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Radio field day prepares locals for emergencies

A paddle that is used for transmitting Morse code messages sits at the Morse code station during the Nittany Amateur Radio Club’s field day held at the Pleasant Gap Fire Co. carnival grounds on Sunday.
A paddle that is used for transmitting Morse code messages sits at the Morse code station during the Nittany Amateur Radio Club’s field day held at the Pleasant Gap Fire Co. carnival grounds on Sunday. nthomas@centredaily.com

Sitting before a myriad of dials, the operators carefully scan through the frequencies while calling out a flurry of letters and numbers.

The calls do not go unanswered, as Saturday into Sunday was the biggest day for amateur radio operators across the country. Thousands joined in the annual field day, reaching out to fellow operators, including State College’s own Nittany Amateur Radio Club.

Promoted by the national Amateur Radio Relay League, the weekend marked the annual 24-hour period where operators of amateur radio, or commonly called ham radio, worked to contact as many fellow operators as they could, scanning the continental U.S. and beyond.

“It’s basically a training exercise,” operator and club member Eric Prescott said. “We move our radios out of their regular sites — our homes and clubhouse — set up antennas and operate off emergency power.”

The field day event has been a yearly occurrence since 1933, according to one Washington-based ham radio club.

Ham radios are relied upon during times of natural disaster, Prescott said, to help relay information and assist emergency services. The field day helps operators get some practice in case of such an event.

For example, he said, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, ham radio was the main way of getting information out of the hardest-hit areas. Radios and spaces for operators exist across the region and the county, including local fire departments, Mount Nittany Medical Center and Beaver Stadium.

The club has also received grants from the Centre County Emergency Management Agency for towers and radio systems, he said.

So for 24 hours, he said, the goal is to create as many contacts with other operators as possible. Operators identify their location, how many radio stations they have and what power source they’re using.

Working from the Pleasant Gap Fire Co. carnival grounds, the club used a portable gas-powered generator during its broadcast. However, Prescott said, other stations may use solar or even human power.

“There are people out there who have ridden a stationary bike to power a small radio,” he said.

More than 100 operators are members of the Nittany Amateur Radio Club, he said, which is able to provide coverage across Centre County and into the surrounding counties.

The club routinely provides coverage for several events in the county, he said, including the Wilderness 101 and Bike MS events. Because the rides are located in the rural sections of the county with poor cellphone coverage, ham radios are a must to ensure safety.

At the end of the 24-hour period, club operators reported they had contacted more than 4,200 other operators. Prescott said he’d been able to reach out to operators as far as Canada, Japan and Australia during the event.

“If you have a hobby, we can probably find a way to connect it to ham radio,” he said.

More information can be found at the club’s website at http://www.nittany-arc.net.

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews

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