BUFFALO — Two miles from U.S. Highway 16, a Nebraska man drove his truck through Crazy Woman Canyon before he slid off the road on Halloween night.
Unharmed, but without a functioning vehicle or a cell phone signal, Nicholas Cashoili turned to his ham radio — a device that needs only a radio frequency to make contact with other radios.
On the receiving end of the signal was Jim Shirey, who sat in his living room in Buffalo with his handheld radio. From the time he wakes up until he goes to bed, Shirey continuously monitors the frequency that the Buffalo Amateur Radio Klub typically uses to communicate with its 20-plus members, and that night, he heard Cashoili announce his call sign, which is how radio users identify themselves, and indicate that he
“In any situation, immediately, the adrenaline starts pumping,” Shirey said. “And you try to remember, in the training, what did we do? Because you haven't used it very often. You become very focused. It's intense. And, you know, it's not life or death, you're not there. But you can imagine their circumstance.”
Shirey knew what questions to ask. He, like many members of BARK (the club's preferred abbreviation), was a member of Johnson County Search and Rescue. Amateur radio operators are also trained for emergencies like this one, as well as greater ones, including natural disasters that might interrupt telephone service.
Shirey, with all of the information necessary to initiate a rescue, called 911, which dispatched a fire truck and a sheriff's deputy, who resolved the situation.
But it wasn't until Shirey received a postcard in the mail a few days later from Cashoili that he learned that the man made it out of the situation unscathed and was thankful for his intervention.
"When it's all over with, you feel pretty good," Shirey said. "You feel kind of proud of yourself, but the next morning I woke up and wondered what happened to the guy because you don't get any reports or anything back."
The postcard that Cashoili sent to Shirey is not unusual for amateur radio operators.
When users make contact with someone, it's common to send postcards with their name, call sign and location. Making contact with different amateur radio operators around the country, and around the world, is part of the hobby, Shirey said.
Shirey, with a radio tower in his backyard measuring 50-feet high and a room dedicated to his equipment, is hardly a casual hobbyist. He's not alone in his dedication to and love for his craft - his fellow club members, mostly retired men, similarly find both entertainment and purpose in the hobby.
Affectionately known as the doghouse, a nod to the club's abbreviated name, a radio repeater sits atop the hill at the Johnson County Airport. (A radio repeater is a combination of a radio receiver and a radio transmitter that receives a signal and retransmits it, so that two-way radio signals can cover longer distances).
According to Gar Jorgenson, the club's vice president, it covers in a circular pattern almost all the way into Sheridan, almost all the way to Kaycee, and 50 miles east toward Gillette. The device is owned by the county, which lets the club use it in return for help with events such as the Klondike Rush, the Christmas parade and the multiple sclerosis charity bike ride. During the 5- and 10-kilometer Klondike Rush races each summer, club members spread out on the course at various checkpoints with their radios. A runner who is injured or exhausted can stop, and then with their handheld radios, volunteers like Robert Garrison could offer them assistance.
Amateur radio operators, characterized as such not for their inexperience but because they aren't paid, are called to help in situations both small scale - a stranded hiker or motorist - and large scale - hurricanes and tornadoes.
Garrison, president of BARK, has been interested in ham radio since he was a child, but it wasn't until 2010, when he lived in Cheyenne, that he purchased a radio and made it a hobby both out of interest and perceived need.
"I lived in Cheyenne at the time. We had a tornado and a flood - one was a block north of me and one was a block south of me - and I thought, maybe I need to be able to communicate,” he said.
Now, Garrison is certified as a communications unit leader, which means during natural disasters, he can be dispatched to assist.
"A lot of people, while they never intended, necessarily, to work in a disaster, it occurs in places they wouldn't know about or expect," he said. "Joplin, Missouri, and the tornado a few years ago that took down most of the public communications, both the commercial radios, as well as law enforcement and first responders, so amateur radio operators filled in the gap in different ways.”
In Johnson County, some operators are trained by the Red Cross for disasters that might mean going house-to-house for damage assessment, Garrison said.
"There's a saying within ham radio organizations that when all else fails, ham radio still works," Jorgenson said. "That's sort of true because all of our stuff runs independently. (The recent rescue) is a good example; they were up where their phones wouldn't work. But our radio did."
Most of the time, though, when there is not an emergency, BARK members listen and contribute to the radio chatter. When Shirey sits in his living room with his handheld radio, that's what he's enjoying: conversations among friends.
"It's like using the phone or messaging or, I don't use them, but Facebook or Twitter and all these other various ways that you can communicate today,” Shirey said.
This story was published on Nov. 17, 2022.