Radio operators have fun, prepare for the worst

Standing outside the Richfield Community Center, Bloomington Amateur Radio Association Vice President Bill Mitchell, left, holds an antenna as he and fellow club member Dan Royer listen for a satellite passing overhead on June 24, which was Field Day for amateur radio operators around the country. The radio operators used the day to test their capabilities in the event their services would become indispensable due to a failure of regular communications networks. (Sun Current staff photo of Andrew Wig)

It’s easy to take cellphones and the internet for granted, but a group of hobbyists are standing by should some calamity befall such everyday communications networks.

“We’re Plan B,” said Matt Holden, president of the Bloomington Amateur Radio Association.
Holden’s club met up with its Richfield counterpart for Field Day June 24 and 25, when amateur radio operators from around the country tested their capabilities over the airwaves.

“We’re the what-if people, so when the cellphone network goes down, how do you communicate?” Holden explained.

The radio clubs hunkered down in the basement of the Richfield community center from 1 p.m. June 24 to 1 p.m. the following day, attempting to make basic contacts with other far-flung radio operators conducting the same mission.

“This is just to test for what we could do” should amateur radio operators’ services become indispensable due to any variety of disaster or hiccups in traditional communications networks.

Don Clay, local co-chair of the amateur radio Field Day event June 24, looks at a laptop as he programs channels into a portable radio. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

“Hams have helped out in tornadoes. They’ve helped out on forest fires. They’ve helped out in hurricanes, the tsunamis that happened over in Asia,” said Avery Finn, secretary of the Richfield Amateur Radio Club.

They’ve also make their presence felt at local community events; members of the local radio clubs were recently on hand for Bloomington’s Summer Fete July 3 and Richfield’s Fourth of July parade.

Although technically amateurs, ham radio operators are part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s official communications community, a measure signed into law in 2006 following disasters including the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

“All hams everywhere in the country are part of Homeland Security,” Finn emphasized.

That’s what they call themselves – hams, originally a derogatory term used to describe amateur Morse code operators in the 19th century.

Operating one of three radio stations in the basement of the Richfield Community Center for Field Day June 24, Bloomington Amateur Radio Association President Matt Holden joins Merrick Falk and his father, Adam Falk, both of Lester Prairie. (Sun Current staff photo of Andrew Wig)

Also, within their radio club environs, the hams introduce themselves to one another with their call letters, in person or via broadcast. Richfield club member Don Clay, who co-chaired the Field Day locally, uses the on-air moniker of his late father.

“He liked to say, ‘Rich from Richfield, KC0TJ,’” Clay said. Those call letters, he added, are on his father’s tombstone. The younger Clay has the same plans for his own eventual grave site.

Radio, after all is part of who he is. “I’ve been doing it for 46-plus years, since I was in diapers, basically,” said Clay, 46.

Finn, 76, has been an amateur radio operator since 1956, taking up the hobby as part of a school club in St. Louis Park.

Through the years, he’s maintained a special affinity for Morse code. “It’s almost like another language, like Spanish and French or whatever,” Finn said.

Bonding over the airwaves

Amateur radio operators, all partaking in the same niche hobby, speak the same language in the sense of their kinship, too, Finn said.

Any place in the world, when a ham sees another ham’s antennae, “you go up and knock on the door and you almost instantly have made a friend,” he said.

Some hams travel the world in quests to make as many connections as possible, from as far away as possible. Holden’s quests have taken him to locales including Suriname in South America, the remote Northern Mariana Islands near Guam in the Pacific Ocean, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.

Bloomington club member Bill Mitchell traveled to Heard Island, located between Madagascar and Antarctica, to be one of the few radio operators ever to make on-air contact from the island.

“Only twice in history has there been any radio contacts from Heard Island prior to his trip,” Holden said.

Hams can do more than send sounds, having been able to transmit photos before the advent of text messaging or email, Finn mentioned. He said his father used to send pictures of snow-covered Minnesota to astonished fellow hams in Brazil.

Other hams, Clay added, have the goal of making radio contact from every county in the U.S.
But amateur radio operators maintain their local relevance through partnerships with public safety agencies as they bolster emergency communications networks. That’s how Richfield resident Tom

York became a ham – through the city’s Community Emergency Response Team.

York, 49, learned radio communications out of a sense of civic service, but as one of the newer hams in the Richfield club, it became his new hobby, too.

“I’m thinking, why didn’t I do it 20 years ago?” York said.

Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.