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Ham radio operators practice for emergency

This past weekend, radio clubs from around the country, whose members are also known as ham radio operators, held their annual Field Day.

“We’re operating here, assuming that some day there would be an emergency, and we would have to contact people,” explained Mel Bach, a member of the Carbon County Amateur Radio Club, and the lead for the club’s Field Day. “The probability of losing all communication is pretty slim, but we need to be ready.”

According to the American Radio Relay League website, hams from across North America ordinarily participate in Field Day by establishing temporary ham radio stations in public locations to demonstrate their skill and service. Their use of radio signals, which reach beyond borders, bring people together while providing essential communication in the service of communities. Field Day highlights ham radio’s ability to work reliably under any conditions from almost any location and create an independent, wireless communications network.

“The whole thing is designed, in case of a catastrophe of some sort, to keep some line of communication open,” Bach continued. “We communicate, for instance, with Emergency Management out of Harrisburg. They would get on and declare an emergency; we would go on and wait for them to ask for a report with any information we might have.”

Bach, who lives in Albrightsville, worked out of an RV at the Penn Forest Park along Route 903 in Penn Forest Township.

“I’m working Morse code now,” Bach explained. “I can also do ‘single side band,’ which is talking to people.”

Several other members, Eric Bott, Glenn Schnell and Larry Dusablon, were monitoring the transmitters, turning knobs and listening for other ham operators.

“We search for a signal we can understand,” Dusablon explained. “We get the call letters, class and location from them, they get our information from us, and that way they can confirm that we did have a conversation.”

Bott was doing what is called FT8. It sounded like a high-pitched noise.

“It’s a pretty annoying kind of whine; but, it’s very effective,” Bott explained.

“The signal coming in is so low, it can’t be heard by the human ear. But the computer software we have catches it and converts it to a digital message.”

“For all of our contacts, we enter three things: our call letters, our class and our section. Our computer logs all this information, and that gets sent to the American Radio Relay League.

The “class” consists of a number, which corresponds to how many transmitters they are using, and a letter which indicates the power source. “A” is a generator, “D” is electrical outlet, “B” is batter, and “BS” is battery solar.

The section is where the club is located. For Carbon County, it’s “EPA” which means Eastern Pennsylvania.

The Field Day is also a chance for operators to get together and share a weekend together, almost like a camping trip. For some clubs, ham operators were on call for 24 straight hours.

“I joined in 1995, 27 years now,” Bott said. “When I first got my license, we didn’t have all this computer stuff. It’s evolved a lot - there’s always something new.”

“I joined when I was 14 years old; now I’m 80,” Bach added. “We go all over the country. I’ve been to 49 of the 50 states. At the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, we were volunteers at that, and I did this to track the dogs. If the teams had trouble, we could communicate their position.”

There are about 750,000 federally licensed amateur radio operators in the U.S. To obtain a license, one must take written examinations on scientific knowledge and regulations. There is no age restrictions to obtain a license. Operators range in age from 5 to 108.

Prominent Americans who are licensed amateur radio operators include comedian Tim Allen, former FEMA Director Craig Fugate, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow, Nobel Prize laureate Joe Taylor, guitarist Joe Walsh of the Eagles, and astronaut Bob Behnken, who is currently aboard the International Space Station and who rode aboard the Dragon SpaceX rocket to get there.

Mel Bach, member of the Carbon County Amateur Radio Club, communicates with another club from eastern New York. JAMES LOGUE JR./SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Members of the Carbon County Amateur Radio Club at the annual Field Day weekend at Penn Forest Park, from left are Glenn Schnell of Lehighton and Larry Dusablon of Albrightsville.