Ham radio field day weekend trains, educates

Operators to practice emergency preparedness, showcase capabilities
By: Martha Garcia, Colfax Record Editor
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In any type of disaster when cell phone towers, telephone lines and other regular forms of communication go down, ham radio operators are ready and willing to jump in to provide emergency communications.

Sierra Foothills Amateur Radio Club member Chuck Minton, of Meadow Vista, said that in August 2005 the rest of the nation learned about the devastation occurring when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States from amateur radio operators.

“There were ham radio operators in the middle of the disaster telling us ‘This is how bad things are, how high the water is, how many houses flooded,’” Minton said. “We can get communication out to get help to people.”

In order to hone their emergency worldwide communication skills – and have fun while doing that – members of the SFARC as well as other amateur radio operators will hold a National Ham Radio Field this weekend at Nyack, just off Interstate 80. They’re also inviting the public to visit Saturday and Sunday to learn more about what amateur radio operators do and spend some time on a ham radio talking to whoever might be on the other end of another radio.

The fun part of the preparedness event is a contest for the radio operators. “We do this once a year to exercise our abilities to go into a remote location, set up a radio station and see how many people we can talk to worldwide in 24 hours,” Minton said. “I know some people will make 2,000 contacts, some will make 200 contacts. It’s all in fun.”

Minton said the event is mainly a test of their communications readiness.

“Let’s say you had a bad earthquake, that knocked out power, water. You’d want a group of people, like amateur radio people and communications people elsewhere, who still had resources” to communicate in a disaster, he said. “Every year we get to … see how many people we can contact and see how we do … in unknown scenarios.”

It’s an opportunity for the amateur radio operators to fine-tune their troubleshooting skills on the fly, out in the woods, because Minton said, “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Minton is also the emergency coordinator for the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which can be called on to help out during forest fires and other emergencies.

“The ARES in Redding is especially active when it comes to fire because there’s so many fires up there,” Minton said. The ARES is also used heavily in Southern California because of the high number of fires there. “We’re pretty lucky in Placer County; we don’t have a lot of situations,” he said.

Mark Graybill, a member of SFRAC for 2 ½ years, said ham radio operators like him are interested in radio technology and in using it for worldwide communications. “As part of the amateur radio service that has been set up by the FCC, we provide emergency communications when regular forms of communication aren’t available.” But it’s also a “hobby with which we get to communicate with people all over the world. It’s fun to be able to talk to people in Japan and Russia and Finland,” he said.

Graybill shares his Colfax home with his wife, Toni, and daughters, Amaryllis, 21, and Caroline, 18, who are also amateur radio operators. While his wife isn’t a ham radio operator, she likes the social aspects of it, including attending meetings with him, Graybill said.

Amaryllis said she uses the ham radio to keep in touch with some of the club members in the area. “I also use it when I’m hiking, in case of emergency,” said Amaryllis, who takes a radio when hitting the outdoors. Graybill said Caroline has joined the Air Force and will ship out in July. “She’s going into space systems operations …” and “will be using her radio knowledge there for satellite control,” he said.

Graybill said the radio station that will be set up at Nyack will be similar to one that would be in use in case of a regional emergency for recovery or rescue efforts. Ham operators will be available to talk to visitors throughout the weekend. There will also be a station set up for visitors to get on the air.

“They will be able to talk to someone – we don’t know who it will be because you call out” and see who answers, Graybill said. No license is needed for visitors; the station will be operated by licensed operators.