Local amateur radio club joins in Ham Radio Field Day

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: June 25, 2006

A rumble of thunder threatened the families that were barbecuing, throwing footballs, and enjoying the playground equipment Saturday at Jacksonville’s Germania Springs Park. The sound didn’t rattle members of the Calhoun County Emergency Radio Club who had set up at the park for Ham Radio Field Day.

“Think we need to unplug for a few?” club President Keith Allen asked as the storm approached.

“Not me,” said Bob Maynard, who has had his Ham radio license for 50 years. “Do or die.”

Field Day is an annual event during which Ham radio clubs and individual enthusiasts nationwide compete to make the most contacts with others around the country and the world. Clubs collect points for the number of contacts, the difficulty of the transmission, media attention and the number of public officials who attend.

“Some people get very serious about the competing and try to get maximum points, some people just have fun and don’t worry about the points at all,” Allen said. “We’re somewhere in the middle.”

This year, about 30,000 people throughout the country are participating in the event, which continues today. Around 10 people had set up at Germania Springs.

Field Day started at 1 p.m. Saturday. It continues for 24 hours straight, ending this afternoon. The public can drop in while the event is going on. About an hour after starting, operators in Germania Springs had already made about 40 contacts, mostly within Alabama.

Allen said one goal was to talk to someone in every U.S. state within the 24-hour period, but added that wasn’t realistic.

“We just like to contact as many different places as we can,” he said. “I’d be tickled pink if we got a confirmation from Alaska, that would be beautiful.”

As curious onlookers wandered over to look at the equipment, Allen invited them to join.

“We’re open to the public, and anybody who wants to, we’ll sit them down and let them try to make contact,” he said.

The purpose of Field Day, said Allen and Paige Soehren, the club’s public information officer, is for “Hams” to practice operating in emergency situations. All the equipment used this weekend is run off generators or batteries.

“What they do is like training for operating in an emergency or a disaster situation,” Soehren said. “When cell phones, land lines and the Internet go down, Ham operators are always the source of communication.”

After both Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11, amateur radio operators were the primary means of communication, Soehren said.

“They were on the ground and on the front lines during Hurricane Katrina for almost a week, probably, before any other form of communication came back,” she said. The same was true for the first 48 hours at Ground Zero after Sept. 11.

Allen said that after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, his club sent many “health and welfare” messages from relatives in Calhoun County trying to contact loved ones in the affected areas.

“This experience is important because it gets a lot of guys out that through the year probably wouldn’t do a lot of portable operating,” said Tom Belmann, another member. “It gives them a chance to … keep up to date.”

While Ham radio may seem like a dying art, Soehren said there are several hundred licensed operators in Calhoun County. The Field Day members on Saturday ranged from those who had been licensed only a few months to others who had been operating for decades.

At 16, Courtney Smith was by far the youngest participant. Being there with her mother and stepfather, club President Allen, made it a family event.

“I like to talk to places I’ve never been but I’d like to go, like Jamaica, Australia,” Smith said. “It’s just a neat experience.”

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