Loudoun amateur radio enthusiasts test their skills at Field Day competition

By Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010

In a world filled with texts, tweets and e-mails, amateur radio operators know that when disaster strikes, they are some of the select few still capable of communicating when power grids and cellular signals fail.

That's why members of the Loudoun Amateur Radio Group camped out on a farm in Lovettsville over the weekend for their annual Field Day, a competition in which amateur radio operators take to remote areas and simulate emergency situations, then put their skills to the test.

"The nice thing about ham radio is that it's completely independent of all of our other communication systems," said Doug Johnson, the event's coordinator. "You don't realize how dependent you are until it fails, until the power is out and there is no dial tone."

Amateur radio operators live in a world where alphanumeric call signs take the place of cellphone numbers and sometimes replace the operators' last names. Members' badges at the event included their call signs -- such as Rick Miller's "AI1V" -- in large bold black type, and the operators' first names were printed below in smaller red type.

On Sunday, operators were busy not with text messaging and checking voicemails, but sending and receiving radio messages by voice, text, satellite and Morse code, which in the hands of the right operator is faster than texting.

The operators' objective in the contest is to try to contact as many other operators as they can in 24 hours, Johnson said. When the event closed Sunday afternoon, the group had contacted nearly 4,000 operators as far away as New Zealand.

"It has a reputation as being something your grandfather would have [done]," Johnson said, adding that some of the operators spent the weekend sending and receiving rapid-fire messages using Morse code.

Despite how archaic the communication method seems, it's done a good job of keeping up with the times. Operators hooked radios and Morse code keys into laptops and used solar panels to augment battery power.

"Right now, we're sending digital," said Dodson Brown, the group's treasurer. "The laptop has the ability to change all the settings in the transmitters and the receiver. It also formats the audio signal that goes through the microphone."

Amateur radio operators are licensed through the Federal Communications Commission and are organized under the American Radio Relay League. Operators typically work in more rural or remote locations to avoid interfering with police and emergency radio frequencies.

More than 700,000 amateur radio operators work nationwide, Johnson said, and the hobby can translate into public service or competition. Their efforts have aided emergency communications after such events as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the earthquake in Haiti this year.

Mike Lonneke, who has been a ham radio operator for nearly 50 years, said it takes a strong will and patience to be successful.

"If you want instant gratification, this is not the hobby for you," he said. "If you want to study and become proficient in something and serve other people, then that's a hobby for you."

Lonneke's father and uncle were ham radio operators during his childhood in Wichita, Kan. He remembers how thrilled he was when he first contacted his uncle, who lived in California, via ham radio. "The thought of being able to talk to him with a set that I had made with my own hands and a little wire antenna I had strung up in my back yard, it was just absolutely fascinating to me," he said.

Norm Styer, one of Lonneke's friends and a fellow ham radio enthusiast, said he's spoken with amateur radio operators in nearly every country, if only momentarily. Styer and others said that aside from the public service and educational aspect of ham radio operation, the hobby has been a tool for enthusiasts to create bonds stretching as far as a radio frequency will take them.

"We know how to work together and what we have to do and who we can count on," Styer said. "We're ready to go."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company