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The Original Social Network

Ham radio enthusiasts stand ready to step in when all else fails

Jim Williams (N3ADF) scans for a signal at the Anne Arundel Radio Club’s Field Day, in ­Davidsonville

On a sunny Saturday morning in late June, in a field overlooking the Patuxent River in Lusby, men assembling two 25- and 30-foot steel towers, section by section. Atop the shorter tower is a contraption that looks like an upside-down umbrella.
    What in the world is going on here?
    It’s the Calvert Amateur Radio Association (CARA, call sign K3CAL), preparing for Field Day 2016. Field Day is an annual exercise, sponsored by the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio, to promote emergency preparedness. Hams, as they’re known, could be a contraction of amateur.
    On the last full weekend in June, amateur radio clubs from all over the U.S. and Canada compete to see who can make the most contacts with other ham radio operators. They work in makeshift conditions as they might in the aftermath of a natural disaster or national emergency.

Radioing to Help
    Amateur radio operators communicate using affordable and highly portable equipment. They are able to exchange emergency messages without using high-tech infrastructure such as satellites, internet, fiber optics or the electric power grid. Because power requirements are very low, about the same as a light bulb, ham radio stations can be run off a generator or even a solar power array. Amateur radio is still up and running “when all else fails,” as enthusiasts are fond of saying.
    The principal amateur radio groups in these parts are CARA and the Anne Arundel Radio Club (call sign W3VPR). Formed in 1951, the Anne Arundel group has 158 members. The Calvert group, founded in 1954, has 54 members.
    “The clubs have a good working relationship and cooperate on many emergency support and community support activities,” says CARA ­member Dave Hardy (KB3RAN).
    CARA’s setup for Field Day featured five messaging stations deployed in a pavilion adjacent to the Drum Point clubhouse.
    “We were running off generators to simulate conditions after a natural disaster when power is often ­disrupted,” Hardy says. “We also had a Get-on-the-Air station where kids and other unlicensed people could get on the air and talk.”
    Three long-wave antennae were hung from ropes high up in 100-foot trees; antennae were perched atop the two towers; and a mast antenna was attached to a camper van. Over the 24-hour period from 2pm Saturday to 2pm Sunday, about 12 club members were making contacts; about 18 people helped support the Field Day effort overall. President of the Board of Calvert ­County Commissioners Evan Slaughenhoupt stopped by to present a proclamation declaring it Amateur Radio Week.
    Meanwhile, members of the Anne Arundel club had been working since Friday to erect six 50-foot steel towers in a field adjacent to their clubhouse at the Davidsonville Family Recreation Center. By Saturday afternoon, the 13 towers looked like maypoles, held up by color-coded guy wires in bright hues of yellow, red, blue and green, with different lengths of antennae suspended from their tops.
    “We also had a mast antenna brought in the back of a truck. We put it up on the top of the hill. It was military surplus and made to be deployed in the field just as we were doing,” says club member Eddie Santilli (KB3YMU).
    Two large yellow tents housed seven radio stations, powered by two generators. Although operating under field conditions, the hams’ privation was not complete. Mark Bova’s (W2PAW) brother ferried in a wood-burning oven in the back of a gourmet pizza truck.
    “Anne Arundel County may not permit alcohol on its property, but that doesn’t mean we can’t eat well,” said Keith Miller (AE3D).
    Over the course of Field Day, some 22 club members made contacts; about two-dozen people helped with setup on Friday and Saturday.
    A special visitor to the Davidsonville event was Al FitzSimons (W3YRS) of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, who has been licensed since high school in 1954.
    “We came out today to show that we care. We do it because we think it’s important,” he said.

The Count Is In
    The underlying purpose of Field Day is practicing readiness for an emergency, but it’s also a competition, and hams like to keep track of how many contacts they’ve scored.
    Competing with five stations, CARA made 283 contacts via multiple communication modes, including Morse code, voice and digital. They reached ham operators in 42 U.S. states and territories, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and four Canadian provinces. They also contacted Antigua and Venezuela.
    The Anne Arundel group, competing with seven stations, made 810 contacts, also via Morse code, voice and digital. They contacted 45 states and territories and five Canadian provinces. They also reached Cyprus, England, Liberia, Lithuania and Switzerland.
    You might think that in the age of the internet and satellites, interest in ham radio would be on the wane. But you would be wrong.
    “Nationally, the number of ham radio licenses issued by the Federal Communication Commission has been rising steadily,” says Anne Arundel club member Barry LaZar (K3NDM). By the end of 2015, there were a record 735,405 licensees in the U.S.
    “Here in Maryland, there are some 11,700 licensed ham operators and two dozen nationally recognized clubs,” says Marty Pittinger (KB3MXM), Maryland/DC Section Chief for the American Radio Relay League.
    Amateur radio can be a male-dominated hobby, but 10 out of CARA’s 54 members are women, according to Dave Hardy. The Anne Arundel group’s most celebrated member is centenarian Holly Bevan.
    Bevan has hosted a morning commuter network since she retired from teaching in her mid-60s. (An amateur radio net enables hams to call in on one frequency, then rebroadcasts the signal on a different frequency.)
    “Some people say that ham radio is the original social network, and Holly’s morning commuter net bears that out,” says Eddie Santilli.
    People who call in occasionally mention traffic issues, but in general people call in to chat on their way to or from work. Or to see how Holly’s doing.
    “She keeps a log of everyone she talks to, and she has a phenomenal memory. People who called in once 10 years ago, she’ll remember,” Santilli says.

A Higher Calling
    Outside the Anne Arundel clubhouse in Davidsonville, a 190-foot tower and its antennae reach most of Maryland, and club radio capabilities enable the Maryland Emergency Management Agency to communicate and coordinate with most counties in the state should telecommunications ­ability is destroyed or impaired.

Calvert Amateur Radio Association members assemble a TriBand antenna. From left to right Shawn Donley (N3AE), Steve Hempling (N3IPN), Dick Ratcliffe (W3RBR), Bob Balint (KF3AA) and Ed Noell (KC3EN).

    Several hams from both clubs are members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service and the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service.
    Members do simulation exercises to keep ready for stepping into the breach. In a recent scenario, hams were tasked with coordinating the delivery of an antenna after a ­simulated tornado had taken out communications for the FEMA office in Reisterstown. Hams have also simulated reporting of flood levels in the wake of a hurricane.
    Dave Hardy is well positioned to operate after a disaster or emergency. “I run my radio at home exclusively on solar power,” he says.
    On the lighter side, the clubs also support the community throughout the year.
    The Anne Arundel and Calvert clubs work together on many events, including the upcoming Ben Moore Memorial Half Marathon and 10K on August 6 and the Annapolis 10 Mile Run on August 28. There they’ll be using radio systems to help race organizers keep track of the sag wagon, lead bike, trailing bike and the like. Radios are also the fastest way to get the word out on important race developments, like the position of an injured runner.
    One final footnote on Field Day 2016: Anne Arundel club members Barry LaZar, Doug Elmore (NA1DX) and Rob Hurd (N3HU) have for the past several years competed ­separately using ultra low power for their radio equipment — five watts instead of the standard 100 watts. They operate on battery power rather than generators, and the batteries are replenished by solar power. Running off such low power means that they get multiplier points for their contacts — so many that the partners hope to be contenders for a national first place. This year they made 994 contacts and, with multipliers and other extra points, scored just under 10,000 points.
    Good luck with that first-place finish!

Train to be a ham with the Anne Arundel Radio Club in a six-week course starting Oct. 8: Keith Miller, AE3D [email protected]; 301-805-1854.