By Lea Grady
Ham radio operators and enthusiasts of all ages gathered in Falcon in the Mountain View Electric Association’s parking lot for the American Radio Relay League’s International Field Day in June,
The ARRL Field Day is the most popular on-the-air event held annually in the United States and Canada since 1933, and is locally organized by the Pikes Peak Radio Amateur Association, a nonprofit amateur radio club in El Paso County with a club station in Ellicott.
The Falcon operators were among 40,000 radio amateurs in North America who gathered with their clubs, groups or simply with friends to operate from a remote location in a tent or a trailer. They set up their temporary transmitting stations in public places to demonstrate ham radio’s science, their skills and service to the local communities.
Mike Collins — his call sign is K0MCC — is an amateur radio operator. He said, “The Field Day is an opportunity for our amateur radio operators to hone their skills in handling messages when there is an international incident; like a disaster, major fire, flooding, anything like that.” Collins said over the weekend they worked all the bands for amateur radio and passed messages through the Colorado traffic feed to see how well the operators can handle messages and pass them along exactly the way they are supposed to be. He said they took messages from all over the world.
The event is a picnic, a campout and a gathering but also a practice for emergencies and an informal contest, which entails contacting as many other stations as possible and learning to operate radio gear in abnormal situations and less than optimal conditions. “We are competing, trying to get points for various things,” Collins said. “If an elected official shows up, we get points.”
The Field Day provides an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that despite the development of modern communication systems like cell phones and the internet, ham radio still holds a place in the telecommunication realm and is often called into action to provide a critical role in times of crisis, in disaster and post-disaster situations, Collins said. It also provides an important role during non-critical situations, including public events like county fairs, road races or parades.
Amateur radio has been around for more than 100 years and currently there are more than three million people worldwide using ham radio in a variety of settings. ARRL’s Pacific Division Director Jim Maxwell details ham radio history in his article called “Amateur Radio: 100 Years of Discovery.” Maxwell writes that Congress approved the Radio Act of 1912 that required amateurs to be licensed and restricted to a single wavelength of 200 meters. The act was a result of growing interest and improved technology allowing people to communicate over distances of several hundreds of miles from well-designed kilowatt spark stations.Higher power meant greater range, but also resulted in demands for regulation. The restriction to 200 meters was meant to dissuade amateurs from pursuing the hobby, but it turned out to be an ineffective ploy. Transatlantic transmitting and receiving tests began in 1921; and, by July 1960, the first two-way contact via the moon took place on 1296 MHz. In 1983, Owen Garriott, call sign W5LFL, an astronaut with the space shuttle program, carried a 2-meter rig with him to space. Since then, amateurs have been included in the crew of virtually every space shuttle launch.
The American Radio Relay League is the national association for Amateur Radio in the U.S., representing over 170,000 out of more than 750,000 licensed amateurs in the U.S. Amateur radio licensing is governed by the Federal Communications Commission. Licenses are granted to individuals of any age once they demonstrate understanding of the FCC regulations and radio station operations, including basic knowledge of principles of electricity, radio technology and operating rules, as well as safety considerations. Individuals must pass an examination.
It costs $35 to obtain a 10-year license, which can be renewed. Each amateur station is assigned a unique call sign consisting of a combination of letters and numbers. PPRAA provides instruction and testing for local aspiring operators.
The ARRL website points out that ham radio users can hike a mountain, go on the water and take their radio with them. They can reach as far as out of space and communicate with astronauts aboard the international space station or talk to other operators through the satellites orbiting Earth.
Local volunteer ham operators can meet in organized groups and provide emergency communications for both government and private agencies in El Paso and Teller counties through Pikes Peak Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Collins said, “We have a network of amateur operators called CERN, Colorado Emergency Relay Network, which is on the Colorado emergency repeater system. Volunteers take turns on duty every hour. When someone with a ham radio has an emergency, they can call on that frequency with their call sign and “Mayday Mayday Mayday” in quick succession, and we can take their message to get help from all 911 centers.”
According to Maxwell’s article, the technology behind amateur radio continues to evolve and advance. When it began, there was only one way for a ham to get started — learn Morse code, build a received and a spark transmitter, string up an antenna and start tapping on the key. Today, the technology includes computer interface, coding, mobile apps and drones to send data and images bouncing signals off the ground, ionosphere and off the moon. The equipment hams use varies from large and heavy, to portable and handheld. The 26 amateur radio groups of frequencies allocated by the FCC begin just above the AM broadcast band and extend to extremely high microwave frequencies. The uses and ham operators are as diverse as the equipment and the special interests involved, but they all share one passion and goal: to ensure that ham radio not only survives but flourishes in the century ahead.
Ham radio: Kathy Wildman, amateur extra class radio operator, talks on the ham radio during the June Field Day event in Falcon. Photo by L.C. Grady