Hutchinson Amateur radio just isn't what it used to be.
In an era where computers and cell phones provide instant communication to all parts of the world, the necessity of obtaining an amateur radio license from the Federal Communications Commission might not seem as important as it once was.
Yet some would say it's more important than ever.
"This is not your grandfather's amateur radio," said Allen Pitts, media and public relations manager with the American Radio Relay League.
The FCC lists 7,024 licensed amateur radio operators in Kansas, said Ron Cowan, the state section manager for the American Radio Relay League.
Each of those hams - "ham" being an old nickname for amateur radio operators with various suggested origins - has taken at least one if not a series of tests, quizzing them on knowledge from electronic theory to safety issues.
Once licensed, a ham receives a call sign of numbers and letters designating their license class and the geographical region where they live. That license gives hams the legal ability to operate on public airwaves within a set of parameters - the understanding that communications will be polite, helpful and organized, and not for commercial use.
"It's still very much regulated by the FCC, and we still try to be self-policing," Cowan said. "It's just like you can't get in a car and go because you're on public streets."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has recognized the importance of encouraging amateur radio operators to respond to emergencies, especially those aligned with Citizen Corps programs such as the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), as well as other emergency organizations like the American Red Cross.
"Emergency operations are getting more and more complex as the world got more and more complex," Pitts said. "Hams are trying very hard to stay up on developments so they can continue to provide good emergency communications."
Many hams have the know-how to construct an antenna and conduct quick, efficient communications, making them particularly useful in situations where phone service may be knocked out or unavailable.
During the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, some cell phone and other radio towers were located on top of the World Trade Center. When the buildings collapsed, so did the communication network.
"Amateur radio communications aren't that centralized," said Tom Lappin, a Hutchinson ham. "If there is a problem, most hams are able to put up an antenna or whatever they need to do to get on the air."
And, in the case of systems becoming overloaded because everyone's trying to use phones or radios, hams can communicate other news, perhaps about the health or welfare of those in the affected areas, to relieve the burden on the systems.
Because of that, "I'd say amateur radio is still important now - as much or more so than ever," Lappin said.
Lappin, who was first licensed in 1957 at age 13, spends evenings and weekends in his "radio shack" in the basement of his home.
Preferring to use Morse code as his primary means of communications, he's made and confirmed contacts with hams in at least 300 countries.
The radios he uses today are much different than those he started with almost 50 years ago, when vacuum tubes and crystals were commonplace components of any ham's radio.
"That was a far cry from today," he said. "We built a lot of things back then."
The technology changed over the years so gradually that massive advancements weren't immediately noticeable.
"The little developments turned into big ones," he said.
Today's microprocessors and smaller, digital electronics have surfaced in compact, even tiny, versions of older radios.
Changes in licensing requirements, including a new push by the FCC to drop the Morse code requirement of understanding five words per minute, may even attract more hams who want to take part in the hobby but struggle to learn the almost-foreign language of dots and dashes.
While the easy access and availability of the Internet "may have hurt" the hobby, hams are using computers and the Internet to improve and extend the capacity of their radios, Lappin said.
A ham could make local contacts to a radio on the 2-meter band, which can carry a voice signal maybe 20 to 50 miles. By coupling the radio signal with the Internet, the conversation could take place anywhere in the world - even with someone walking down the street in Europe.
"The Internet has done a lot for us," he said.
While times are changing, the reasons that Lappin became a ham haven't changed much.
The former technology instructor at Hutchinson Community College learned about his first job at the school from a fellow ham.
"It's been a really good hobby for me," he said. "I've never gotten away from it. You meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends."