hams for years.
Ham radio operators seem almost like a cult to those of us who consider a radio something to be sung along to in the shower.
For starters, they have their own language. They talk in terms of phone patches, bencher paddles, transceivers and wattmeters. Instead of names, each has a call number.Even though no one seems to know how the tradition came about, they sign off with a "73" rather than a goodbye.
As often as not, they can be found in a tiny corner of a third floor in their basement, huddled over radio equipment, and while the uninitiated strains to make sense of the fuzzy, warped sounds traveling over the airwaves, the seasoned operator will have completed an entire discussion on grandchildren with someone in Switzerland.
Don't stereotype them, though, warns Kevin K. Braunschweiger, manager of Amateur Electronic Supply in Wickliffe. They aren't all old men in retirement. A lot of them, in fact, are teen-agers-a recent development due in part to the computer revolution."Ham radios can interface with computers, which really appeals to kids," says Braunschweiger, who got hooked on ham radios at age 6 when he went to his uncle's home and began talking to someone in Sweden.
Homemakers, doctors, engineers-ham radio operators are as diverse as the population. Some participate because they like to talk. Others, like David Speltz of Shaker Heights, have an almost reverent approach to the hobby. "It's a privilege to be a radio operator," he says. "Zillions of dollars worth of technology is at our disposal, and we have an obligation to perform community service as well as have fun." Such services, he says, include emergency relief efforts, training others and helping to further radio technology.
The description "amateur," in fact, is a misnomer in many instances. About the only thing amateur about many ham radio operators is that they don't get paid. Speltz has met some of the best and the brightest operators in the last three decades. "You meet engineers, electricians and business executives who are tops in their fields and also happen to be ham radio operators ,"he says.
Ham radios are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. An operator's license is required for each of five categories-Novice, Technician, General, Advanced, Extra-which essentially are based on the applicant's Morse code proficiency and knowledge of radio theory.
Examination fees are minimal, while the licenses are free and are good for 10 years. Fred R. Sharp is standing in his Shaker Heights basement. Dozens of gadgets emit bleeps and blurps as he struggles to explain why, as a teen-ager, he first became interested in anateur radio, and how, after all these years, it still holds such appeal.
"You have to be a romanticist, you have to be able to see the beauty in it all," he says. "Most 14-year-old boys see a professional ballplayer and fall in love with the game. I fell in love with a radio tube."
Used radio kits cost $300 to $400, but equipment quickly can add up into the thousands of dollars. The possibilities, says Braunschweiger, are endless.
Simple operations still exist, though, and provide lifesaving assistance. No one knows this better, perhaps, than Louis Bloch.
Bloch is a feisty, friendly man who logs several hours a day on his simple ham radio in a small, overcrowded room in his University Heights home. A ham radio operator since 1935, he has been heavily involved in emergency relief, and says the humanitarian efforts of fellow operators are phenomenal.
"Whenever there's a natural catastrophe, like an earthquake or hurricane, telephone lines are the first thing to go," he says. "Communication is usually wiped out, and that's when we come in and literally save lives."
AS soon as any ham radio operator has knowledge of a disaster, says Bloch, a network of communications kicks in and operators in 45 countries are informed. Bloch has been involved in 15 major emergencies, and he says the most memorable for him-before the Armenian earthquake last Desember-was Hurricane David, which devastated the country of Dominica, a tiny island in the West Indies, in August 1979.
"The entire island was decimated and, for 30 days, only one amateur was there to handle all the communications," says Bloch. "He crawled out from under the wreckage of his home and began radioing for help."
Bloch taped the panicked messages, and as he plays them in his living room his face is knotted in concern, as if he is hearing them for the first time. Over the static garbled voices cry, "We're wiped out," "We need help."
"listen to the desperation in their voices," says Bloch, leaning forward in his seat. "You're talking thousands of people who've lost their homes."
Many people might be surprised to learn that ham radio operators thoughout the world speak English, says Bloch. And daily events around the globe may seem quite unusual to Americans. He laughs as he recounts one recent conversation with a ham in Liberia. "He said, very matter-of-factly, `We had a little accident across the street yesterday.'Then he goes on to tell me that a man was eaten by a crocodile. Little different than what you or I would see across the street from our houses!"
Some operators even get to talk to a celebrity or two. So don't knock it 'till you've tried it, they say, because you never know who'll you'll run into on the airwaves. You might, for example, just want to do what Fred Sharp does on occasion and call up K7UGA and say hi to Barry-Goldwater, that is.