When Roy Bentley wants to talk to his friends in Ohio, he doesn't use the telephone anymore. Instead, he uses his ham radio.
Bentley, secretary of the Brandon Amateur Radio Society, has taken the hobby he got into more than 15 years ago and developed a communication system that enables him to receive and send messages all over the world.
Bentley is among more than 3,000 amateur radio operators in Hillsborough County. In addition to the many hours of shared conversation with fellow operators, amateur radio users say they provide a valuable public service.
This was evident when Hurricane Andrew swept through South Florida and parts of Louisiana, leaving thousands of people without any means of communication. Amateur radio operators responded statewide with a communication chain.
"Amateur radio has gotten a lot of publicity since the Hurricane Andrew disaster," Bentley said. "Since there was no electricity or phone lines, operators supplied the communication between the Red Cross and emergency rescue agencies."
Another way amateur radio operators helped was with radio-grams. Operators were able to notify relatives that their family members were safe and unharmed.
"By contacting an operator in a certain part of the country, messages could be relayed to a family's relatives that they are all right," Bentley said.
In the Tampa Bay area, more than 150 operators, including members of BARS, went to Miami and assisted amateur radio operators by acting as a communication link and by monitoring shelters around the clock.
Bentley said that although all amateur radio operators and clubs provide a community service, it's volunteer work with no compensation.
"It's become part of our lifestyle. We all do it for the love of the hobby," he said.
Brandon residents may have seen BARS members at the March of Dimes WalkAmerica event and the Brandon Fourth of July parade. Operators are needed to keep in constant communication with event organizers through the use of portable units or hand-held radios.
"One year, two kids got lost during the walkathon," Bentley said. "By using our radios, we were able to locate the kids."
Even though the Federal Communications Commission is the governing body for amateur radio operators, it's the operators themselves who make sure users comply with federal regulations. They do so by using a directory of all people licensed, which lists their call letters and the address to whom the station is licensed.
"Amateur radio operators regulate themselves through their call sign," Bentley said. "If an operator is in violation of any rules, such as vulgar words or not signing on or off correctly, other operators can call him up to remind him to follow the regulations."
Amateur radio enthusiasts include men and women of all ages, Bentley said. As an additional community service, BARS offers free classes three times a year at Brandon High School. These classes teach students FCC regulations and how to operate a radio. Students take an examination to obtain their license.
Because new radio equipment can cost $150 to $8,000, BARS tries to teach new operators that they don't necessarily have to buy new rigs.
"We encourage everyone interested in becoming an operator to come to our class, and we'll introduce them to the kind of equipment they'll need," Bentley said.
On Nov. 21 and 22, the Florida Gulf Coast Amateur Radio Council, composed of amateur radio club members, will sponsor a radio equipment exhibition at the Florida State Fairgrounds. The latest in amateur radio technology will be displayed, and tables will be set up for people to buy and sell radios.
"We usually get over 50,000 people attending this event," said Bentley, who described it as "a ham fest."
As for the term "ham," Bentley said, "It's only a slang word to describe us. . . . We're usually viewed as obnoxious when it comes to our equipment. We're just proud of it."
To get in touch
The Brandon Amateur Radio Society meets the second Thursday of the month at the Apostles Lutheran Church in Brandon. The meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. For information, call Roy Bentley at 689-0413.