A “field day” like no other

27 Jun

From the time I was a child, I’ve known “field days” to be those extra special days at the end of the school year when classwork was put on the back burner and the entire school headed outside all day to play games, eat snacks and just have some fun.

But the field day I went to Saturday at Kent Park was something entirely different.

The event was the XRX Radio Club Field Day, a chance for amateur radio (ham) operators to practice their skills totally “off the grid,” meaning no electricity from RG&E, no internet and no cell phones. The Field Day challenge for radio operators is to transport their equipment away their homes, set up in a park or other remote area, rebuild their stations, put up antennaes and operate in quasi-emergency conditions.

Held annually, Field Day is an nationwide event, held simultaneously with 1000 similar stations across the US and Canada over a 24-hour period and involving more than 30,000 radio amateurs. Operators communicate via voice, Morse code and computers connected to transmitters.

This year’s Field Day was set up in the parking lot past the playing fields at the very north end of Kent Park on Schlegel Rd. When I stopped in about an hour after the event began, five separate broadcast stations were in operation, complete with generators, computers, transmitters, and all manner of antennas.

I immediately connected with Field Day Chairman Bob Karz (K2OID), who in no time recognized that I had less than zero knowledge about all that I was seeing. He was kind enough to give me a tour of the entire operation, taking me from station to station, very patiently explaining the several different ways communications (“exchanges”) were being made (UHF/VHF, digitally, with antennas, and by satellite).

Despite Bob’s best efforts to simplify things, I still felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of a foreign country. (Bob called the language everyone was speaking “hamspeak,” adding that there are even subsets of the language.)

But I did learn some interesting things, like how sunspots and atmospheric conditions can be the difference between hearing someone in Batavia and someone in California, what “CQ” means, how you can bounce an exchange off the moon, why UHF/VHF exchanges are harder to make, and why “80 meters” bands only come alive at night.

Ben works the radio at his first Field Day under the watchful eye of Tim Brown (WB2PAY)

For most of the participants, the weekend’s activities were a kind of contest. The goal was to make contact with as many ham operators across the country as possible in the allotted time. (Some years they’ve contacted all 50 states, and once even chatted with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.) There are even bonus points awarded for things like if the operator is under 18 or new to the hobby, and using Morse code. And UHF/VHF contacts count double because they’re harder to make. But if you make an exchange with an operator you’ve contacted before? That’s a demerit.

One station, however, set apart from the others, wasn’t part of the contest. It was the “get on the air” station, dedicated for the use of newbies or inexperienced hams, or those who haven’t been on the air for a long time and wouldn’t be comfortable being part of the competition.

This is where I watched 11-year old Ben Kennerknecht (W2BMK) take his turn on the radio during his first Field Day. Hesitant at first, it took him little time getting the hang of the proper exchange protocols. You could see his confidence and pride grow with every new contact.

Ham operator Don Dunn (AB2MN) explained that the weekend also serves another important purpose.

The FCC allocates a good deal of radio spectrum (that is radio frequencies) for hams’ use. We are thus expected to have the knowledge and skill to establish impromptu radio communication’s ability in the event of an emergency, be it natural, or man-made, local or regional. This is part of what we do, and Field Day is a way we practice, learn and maintain our skills, improve, and teach others.

Hams are often the first voices from disaster areas such as tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. When cell phone and land line circuits were overloaded during the 9-11 attacks, amateur radio operators carried critical information from both attack sites.

Mostly, though, it’s about ham operators getting together to enjoy their hobby. Or, as Bob explained,

Field Day is two days of junk food, very little (or no) sleep, generators, solar panels, and solving unforeseen problems. Field Day is more often than not rain and mud. Field Day (believe it or not) is FUN.

Hmmm. Fun, snacks, friends, even a little bit of learning. Maybe this field day isn’t so different after all.

Find out more about this fascinating hobby at the Rochester Amateur Radio Association website.

Post-event update: Bob Karz emailed me on Monday to tell me that more than 1000 contacts were made with stations in every state except Alaska, and several Canadian provinces. More than 50 hams participated, which was a record for the Webster event.

He also added that “we had a bit of an unplanned ‘adventure’ when our computers logging our contacts crashed at midnight Saturday by deciding not to talk to each other. It took an hour and a half to find a work around. Obstacles like this are fairly typical for Field Day as well as for real emergencies.”

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