Radio operators prepare for anything during field day

CALCUTTA – It would be too easy to say that local amateur radio operators had a field day in St. Clair Township over the weekend, except that’s exactly what happened at Calcutta Square Plaza from Saturday afternoon through Sunday afternoon.

Members of the Triangle Amateur Radio Club, callsign K8BLP, participated in the annual Field Day, a 24-hour amateur radio event held throughout the United States and Canada, sponsored by the Amateur Radio Relay League.

The field “day” actually takes place over a weekend, from 2 p.m. Saturday through 2 p.m. on Sunday. Its purpose is to test the preparedness of amateur radio operators to respond in a crisis situation where their equipment and skill might be necessary.

The ARRL scores radio clubs on how many contacts they can make amongst other participating operators nationwide during the Field Day period. But Gary Amato, club president, says the exercise is less about meeting numerical goals, and more about proficiency and readiness. This includes logistical considerations, such as setup of the tent, radios and antenna tower, plus running the electrical generator that powers all the equipment and making adequate provisions for food and water.

“You’d have to do the very same things if you were actually in an emergency situation,” Amato said.

Club members assembled in a remote location – outside the plaza, in this case – and set up a communications station as they might in the case of a major natural or man-made disaster. Members remained on the air over the 24-hour period, manning the station in shifts.

The club also utilized a small trailer that is filled with radio equipment, and heated and air-conditioned, so it can be used year-round. Once used to administer a federally-funded dental program for children, the trailer – now owned by East Liverpool City Hospital – was offered to the club free of charge.

“It has been a very great asset not only to our club, but to public safety communications in this county,” Amato said.

One field day participant was Harold Watson, an East Liverpool native now living in San Jose, Calif. The retired postal employee travels back to the area every year to participate in the event, tapping out Morse code rather than speaking on the radio.

Watson was a radio operator with the Army during the Vietnam War. “I know by experience that bad things can happen,” he says. “Radio saves lives and gets the mission done.” Watson’s enthusiasm for radio predates his military service, however, and he’s been a licensed operator since the age of 13.

Morse code is all that Watson operates now, though he’s fluent in all radio operations. He fears that the FCC will phase out code communications altogether, as they have stopped testing for code proficiency. “The way I look at it, it’s a dying art,” he says.

As seriously as he takes radio’s emergency usefulness, Watson says he enjoys the hobby aspect of amateur radio for the people he’s met on-air and at similar events. “You have great, intelligent people in the ham radio community,” he said.

In addition to Field Day, the club demonstrated its abilities during the recent Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency disaster drill, which simulated a terrorist attack on the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport, Pa. Remote communications sites were set up at the LaCroft Fire Station, Beaver Local High School and other emergency zones.

“We become their backup communications if their radio system would happen to fail or become overloaded,” Amato explained.