Who will we turn to in a natural disaster like a tornado, major earthquake or tsunami? Forget the Internet, cell phone or landline. Ham radio might be the only link to the outside world.
This weekend on the Coastside and across the country, clubs or groups of amateur or “ham” radio operators plan to hit the airwaves for the 24-hour Field Day.
Field Day, held annually on the fourth weekend in June, is the climax of Amateur Radio Week, which is sponsored by the Amateur Radio Relay League, a national umbrella organization for U.S. hams.
During the friendly competitions in the 24-hour event, points are awarded for contact with stations in various states, Canadian provinces and other countries.
Over the 24 hours, at the same time across the country in individual time zones, thousands of North American ham radio operators will gather to demonstrate the capabilities of ham radio and to count the number of contacts they can make with fellow operators around the world.
Hams use radios powered by generators, batteries, and other off-the-grid sources. In the event of an emergency, they do whatever is needed to provide communication to emergency-response agencies.
And the public is welcome to get a glimpse into that world and learn to become licensed ham operators.
“We don’t depend on traditional support like a cell phone,” said Dennis Paull of Half Moon Bay, a member of the Half Moon Bay Amateur Radio Emergency Service group. “We don’t require a tower. If the tower goes down, the phone goes down. We’re as reliable as communication can get.”
The Half Moon Bay ARES, which is in the process of evolving into a formal nonprofit group, has a special spot in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in Half Moon Bay, where they can work in case of a local emergency, Paull said. The group is also on hand if needed during local events that involve major numbers of visitors, such as the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival, Pacific Coast Dream Machines or local marathons.
This weekend from 11 a.m. Saturday, June 23, to 11 a.m. Sunday, June 24, Half Moon Bay ARES will set up two radios and two antennas at the northern end of the Venice Beach parking lot in Half Moon Bay. One of them looks like a conventional television antenna, and the other is a big loop antenna.
There, they will see how many other stations and operators throughout North America they can contact, using voice and Morse code across a variety of bands. Though Morse code is much faster than voice, Paull said, typically many operators use voice.
Radio contact is easier across water than through a mountainous, wooded terrain, said David Richards, head of the Half Moon Bay ARES group and emergency coordinator for the city of Half Moon Bay. Clear communication also depends on solar activity and solar flares, he added.
“If the sun behaves itself, we’ll be able to get to Japan,” he said.
The public is welcome to the event, where the hams will gladly show equipment and demonstrate procedures. Those interested in learning about amateur radio, particularly younger potential hams, are encouraged to visit.
A little to the south, La Honda’s ham radio club, SC4ARC, will set up a similar arrangement at La Honda Gardens, from noon Saturday to noon Sunday. The two groups participate in Field Day at different times due to different sets of amateur league rules, Richards said.
The La Honda club also invites the public to stop by to learn about amateur radio operation and procedures, and view demonstrations all day Saturday. Club members will set up a “Get On the Air” station, which will allow unlicensed operators to try their hand at transmitting messages.
This club is made up of 30 to 50 members who live in the South Coast and who are also on hand during major local events. They also hold training and outreach to local youth at Pescadero High School, said Sherry Niswander, SC4ARC secretary and publicity chair.
To youth who are primarily cell phone- and texting-oriented, the realities of disaster communication are a revelation, said Niswander. “Cell phones and land lines don’t work in a disaster and ham radios will be there,” she said. “They’re usually astounded at that.”
For information, contact Richards, head of the Half Moon Bay hams, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Niswander at (650) 559-0451.