It's common -- almost startlingly so -- to hear about total strangers banding together in times of crisis. For some unclear reason, basic human instincts governing compassion and charity that usually are suppressed by the dog-eat-dog world in which we live are unleashed when disaster strikes, and people who normally wouldn't even acknowledge each other's presence stand shoulder-to-shoulder to help those less fortunate, and often each other.

Such a scenario is playing out in Mobile, Ala., as Hurricane Frances bears down on the state of Florida. As you read this, a cadre of amateur radio operators are providing whatever assistance they can to those affected by the storm.

They are plying their craft at WLO Radio, the nation's sole provider of high-frequency ship-to-shore radiotelephone service, which it has been doing since 1948. WLO makes space available to an amateur radio club known as the Maritime Mobile Service Network (, which consists of 68 members who voluntarily monitor the 14.300 kHz band on a rotating basis from noon to 10 p.m. eastern time. The club was formed in 1968 by Navy Chaplain A.W. Robertson to handle phone-patch traffic during the Vietnam War and today still handles third-party traffic for military personnel stationed overseas, according to Rene Stiegler, co-owner of WLO.

When an event such as a major hurricane occurs, the club is "deluged with requests for information," Stiegler said. "It's usually ships at sea that are looking for the latest hurricane advisories and long-range forecasts."

Should one of the volunteers pick up a distress call, he or she connects the call via a phone patch to the U.S. Coast Guard; they also provide location information. "That frequency definitely has become a calling frequency for help, especially for vessels at sea," Stiegler said.

The service provided by the club is especially critical for smaller ships (under 300 gross tons), which are not required to have on board the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Those vessels generally place mayday calls over the 2182 kHz frequency monitored by the Coast Guard, but propagation challenges limit the effective range of those signals to 200 miles, Stiegler said. Ships beyond range of a Coast Guard receiving station then revert to the 14.300 kHz frequency, he added.

Stiegler said the club occasionally receives a distress call from larger commercial ships on that frequency, something he's not sure FCC rules allow. In times of trouble, that becomes a moot question, however.

"If you're out on a boat that's sinking, we're not going to turn you away."

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