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HAM RADIO JUNKIES KEEP SHARP FOR EMERGENCY.

Byline: SUE DOYLE Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA -- Ham radios began as a hobby for Norm Dlugatch 46 years ago.

He was 14 when he first put the headphones on and dialed in to other radio operators around the world, an interest that stayed with him intermittently through the years.

But that all changed in 1994 when the Northridge Earthquake, like a grand mal tectonic seizure, rattled the Southland and destroyed lives, freeway structures and homes.

With power out, phone lines down and city hall in shambles, it was local ham radio operators who connected Santa Clarita with the outside world again.

That experience thrust the now 60-year-old Dlugatch back into the world of amateur radios with a vengeance. ``It was pretty scary not having any communications, water or anything,'' he said, recalling the magnitude 6.7 earthquake.

With a ham radio set before him on Saturday, Dlugatch sat at a long folding table with friend Mike Davis and logged in the locations of other operators they were reaching.

The pair, and others in the Santa Clarita Amateur Radio Club, were participating in a nationwide 24-hour emergency communications test and contest, sponsored by Amateur Radio Relay League, a Connecticut-based nonprofit membership association for ham radio operators.

Starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, the club members connected to places like Arizona, Utah and Alaska, where they said their hellos, chatted briefly about the weather and then quickly turned the dial to find someone new.

For the contest, members were competing with other clubs to contact the most operators across the mountains and prairies in 24 hours. Although there are no shiny Cadillacs or cold, hard cash offerings for winners, the incentive is the top-dog recognition among other amateur radio operators.

Members went to work underneath red tents set up on top of Castaic Lake Water Agency. While the activity was all in good fun, it was also an exercise in setting up camp when disaster strikes.

For many involved in the club, the Northridge Earthquake was a turning point in their lives.

When it hit, 63-year-old Ron Rollins recalled the team of amateur operators tapping into the world from outside City Hall. He was there passing out water to devastated residents and quickly joined the club.

Jim Osment was one of the radio operators outside City Hall that day 12 years ago. The club had created an emergency radio station that ran off generators and batteries in the parking lot of the condemned government building. With cell phones and traditional lines down, the amateur radios were the only communication available.

``When a community is on its knees, there could be no way it could operate without an amateur operator,'' the 69-year-old said.

Emergency preparedness stays on the minds of all members. Davis, 56, for example, has a 7,000-watt generator at home and extra battery power in case crisis strikes.

Steve Das keeps his RV stocked at all times with 75 gallons of water, propane and diesel fuel, so he can jump right in when an emergency hits.

A ham radio antenna sticks to the side of the vehicle, and he reaches out to others through his radio while on the road.

``People don't realize until disaster strikes just how important these things are,'' he said.

sue.doyle(at)dailynews.com

(661) 257-5254

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4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Using a ham radio, Ron Rollins, above, listens for a response Saturday when the Santa Clarita Amateur Radio Club plugged into a 24-hour nationwide emergency communications contest. At right, Lauren Grokett, 18, uses a telegraph to make contact in Saugus on Saturday morning.

(3 -- 4) At top, Norm Dlugatch of Canyon Country and Mike Davis of Studio City listen for a transmission over their amateur radio with the Santa Clarita Amateur Radio Club. Right, Ron Collins of Saugus adjusts the tuning on his radio.

Alex Collins/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 25, 2006
Words:649
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