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Queens School's Amateur Radio Club Offers Messaging Lifeline to Puerto Rico

By Katie Honan | October 2, 2017 8:30am
 The tiny radio room helps students connect around the world.
The tiny radio room helps students connect around the world.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

JACKSON HEIGHTS — Inside the tiny amateur radio room inside the Garden School's second-floor library, students fiddle with dials and listen for voices being transmitted from around the world.

The school's radio club, which has grown to around 20 members since launching last year, has competed in contests and learned all about operating ham radios from inside the 78th Street school. 

Now, the extracurricular activity has taken a more urgent mission for students.

The station — known by its call sign, K2GSG — is taking messages known as "radiograms" to send down to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, which has been mostly without power since Hurricane Maria struck the island.

Anyone can send a note to the club's email address, and students will help craft the right message to relay to people in Puerto Rico.

The old-school relaying process has become relevant again, as millions of Puerto Ricans have been cut off from modern forms of communication following the storm. In response, two-dozen amateur radio operators on the island have helped police and first responders after power was knocked out earlier this month, NBC News reported.

At the request of the Red Cross, 50 radio operators left Atlanta on Thursday for Puerto Rico armed with their radio gear to continue to help with communications.

Garden School teacher John Hale, the club's faculty advisor, was trained in emergency messaging this summer — and put it to use Thursday by sending his first two messages to Puerto Rico.

"They're completely without power," he said. "This is the way we're getting messages in."

The brief, 25-word messages will likely be sent to Florida before someone can accept the "traffic," a radio term for a message, in Puerto Rico.

Once more radio operators are up and running on the island, messages can be sent on the National Traffic System, the ham radio network, and relayed to anyone working a radio.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army and the military are usually equipped to send and receive messages. 

In emergency situations and their subsequent recovery efforts, messages are often displayed on large boards in town that people can check. They can also send messages back to New York, which can be relayed via phone, email or in person once it's received.

Lea Medina adjusts the frequency to connect to radio operators in the Caribbean, which have become a vital resource without power. 

The Garden School launched the club last year after it received equipment from a donation to the New York Hall of Science, Hale said. NYSCI continues to be a big help to the club, mentoring them through the Hall of Science Amateur Radio Club and the American Radio Relay League.

The school's station stands out as the only active radio club in any of the city's schools. Students from the sixth through 12th grade can join, and the club was recently awarded a blue ribbon at the Maker Faire for its innovation, creativity and ingenuity.

Since announcing the messaging service to Puerto Rico, more students have come in to learn about amateur radio, Hale said.

"Students are excited to know that they can help somebody," he said.

Senior Lea Medina is one of a few students who is licensed on her own to relay messages over the airwaves. Knowing she can transmit and receive messages to people who don't have other ways of communicating is the "best feeling," she said.

"There is not a better feeling than being able to make someone smile," she said, "or make sure that they feel safe."

If you'd like to send a message to Puerto Rico, email the radio club at k2gsg@gardenschool.org.