Amateur radio operators ham it up in Portsmouth
PORTSMOUTH — One has to look only back to “Nor’easter Nemo" in February to understand the value of amateur radio operators in emergency situations, said Bob Beatty.
“These days we all have cell phones," said Mr. Beatty, the public information officer for the Newport County Radio Club (NCRC). "I’m more connected today than I’ve ever been in my life; internet connectivity is great. But this winter, people lost their phones, their internet and their power. Ham radio operators mobilized to make sure vital communications were in place.”
Club member Julian Plowright said that for two days during the blizzrard, his house had no electricity, radio, cable or cell phones. "The only thing we had were battery-operated (ham radios). The whole idea is," he said, mimicking the slogan used by ham radio operators, "when all else fails, radio amateurs are here."
Ham radio operators proved their mettle during the annual Field Day held throughout the nation Saturday going into Sunday. Members of the NCRC gathered at Glen Park starting at 2 p.m. and continued operating for 24 hours. Anywhere from six to eight members camped out overnight.
"Field Day is the largest event in amateur radio worldwide, although it’s really focused on North America," said Mr. Beatty. "The intent is to get ham radio operators out of their home stations and out of their comfort zones and put them in places like parks and campgrounds where the conditions aren’t ideal, the antennas aren’t ideal."
During Field Day, radio operators aren't allowed to use commercial power. The stations set up on picnic tables on the east side of Glen Park — where Mr. Beatty was using a transceiver (a radio that acts as both a transmitter and receiver) — were all running off solar power. "We have solar panels that are charging batteries, so we’ll be running off of battery power at night," he said.
Two satellite stations were set up on the east side, as well as portable equipment. "There are about half a dozen satellites that operate amateur radio frequencies. So with this equipment we can talk through satellite by basically bouncing our signal off the satellite and talk to someone halfway around the world," he said. Shortwave and Morse code operators were working inside two tents on the west side of the property, on stations running off gas-powered generators.
"This is really an exercise that’s designed to see how quickly you can set up your amateur radio gear in the field and be ready to transmit messages back and forth," said Mr. Beatty.
The hams try to make as many radio contacts in that 24-period as they can. “You exchange what we call a call sign — your unique identification. During this field day are call sign is W1SYE and that’s the license that we’re operating under," he said. "During the course of the next 24 hours, we will literally talk to between 1,000 and 2,000 other stations all across North America. It really is a practice exercise that proves we still have the skills and the capability to get out there in an emergency.”
Using his portable equipment, said Mr. Plowright, “We are going anywhere from in the state to Rhode Island and if we’re lucky we’ll go to Calfornia, down in Florida, up in Florida.
Field Day technically isn’t a contest, although most hams have fun by making it into one. "Our club normally finishes in the top 10 out of 2,000 to 3,000 entries every year," said Mr. Beatty of NCRC, which has only about 62 members.
Not hard to learn
Another part of field day is to give the public a glimpse of ham operators in action — and let curious visitors try their hand at making contacts at the Get On the Air (GOTA) station.
"You get people who haven’t operated for a long time, or people off the street. It’s for getting people involved who don’t have a license but might be interested," said club member Rich Travers.
Lisa Brendlinger was at the GOTA station Saturday and made contacts in Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Mississippi, Virginia and other locations.
“I’ve had my license for about four years but I really don’t get on the air much. My dad wanted me to come out,” said Ms. Brendlinger, noting that most members of her family are hams.
Getting a ham radio license isn't too difficult, although you do have to study and pass a test, members say. "They spend 12 hours in class and probably studied another 20 or so hours to learn the rules and regulations in take a license (test)," said Mr. Beatty.
Equipment costs vary widely. “You can go anywhere from 50 bucks to $5,000 or $10,000 for the top end," said member Ted Wrobel. "But most hams probably have $1,000 to $2,000 invested.”
Work with police, firefirefighters
One they're up and running, amateur radio operators can serve a valuable service by helping out at special events — about 300 hams helped coordinate activities at the Boston Marathon, Mr. Beatty said — or with communications during emergency situations.
NCRC has a stellar reputation in the latter department, working closely with the Portsmouth police and fire departments. John King, director of the town's Emergency Management Agency, is also an avid club member and participated at Field Day.
“Our club has been said by the (American Radio Relay League) state section manager to be the most active in emergency communications in the state," said Bob Day, a club member for over 20 years. "Every time the state Emergency Management Agency calls them, the Portsmouth EMA, which works out of the fire house, is manned and communicating all throughout the state."
And they can do it without conventional power.
“I told my son, who’s in his early 20s now, ‘Wouldn’t you like to get a ham radio station? You can talk to anybody, all across the world,'" said Mr. Beatty. "He said, ‘Dad, I can do that on Skype anyway, and it always works.’
"And it does — up until the power fails or there’s a hurricane or something like that.”