Pittsburgh amateur radio group celebrates 80 years

Bob Mente, a member of the Steel City Amateur Radio Club and an emergency coordinator for Allegheny County, connects to his radio at the station in Carnegie, Pa. Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — After eight decades of providing emergency backup communications on a volunteer basis during some of this region’s worst storms and disasters, members of the Steel City Amateur Radio Club hit the airwaves earlier this month to sing their own praises.

The club of about 60 members hosted a special event station each day at their clubhouse in Collier, Pa. They spent the week taking turns sending messages to other amateur radio operators around the world, sharing the news of their 80-year anniversary.

“Our club is capable of providing emergency communication services to the community if the need arises,” said Bob Mente, 56, emergency coordinator for Allegheny County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. “We have state of the art radios and antennas at our clubhouse and have a backup generator to provide power if the main electrical grid goes down.”

The Steel City Amateur Radio Club is an official relay station for Allegheny County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Its partner agencies are the Pittsburgh Red Cross and the National Weather Service office in Moon.

Amateur radio — also known as ham radio — is a hobby that brings people, electronics and communications together. People use ham radios to talk across town, around the world, or even in space, without using the Internet or cellphones.

While these amateur radio operators are hobbyists, they provide extremely important communications, especially during and after emergencies. Most recently, Steel City operators played a role in transmitting messages that helped weather officials during a severe storm a couple of weeks ago, which included at least one tornado that hit Allegheny County.

John Jennings, 66, of Green Tree, Pa., got involved in that weather emergency when he heard mobile ham radio operators report flooding near Banksville Road and near the Galleria shopping center in Mt. Lebanon.

“I contacted the National Weather Service in Moon Township by telephone and reported that information,” Jennings said. “They track storm damage to measure the intensity of the storms.”

Club member Joe Fenn proudly remembers making his biggest contribution to public safety in 1977 when Johnstown experienced a severe flood.

“The local Red Cross woke me out of a sound sleep to help get in touch with someone in Johnstown that they were not able to reach,” he said. “Communications were down and we had no idea how bad things were.

“I put a message out over the radio and hams came out of the woodwork helping to get food and supplies to the right places. I was even relaying medical information between patients and doctors. That was very rewarding.”

For his role in that emergency effort, Fenn received a certificate from the Red Cross and Conemaugh Valley amateur radio operators.

Karl Pastorak, 69, took up the hobby at age 13. He lived near the Steel City Amateur Radio Club’s W3KWH clubhouse in Collier.

“I saw the antennas, but I didn’t know what was going on in the building,” Pastorak said. “I got curious and knocked on the door. They let me in and I never left.”

Club members celebrated the 80-year anniversary of the group by sending radio messages to other amateur radio operators about their milestone, and inviting them to visit the club’s website to read more about its history.

“It takes one person to start a chain of events to make a difference in our communities,” Mente said. “My motivation for getting my amateur radio license is to help make a difference in my community and make friends around the world.”

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