ARRL

Florida Scouts Make (Radio) Waves

Karen Anderson, KK4ENM


Whether having fun camping or engaged in a serious SAR operation, Troop 721 is ham radio ready.


How it All Started

Late one night back in the ’70s, an 8 year old boy living in a small town in south Mississippi sat in his bed hiding under the covers listening to an old transistor radio that his great-grandmother had given to him. While tuning between stations he picked up a program that was being broadcast from Cuba. It was the first time he had heard a foreign accent. That experience played in the back of his mind for the rest of his life, surfacing now and again as a passing interest in CB radios, police scanners, and shortwave receivers until he was in his forties.

In 2010, that little boy formed Troop 721 of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. It was a high adventure troop that took monthly scouting adventures backpacking, canoeing and kayaking the remote areas of South Florida. One of the concerns the adult leadership had with these outings to remote areas, was the lack of cell phone coverage in the event of an emergency. To solve this dilemma, Scoutmaster Chris Anderson, KK4ENJ, finally turned his lifelong radio interest into a serious hobby and earned his Technician class license, along with the rest of his family.

Two months later he took his gear camping with the troop and introduced them to Amateur Radio by allowing the boys to talk to another radio operator in England using EchoLink, a software application which connects repeaters throughout the world by the Internet. (Repeaters are receiver/transmitter pairs that operate on coordinated frequencies and are typically installed at a commercial facility that permits high-gain, omnidirectional antennas mounted at heights not usually feasible or legally possible at a residence.)

The boys were hooked and started talking about getting their licenses. “I thought it was really cool that you could talk to anyone in the world who has a radio and a license” said First Class Scout Thomas Wilson, KK4HPC. For some of the adult leaders, it had also been a lifelong interest, as Assistant Scoutmaster Mike Wilson, KK4HPB, said, “It’s something that I always wanted to learn but never had the resources.” For others, it is another hobby that they can participate in with their sons.

A Growing Group

In March of 2012, eight kids and eight adults enrolled in a class sponsored by the Jupiter Tequesta Radio Group (JTRG) and earned their Technician class licenses. JTRG holds three class sessions per year two Technician and one General. Since 2001, they have helped 425 individuals pass their Technician license exam. The most exciting aspect of these classes is when young hams can be brought into the hobby. “The introduction of Amateur Radio to the young men of Troop 721 has been the largest presence of youth in any of our classes. In addition to having an interest in Amateur Radio, they had a genuine need to communicate. No surprise, but where there’s a need, there’s usually a will and we presented the way,” commented JTRG President Kevin Jackson, W4JKJ.

At the same time, the scoutmaster upgraded his license to General class, trying to keep a step ahead of the kids to better help and train them. They quickly familiarized themselves with the radios, talking to each other and participating in the club’s ragchew nets, holding special meetings, and building their own antennas. By May, four boys and three more adults had upgraded their license to General class. The boys even took their radios with them to summer camp in Tennessee, where they learned just how much more reliable the radios could be than cell phones in some situations.

The camp was in the Tennessee mountains, which made the cell phone coverage spotty. However, the scouts were able to talk to Mr Anderson, who was in Florida, with their 2 meter handhelds through a local EchoLink repeater with no problems. “The ability to communicate when out in the woods or when the troop is split into two groups” is what Assistant Scoutmaster Hal Avallone, KK4HPJ, enjoys most about the hobby.

This point was well proven on the troop’s camping trip in February 2013 when the troop split into two groups. The trip had originally been planned as a backpacking trip, but after completing a 20 mile hike in January, several of the boys decided they just wanted to “car camp.” The rest of the group still wanted to backpack. Both the adult and senior leadership decided it was not a problem. One group completed a 10 mile hiking trip while staying in touch with the rest of the troop in base camp using their handheld radios operating on simplex. Incoming Scoutmaster Ron Totz commented on the idea, “It definitely gives us the ability to work with both groups of scouts, the high adventure group and those who wish to just go and camp for the weekend.”

Now that the boys have some experience operating the radios, they are looking to set a direction for the troop. They have permission from JTRG to use the repeater and run their own weekly ragchew net. By using a repeater, communications are supported over greater distances than normally possible for the same frequency.

Even with all of these activities, the boy’s long-term plans are much more community service oriented. The boys have been approached to provide communications for some local events such as a Christmas parade, marathon races, and a trail rider’s club horseback competition. In August, Troop 721 had the opportunity to put their communications training and licensing to practical use when JTRG participated in a field event called, the International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend (ILLW). Portable transceivers and temporary high frequency antennas were erected on-sight at the Jupiter Lighthouse to provide international communications to hams everywhere as they reached out to lighthouses around the globe.

Both JTRG and the troop worked together again in October 2012 for the Boy Scout Jamboree on the Air (JOTA) as part of the troop’s recruiting plan. JOTA is a worldwide event where scouts get on the air and contact each other through Amateur Radio. Unlike the typical ham radio competitions, where contacts are made, recorded, and you move on to the next contact; the scouts are encouraged to actually talk to the other scouts.

JTRG helped the troop by setting up operating stations and antennas for use during the 2 day weekend event. With the help from the club, the boys were able to make contacts with scouts in Australia and Japan as well as many domestic contacts including the Boy Scouts of America headquarters. They also mentored the scouts on site preparation and educated them on the principles of antenna construction by building working antennas that the boys could take home. The event was a success for both groups and they are currently putting plans in place for JOTA 2014.

Looking Ahead

In July 2012, the troop participated in a Palm Beach County Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES®) exercise, “Operation Hard Luck II.” They got to see how different agencies would work together after a natural disaster and were allowed to discuss different scenarios presented by the training program, all of this reinforcing and expanding their emergency preparedness merit badge training.

As a result of participation in this exercise, the troop now has nine ARES members, as well as 18 SKYWARN trained operators who assist the National Weather Service by reporting severe weather events happening in their neighborhoods. These boys are all discussing the possibility of forming a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). “The ability to communicate and help conduct search and rescue” is how Scout Tyler Callaghan, KK4MAT, sees the troop using their skills in the future. In May he got his chance to experience public service communications when he and several other boys and leaders from the troop volunteered to help several local CERT teams conduct a search and rescue training session by providing mobile radio communications.

As the troop moves forward, it will investigate how to turn these ideas into reality. The scouts are realizing that there are many factors to be taken into consideration, such as, who should be eligible to participate or what criteria, if any, should be established. Eagle Scout William Anderson, KK4ENL, states, “There is a certain maturity level that is needed to do some of these things, so I think scouts should be at least first class or higher to be even considered for the amateur licensing.” The troop is planning on earning the Search and Rescue Merit Badge during the 2013-2014 scouting year, if not sooner.

The boys are also evaluating equipment needs. Two radios have already been donated to the troop but they still need antennas and power systems, and they would like to have a good HF radio. Star Scout Mason Turner is currently learning how to hook up solar panels to battery packs so that the troop’s trailer can be used for mobile communications if an emergency should arise. These solar panels would allow the boys to recharge battery systems as well as power the lights inside the trailer while it’s parked in camp. “We should have everything we need in the trailer. I believe we should be able to pull up to a location and set up camp wherever we can park the trailer.”

The boys are planning to build what they are calling “go boxes.” These are battery systems that will supply power for the radio equipment in locations where standard power is not available. Construction of these boxes involves the boys learning how to solder, and understand basic electronics and power management.

The boys are learning budgetary constraints and priorities as well. Because the troop is only 3 years old, they are still in the process of fundraising for essential gear such as field kitchens, dining flies, lanterns, and other items necessary for a troop to function. While they are waiting for that to happen, they continue to use their 5 W handheld transceivers.

For Troop 721, ham radio has opened up not only new windows to the many different people in the world but also new opportunities to support their communities.


Karen Anderson, KK4ENM, is a middle school medical science and reading teacher and has been an assistant scoutmaster for about 10 years. In addition to teaching and scouting she runs Life’s Pilgrims, an adventure blog website with her husband. Karen became involved with ham radio together with her husband and two sons when they all earned their Technician’s class licenses 2 years ago. A year later she moved up to General. Karen is a SKYWARN operator and volunteer with the local ARES® groups. She is a member of the Jupiter Tequesta Repeater Group and the Jupiter Lighthouse Radio Group. You can contact Karen at karen@lifespilgrims.com.