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After two recent deaths, Chattanooga-area ham radio operators decided to close ranks.

Many of the amateur radio hobbyists live alone, so a system of nightly radio checks has been put in place to signal if anyone needs help.

At their core, that's what "hams" do, they take care of one another, members of the so-called Lone Ranger Net said.

"At 7 p.m. every night, seven days a week, they jump on the radio and say, 'I'm OK,'" explained Jim Gifford, a 44-year-old Chattanooga businessman and amateur radio enthusiast.

Gifford said the Lone Ranger Net was established after one elderly radio operator died of natural causes and another died at his home due to an accident. In both cases their deaths were not immediately known to friends and family members, he said.

Now, if someone in the Lone Ranger Net fails to check in on any given night, they get a text, a phone call or even a knock on the door to make sure all is OK.

The Lone Ranger Net is an example of how ham radio operators, who form a vast worldwide network, are pulling together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Jim Gifford, a local ham radio hobbyist. Contributed photo.

Amateur radio operators, called "hams," are licensed by the government to operate on certain radio frequencies designated by the Federal Communications Commission.

There are an estimated 775,000 amateur radio operators in the United States and 19,325 in Tennessee alone, Gifford said.

Operators must take a test to become licensed, and often spend from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each to set up their radios at home. During natural disasters they provide an important back-up communication system if telephones and computers fail.

Gifford said the number of amateur radio operators had begun to wane some before surging during the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. political unrest in the last year also made people nervous and tightened the ham radio community, he said.

For his part, Gifford directs a worldwide radio meet-up called the Sunday Night Net that originates in the Chattanooga area each week but includes participants from as far away as Australia.

"We have people from all over the country check in," said Gifford, president of Southeastern Company Inc., a Chattanooga mechanical contractor firm.

During the Sunday Night Net, radio operators swap jokes and play trivia games, Gifford said. The virtual gatherings start at 8 p.m. Eastern time and usually last about two hours.

Gifford said he got involved in the hobby about five years ago after a lifetime of fascination with radio traffic.

"I've always been somebody who didn't watch much TV," he explained. "I got into listening to short-wave radio. When I was in the Navy I loved to listen to the radio."

In just a few years, Gifford has not only built-out his radio equipment, but he has also begun selling radios and gear through a retail company he founded.

He said ham radio operators are hard-wired for community service. For example, he said some amateur radio enthusiasts volunteer to help monitor bicycle races in mountainous areas where cellphones don't work.

"It's a strong community," he said. "I would bet you a thousand dollars that if I put my call sign [on the radio] and said I was broken down somewhere, people would pile up to help."

Most people get started in the hobby by listening to amateur radio traffic on cell phone apps, Gifford said. Active hobbyists also enjoy mentoring newbies, he said.

For information on joining a Chattanooga-area amateur radio club or to get involved in the hobby, contact Gifford at info@km4mpsales.com.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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