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  • BRIAN BAER / Special to The Bee

    Club members built an antenna out of tape measures.

  • BRIAN BAER / Special to The Bee

    Mike Abernathy contacts other radio operators as the Elk Grove-Florin Amateur Radio Club takes part in an event Saturday testing their readiness to respond to emergencies.

  • BRIAN BAER / Special to The Bee

    Ham radio buffs watch as Elk Grove-Florin Amateur Radio Club members raise an antenna Saturday at a global Field Day event.

  • BRIAN BAER / Special to The Bee

    Fred Sellstrom of Wilton searches the airwaves for other ham radio operators in a global event in which radio buffs tried to contact as many people as possible.

  • BRIAN BAER / Special to The Bee

    Fred Sellstrom tunes his radio seeking other operators.

Field Day highlights emergency preparedness role of ham radio buffs

Published: Sunday, Jun. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Jun. 23, 2013 - 8:11 am

Amateur radio operators don't bust down doors or make daring rescues. They don't have a firehouse or a Dalmatian.

But when disaster strikes, they can be pretty handy to have around.

Even as emergency agencies have made significant investments to improve internal and interagency communications, officials have also recognized the valuable role amateur operators can play.

When storms, fires and earthquakes knock out critical infrastructure like power and telephone lines, amateur radio operators can keep communications lines open.

It's a role embraced by most operators of amateur radio, which is also called ham radio. On Saturday, thousands of ham radio clubs across the country mobilized for Field Day, a 24-hour challenge during which operators set up in outdoor locations and try to establish contact with as many other operators as possible.

From Nyack to Davis, several Sacramento area radio clubs participated in Saturday's challenge, eager to show what they can do.

"Let's see if anyone is on. Somebody ought to be on here by now," said Mike Abernathy, of Sacramento, who was set up with another member of the Elk Grove Florin Amateur Radio Club at Fletcher Farm Community Center in Elk Grove.

Under the shade of a pop-up canopy, Abernathy used a dial to adjust the frequency, looking for another voice. Unlike CB radios, ham radios operate across a wide range of frequencies. Abernathy made his first contact at 11:10 a.m., a clinical exchange of call signs.

"Kilo kilo six charlie whiskey X-ray," Abernathy offered.

The group got help setting up from an Elk Grove outfit of Young Marines. And a group of Boy Scouts – which the Young Marines are patterned after – pitched in to earn their radio merit badges.

"The whole idea (of Field Day) was to see if we could do emergency communication without plugging into a wall," said Richard Miller, 67, a Placer County ham radio operator. He said he was exposed to the hobby as a child, but didn't get licensed until 2008.

Sean Kutzko, a spokesmen for the Amateur Radio Relay League, which runs the Field Day event, said ham radio is seeing a resurgence in interest after lagging somewhat in the early part of the new century.

He said there are more than 700,000 licensed operators in the United States.

"It's never been healthier," Kutzko said of the hobby that dates back more than 100 years. He said ham radio has strong appeal for do-it-yourself types.

Michael Aresky, 44, belongs to a Sacramento club that focuses on using the dots and dashes of Morse code to communicate. Knowing the code is no longer a requirement to become a licensed ham radio operator, but he prefers the ease of nonverbal communication.

Eric Guenzler, 30, got started in ham through the Boy Scouts. Now he has the solar panels, batteries and all the gear needed to set up a remote station.

That ham radio operators could help during emergencies was driven home to Congress in a 2012 report from the Federal Communications Commission.

"Amateur radio communications are suited to disaster response in a way that many more advanced forms of communication today are not, thereby allowing it to supplement other emergency communications activities during disasters," the report read.

While cellular and Internet communications rely on centralized infrastructure that can become overloaded or compromised during an emergency, ham stations operate independently, said Gary Matteson, 75, of the Yolo club.

"The last man standing, historically speaking, is the amateur radio guy," said Matteson, who got his license in 1963.

By putting ham operators at important locations to act as relay stations, they can pass information thousands of miles.

Miller, from Placer County, was put to use last year after a downed power line turned into a communications blackout for much of Nevada County.

Miller said he was asked to go to a hospital where phones were out and relay 911 dispatch information.

"They never thought that ham radio worked," Miller said. "They have one in the emergency room now."

Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.

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