On the fourth weekend in June, amateur (ham) radio operators from around the country and world converge on the air for Field Day, a tactical and emergency exercise designed to demonstrate the long-range communications capabilities of amateur (ham) radio.
It's a chance to show the public that two-way radio communications are anything but antiquated in a world reliant upon commercial telecommunications networks — systems that indeed afford many modern conveniences (when they work), but are also the first to go down during natural or man-made disasters (when you need them most).
Today, amateur radio remains the backbone for Emergency Communications (EMCOMM) work across the world. That's because it allows FCC-licensed operators to set up independent two-way radio stations — networked locally, nationally and globally — to create built-in system redundancy.
“When All Else Fails” is the motto of ham radio, and Field Day is a time when these stations prove that out,setting up in the field and on mountain tops to practice for the real thing. For twenty-four hours, operation is powered by either commercial or back-up emergency power (such as solar, battery, wind, etc.). Wire antennas are hung from trees or mounted on make-shift poles. At no other time of the year is duct tape so in demand.
While the underlying point of Field Day is serious business — EMCOMM operation by ham radio is a formally-organized arm under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security and works with agencies and organizations such as the National Weather Service, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and all branches of law enforcement and the military — the format is akin to a contest to make things fun. Points are logged in specialized software, and groups trying to work as many stations on as many frequencies and modes as possible fill the air waves, bouncing signals off the upper layers of the earth's Ionosphere into receivers in distant lands. Contacts spanning over one thousand miles are common.
For its first foray into Field Day, I joined a ham radio group in central Wisconsin. The plan was to erect some antennas and put the W9WAP club station on the air. To keep things simple, two antennas were deployed — a small dipole for the 6-meter band (VHF) at 35-feet, and a long-wire dipole for the 10-80 meter frequency bands for High Frequency (HF) work attached to the top of a 104-foot lookout tower.
From our two modest stations, we logged over 300 contacts using the phone and CW (morse code) modes from the east coast to the west, and even a couple foreign countries to boot. I was able to make about a dozen contacts on 6-meters with stations all over the U.S., while running 100 watts.
For many people, tactical gear and preparedness center on things like guns, ammo, food, lights and so on. As important as these things are, in real emergency situations the first thing to go down — the first thing you'll notice that tends to set off panic — is commercial power and communications, leaving you no way to call for help or get information. While ham radio has always filled a back-up communications role to address this, it is now much more: integrated with emerging digital technologies and the Internet, making it the only sure fire way to stay informed and in contact with an outside support system when an event unfolds.
Don't wait for the power to go down or telephone networks to fail to start thinking about the tactical gear and training needed for emergency communications. Get on the air now, while you still can. Field Day is one way to practice your skills and upgrade your equipment.
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