DUBOIS — American Radio Relay League members across the nation participated in the organization’s annual Field Day last weekend. Clubs in Treasure Lake, Clearfield County, and Crooked Creek, Armstrong County, set up their amateur radio equipment in remote locations to demonstrate how hams operate with little or no public infrastructure.
Steve Smith, a representative of the Treasure Lake Sportsman’s Club’s amateur radio club, said his group had a good turnout for the event.
“It was a rainy day, but we had about 50 people show up,” he said. Attendees were a mixture of club members, ham operators and members of the general public interested in exploring the modern version of a vintage hobby.
Attendance was lower at the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association’s site in Crooked Creek State Park near Ford City. However, the park’s Environmental Discovery Center offered shelter against the rain and plenty of space for setting up members’ ham radio stations.
Steve Fazekas, the present emergency communications coordinator for the club, was happy with the turnout. Club president, Jody Farr, said that most of Saturday’s attendees were members but that Sunday’s better weather might have brought out more members of the public.
Both Smith and Fazekas said amateur radio is far from being a quaint hobby in an age of cell phones and the Internet.
“We have set up a local repeater for use by our club members, not all of whom have a federal amateur radio license. There is no law against listening to radio traffic, though, if you do not have a license. The club has provided inexpensive ham radios that have been set to only receive, not transmit,” Smith said.
The sportsman’s club’s aim is to provide local information in the event of a widespread emergency that has taken down or overwhelmed public communications infrastructure. The club has its own repeater, which works a lot like a cell tower, relaying signals to radio sets tuned to its particular frequency.
The Fort Armstrong club, a long-time group comprised of veteran hams, focuses more on regional communication. Integrated into the Armstrong County emergency communications office, the club conducts simulated emergency tests every spring and fall, testing its ability to communicate with emergency responders and the Kittanning hospital.
Fort Armstrong can also deploy its club trailer to support emergency communications in the field. Club members can often be found operating from it during the Fort Armstrong Folk Festival and other public events, mostly canceled this year because of COVID-19.
While hams can do everything from chatting with their nearby neighbors to talking to crew members aboard the International Space Station, the 2020 natural disaster looks different from what they have practiced for. When it became clear that public utilities would not be affected, hams turned to conducting daily or weekly wellness checks on one another.
Social distancing requirements have meant that in-person monthly club meetings are on hiatus for a while. Meanwhile, the Treasure Lake club has started holding virtual gatherings on the Internet.
But the Internet requires public utility input. The June 27 field day demonstrated that licensed ham radio operators can keep the lines of communication open when nothing else is working. By using batteries and alternative energy such as solar, their radios still work when everything else fails.