Friday June 22, 2007

Ham radio operators compete this weekend in national tourney

by Kristen Jump - Staff Writer

Area amateur radio operators will compete this weekend in a national event to see who can make the highest number of contacts in a 24-hour period after setting up and operating a field radio station.

These amateur radio operators, also known as hams, will work all day Saturday and Sunday to set up field communication stations and contact hundreds of other hams, nationally and in Canada, as part of the annual American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) Field Day. Field Day is a chance for hams to test and improve their emergency communication skills. The competition is like a trial run for a disaster situation that would require the assistance of hams to facilitate communication. ARRL estimates more than 35,000 hams participate every year.

Members of the Rolla Regional Amateur Radio Society (RRAR) will use generators and battery power to simulate operation in a remote area and in emergency conditions, and will set up antennas in the field. Their challenge will be to put together a self-sufficient, working radio station quickly and see how many other radio operators they can contact.

“It’s a good exercise to maintain our level of skill, in terms of setting up a remote operation,” said Joe Counsil of RRAR. “We’ll be operating all of the primary modes of communication.”

Counsil expects about 10 of the group’s 25 to 30 members to participate in Field Day.

“The number nationally is probably higher this year than previously,” said Counsil. “The FCC has changed some regulations, and there has been an influx of operators. The change is that it is no longer required that a person learn Morse code to become an operator.”

Hams communicate in various methods, among them Morse code, voice communications and digital communications. Morse code is an international communication form of dots and dashes that can be made of electrical pulses, audio tones or radio, mechanical and visual signals.

“Obviously voice communication is the most popular,” said Counsil. “But also the digital communication modes are very popular. Some are slower and good for long distance communication, while others are much faster and work well in short range.”

Morse code is no longer a required skill by the FCC, but many hams still enjoy communicating in that method.

“The second most popular communication is still Morse code,” said Counsil. “It’s very popular. The only mode that was previously a required learned skill for ham operators was Morse code, and the FCC ruled that didn’t make sense. They were following an international trend with this ruling.”

Counsil said he has experimented with ham radio since he was a young child in the 1950s, and became licensed in 1981.

“I’m technically oriented; I’m an engineer,” said Counsil. “I’ve always been fascinated with radio ever since I was little. Other people get involved because they like communicating, others are attracted to the public service aspect and there is room for all of these.”

There are as many different types of people that enjoy being hams as there are reasons they chose to get involved.

“We range from people of all ages, backgrounds, male and female, little kids . . .some people don’t get licensed until their 70s,” said Counsil. “When radio was first invented, by definition the first radio operators were amateurs.”

Besides participating in Field Day each year, RRAR members have daily and weekly activities.

“Every evening at 9 p.m. in the summer and 8 p.m. in the winter we get on the radio and say hello to everyone,” said Counsil. “It’s a social gathering. A lot of people that have scanners listen.”

RRAR uses a VHF FM repeater, and their nightly communications can be heard at 146.79 MHz.

“Once a week on Tuesdays, we link up with a repeater down in Springfield and participate in a weekly national weather service, SkyWarn,” said Counsil.

The ARRL Field Organization has been effective in establishing emergency communication nets during floods, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and other major disasters.

“Part of the reason that amateur radio service is maintained is to keep a pool of skilled radio operators available to assist in times of emergency,” said Counsil. “During Katrina and 9/11, ham radio operators were instrumental in saving lives. While most of us consider it as a hobby in good times, during bad times we can mobilize and assist agencies or individuals in need of communicating.”

Members of formal emergency organizations such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the Radio Amateur Communication Emergency Services (RACES) regularly participate in Field Day.

RRAR will set up operations for Field Day at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lion’s Club Park, pavilion 14, and will go until 1 p.m. Sunday.

“Anyone who wants to come out and observe is welcome,” said Counsil. “That is why we set up in a public place like Lions Club Park.”

For more information, contact Counsil at 341-5186 or on the web at