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Field Day serves ‘hams’ with chance to train

The Troy Record - By Nicholas Buonanno

EAST GREENBUSH, N.Y. >> This weekend, amateur radio operators will be able to practice their emergency communication skills during an annual Field Day event.

Organizers of the field day event said when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the Caribbean last year, all regular communications were wiped out. The storm left no cell phone service, Internet or landline phones working. Across the island, entire communities suddenly found themselves completely cut off from contact with the outside world.

Except for amateur radio operators.

Officials said that amateur radio operators quickly came to the rescue, with “hams” operating their radios using everything from portable generators to car batteries. And their efforts were key in saving lives, coordinating deliveries of food and water, and helping to restore services.

To aid the effort, the officials said the American Red Cross requested the assistance of 50 amateur radio operators who would be willing to travel to Puerto Rico and set up stations across the island. The request was made through the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which represents licensed amateur operators across the nation. Within hours of the request more than 450 had agreed to pack up and go. And within a day after the 50 who were selected arrived, communications was up and running between their stations. With such disasters in mind, this weekend thousands of ham operators will take to the airwaves to practice their emergency communication skills during their annual Field Day event — including hundreds of hams in the greater Capital District. For 24 hours, beginning Saturday at 2 p.m., they will operate under simulated emergency conditions.

“Field Day gives us the opportunity to sharpen our skills, test our equipment and demonstrate our ability to communicate independent of any other infrastructure,” said Tom Scorsone, who is president of the East Greenbush Amateur Radio Association and holds the call sign KC2FCP. “We have a slogan: ‘When all else fails, there’s Amateur Radio.”

The East Greenbush group will be operating out of the Masonic Temple located on Columbia Turnpike in East Greenbush. For Field Day it plans to operate two stations using only battery power for the full 24 hours of the event. Last year, its radio operators made over 1,000 contacts across the United States and Canada.

Field Day itself first began as an annual event in 1933 when it was created by the ARRL as a way for amateur radio operators to practice their skills. And although the hobby dates back well over one hundred years, those who enjoy it have embraced the latest technical developments, including digital and satellite communications.

“There’s a big emphasis these days on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – and amateur radio involves them all,” said Bryan Jackson, W2RBJ, who is ARRL’s NYS Legislative Liaison. “I can’t think of a better way for a young person to learn while also having a lot of fun.”

Becoming a ham operator requires passing an FCC exam which is given by many area radio clubs several times a year. There are three classes of licenses – Technician, General and Amateur Extra – each of which comes with certain operating privileges, with the Extra class providing the most.

Each advancement in licensing also requires passing a more rigorous test, with the technician exam being the easiest. It’s also much easier to pass the tests because the FCC no longer requires operators to know Morse Code, although many hams still enjoy using it and find they are still able to make contact when reception conditions are less than favorable for voice communication. Studying for the FCC exams has also become much easier thanks to a number of websites that offer study materials and practice tests that use actual FCC exam questions.

Once licensed, equipping an amateur station doesn’t have to break the bank either. A technician class operator can purchased a VHF/UHF handheld radio that operates on the ham bands for less than $50. As part of its Field Day activities, the East Greenbush club is inviting the public to stop by and learn about ham radio first-hand, including the chance to operate a radio under the supervision of a licensed amateur. Those interested in taking advantage of the opportunity can simply stop by the East Greenbush Masonic Temple located at 710 Columbia Turnpike in East Greenbush anytime during Field Day. There will also be free information available about amateur radio and guidance on how to prepare for the license exam.

In reflecting on ham radio being around for over a century, Jackson summed it up this way: “Amateur radio may seem like it’s old and outdated in today’s high tech world, but when all else fails, it still works.”

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