When John Orluk isn’t busy working at Schott, volunteering as an EMT or firefighter, or spending time with his wife, Christine, and son, Alexander, 8, he visits friends in Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota, Nova Scotia, Guantanamo Bay, Croatia and Italy without leaving his home in Avoca.
Orluk, 46, talks to people from around the U.S. and world without using internet or cell phone. Instead, he uses his 100-watt radio and 60-foot wire antenna.
Orluk is an amateur, or ham, radio operator. Orluk said he has been interested in ham radio since he was a teenager.
“I wanted to get an amateur license in high school, but back then you had to do a Morse code test and I had no interest in that,” he explained.
Life happened, and though he kept up his interest in radio as an EMT with Avoca Ambulance, he didn’t pursue an amateur radio license until two years ago.
“I saw a post on Facebook where the Murgas Amateur Radio Club was testing for the FCC. That sparked my interest. They have people called VEs, who do testing sessions,” Orluk said.
With the Morse code requirement dropped, Orluk took the test. VEs are volunteer examiners who administer the FCC licensing exams for three levels — technician, general and amateur extra. Each level allows users to operate at more frequencies.
An example of a question on the 235-question test is: “What type of amateur station simultaneously retransmits the signal of another amateur station on a different channel or channels?” The answer is a repeater station. If the test sounds daunting, the answers can be researched online.
While ham operating can be a fun hobby, the FCC oversees the network for a serious purpose — to ensure communication between emergency service providers, government agencies and the public during disasters such as floods or hurricanes, when cell and internet signals are lost.
The last time the Murgas Club participated in an ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) drill was when the Susquehanna Steam Station in Berwick shutdown a reactor. The last time the club was activated for a real emergency was during the Bear Creek Tornado in 2017.
During an emergency, messages are relayed from Harrisburg to local municipalities and hams maintain communications with the municipalities. During hurricanes, FEMA has a network for communications inland, out of the disaster areas. Also, state law requires amateur radio at checkpoints at marathons.
Back to the fun part. Amateur radio operates on three frequencies, HF, UHF, VHF.
“With HF,” Orluk said, “you can bounce a signal off the ionosphere and talk to people around the world.”
In his experience, most ham operators speak English. A ham operator in Italy broadcasts through a 1,000 foot tower.
“You can hear him as clear as two people at a table can hear each other,” Orluk said.
Orluk said he has a friend who spoke with King Hussien of Jordan more than 20 years ago. What did they talk about?
“The king wanted to know the weather,” Orluk said.
He said the weather is a common topic. Hams also like to ask about each others’ lives, what it’s like where they live and their radio setups.
Some hams use Earth-Moon-Earth to connect, which is possible as long as both can see the moon.
Orluk said his wife thought he was a little crazy when he started communicating with people around the world.
“It grew on her. She even encouraged me to take it camping, so I didn’t have to talk to her,” he said with a chuckle.
A VHF-UHF portable set, which can pick up signals from repeaters, can be had for as little as $25. A repeater retransmits weak signals at a higher power, so the signal can cover longer distances without degradation.
“The sky’s the limit,” Orluk said about the cost of setups. “They can go $5,000 and up. I bought a used one and got a very good deal for around $500.”
His microphone has a cool retro look and is about 35 years old; the radio, about 20.
“It is fun. I do enjoy it and I recommend it. It’s a thrill to be able to talk to someone on the other side of the world, plus do good.”
The Murgas Club is named after the Rev. Joseph (Josef) Murgas, a priest and communications pioneer. He is considered the first to successfully transmit over land with an experimental broadcast from Wilkes-Barre to Scranton in 1905. For information, visit murgasarc.org.