The Heart O’ Texas Amateur Radio Club set up their radios and antennas at Hewitt Park Saturday to participate in American Radio Relay League Field Day. The overnight event, which started in 1933, brings the activity out into the world and gives ham radio operators the opportunity to show the public what ham radio is and the different things it can be used for, coordinator Mike Davis said.
The day is meant to highlight ham radio’s reliability in almost any location, which can’t always be said for other wireless communication devices.
Ham radio operators, also known as hams, try to connect with as many people as they can in a 24-hour period on Field Day, said Bill Feltenberger, who has been working with ham radio for 20 years. They are able to play with ham radio as much as they want, so long as they’re willing to help during an emergency, he said.
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“More specifically than that it’s to see if we can turn our generators on and communicate in case the end of the world comes, or in case the tornado blows away half the world … the point is we’ve got gasoline at our house and we’ve got engines … and we can set up our radios and communicate,” Feltenberger said.
Hams must be licensed though the Federal Communications Commission, which sets aside radio frequencies for amateur use, said Davis, who goes by the FCC-designated call sign NA5X. Through these frequencies, hams can use scanners, receivers and transmitters to listen and speak to others nearby, across the country, on other continents and even in space.
“It turns your voice into electronics, it turns electronics into R-F radio frequency,” said Feltenberger, known on air as KD5UEW. “The radio frequency goes out over the antenna, and somebody else reverses that process to hear it on the radio.”
He picked up his microphone and beeped in, “this is KD5UEW … can anybody come back to me?”
A man from Oglesby replied and said Feltenberger’s transmittal was received and sounded great.
“Y’all make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. … Clear,” the man said over the radio as he signed off.
On Field Day, non-licensed members of the public can, with help, access these frequencies and communicate with others in real time.
“You need a radio, you need a microphone and you need an antenna, and a power source,” Davis said. “And if you have all that then you can talk just about anywhere.”
There are three levels of licensing in the United States, each providing more bandwidth to reach out to users locally or around the world, he said. Some high-level hams, like Feltenberger, like to play around with modifications, but once a technician passes the 35-question multiple choice test to get their first license, “it’s a matter of figuring things out,” Davis said.
Feltenberger on Saturday had his computer set up and connected to a radio, and by changing the antennas he was able to send emails via radio even in the absence of internet access.
“Now the point of this out here is not very valued, but if I’m at the hospital at Marlin and they need to send a patient to Scott & White in Waco and there’s no telephone, ham radio can send the message … There’s a communication thing that’s available even when the internet’s not,” Feltenberger said.
By noon Feltenberger had made contact from Hewitt Park with operators from Oglesby, Gatesville and Temple.
Ham radio shows its necessity in emergency situations, like the recent tornados that struck Perryton and wiped out AT&T signal in the area.
Davis said the two people who were running the emergency operations center at the time were using AT&T cell phones, but when their service went out they had no way to communicate. Instead of relying on cellular communication, the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service was able to provide communication between the Emergency Operations Center and the convention center where people were evacuating, he said.
“So that’s a real-world example of why we’re out here playing,” Davis said. “It’s fun, we play, but it’s a real reason.”
Feltenberger said after the West fertilizer plant explosion in 2013, ham radio operators were ready to offer their expertise, demonstrating their willingness and readiness to help out in any emergency.
“There was about a million police officers there too, and they really didn’t need us … if they need them they showed up and were available,” he said.
Hams also provide weather information when weather stations want to know what’s happening on the ground, Feltenberger said.
“They listen to our stations and listen to what we’re recording … The whole community gets the benefit of us getting to play with our radios,” he said.
John Curry, a CW operator that prefers to communicate using Morse code, has attended Field Day for the past 67 years. He said he started out doing mostly voice, but other than a few calls when necessary most of his communication over the radio is in Morse code.
Curry said Field Day has changed a lot over the past six decades, the holiday’s excitement hasn’t dulled.
“When you’ve done it this many years you don’t want to give it up,” he said. “Plus I enjoy it. I think about when I started as an 11-year-old kid that was the highlight of my year. I mean, it was just as important as Christmas … It still is exciting to me.”
Davis has been operating ham radio since 2018, but his father and grandfather were users when he was a kid and used Morse code as well. He said he remembers the radio being hooked up to a Commodore VIC-20, which was able to translate the code as it was coming in and being transmitted back out.
As time has gone by computers have gotten smaller and faster, he said, but even if cell phones and computers were gone one day a ham radio operator could tap two wires together and have a solid communication device.