When Fred Merker, of Finksburg, first developed his interest in becoming an amateur radio - or ham radio - operator, cellphones and other pocket-sized communication devices were still in the realm of science-fiction and Dick Tracy comics.
Now that cellphones and wireless Internet are nearly unavoidable, Merker and the other members of the Baltimore Polytechnic Alumni Radio Club fulfill a very different, but still vital, role in communications. Each year, the group participates in the American Radio Relay League Field Day, where their proficiency with various forms of radio communication will be tested to judge their efficiency in case of an emergency.
"The idea is that if there's a power failure because of snow or a hurricane, we hams can help the community and deploy our communication skills," Merker said.
The field day takes place over the period of 24 hours, and judges amateur radio groups on the number of connections they are able to make with other hams. Merker said each group is required to set up antennas specifically for use during the competition. The Polytech group set up in Merker's backyard, with four different antennas run off a single gas generator and transmitting different forms of information. The members split into several different stations; some were communicating by Morse-code, some by voice and others communicated through digital text information transmitted through the radio waves.
Ron Tassi, who ran one of the stations, said the reason radio provides such an important function in emergency situations is the ease in which a system can be set up.
"With modern communication you need an infrastructure," Tassi said. "You need the internet or a power grid and satellites. When a major catastrophe happens and all of that goes down, amateur radio is a standalone system."
More than ten years ago, Merker said, he was called on to use his radio skills to aid police and fire departments during a Tornado that struck in Gamber.
"It's amazing what can be done with very low power," Merker said. "It's a very efficient way of transmitting information and it's very effective."
Merker said he first was attracted to ham radio operation in middle school, when he discovered his love of electronics. After retiring from a career in broadcasting, Merker rediscovered his hobby along with his other ham friends from high school.
"Being a ham is really just about keeping up with friends by using the radio," Merker said. "I don't know why I get a kick out of talking to people by radio and not by telephone, but I do. I enjoy troubleshooting any problems that might happen with our equipment."
Merker said there is a difficulty in attracting younger hams to the field.
"We say that we can communicate worldwide, but they're saying 'We can do that already. I'm on Facebook and I'm communicating with my friends. What do I need ham radio for?'" Merker said. "It makes it hard to keep the hobby going. The internet and wi-fi and cellphones have stolen some of the intrigue and mystery from ham radio."
Jared Schuman is one of the newest members of the Polytech group. He said he discovered them through an internet group for amateur radio enthusiasts.
"I've only been licensed for about a year," Schuman said. "I was interested in it because citizen band radio was quite popular when I was a kid and my dad had a home station that intrigued me. It seemed so interesting you could get on and talk to someone free of charge. I wanted to be a part of that world."
Schuman operated the digital station. He said one of the advantages the new digital technology has is that messages can be transmitted more compactly, with 30 different conversations fitting into the same amount of bandwidth as a single spoken conversation.
"This is where a lot of the technology advances in the hobby are forming," Schuman said. "The basics have always stayed the same, but the equipment keeps moving forward and providing new opportunities."