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Anne Arundel County

Ham radio enthusiasts plan to have a Field Day

Given all the technologies available to consumers today, you might think the staid hobby of ham radio is about as relevant to modern life as rabbit-ear TV antennas.

Cell phones. E-mail. Skype. People around the world have more and faster means of getting hold of each other than ever.

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But just six months ago, the earthquake in Haiti was another reminder that amateur radio still gives a strong signal. Ham operators sent early news reports from the shattered island, just as they've done for decades in the aftermath of every hurricane, earthquake and snowstorm that has crippled or jammed the means of communication we usually assume will work.

Next weekend, scores of Anne Arundel's 1,000 or so licensed ham operators will take part in what amounts to their Super Bowl. Part campout, part emergency preparedness exercise, Field Day sets aside 24 hours during which hams around the world set up their gear away from home, try to contact as many of their global counterparts as possible using only emergency power sources, and in general have a grand time "rag-chewing" (gabbing), eating barbecue and crashing in tents.

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"One reason ham radio exists is that it serves as an emergency backup system," says Bruce McPherson, president of the Maryland Mobileers Amateur Radio Club, one of the two based in Anne Arundel County that will hold Field Day exercises that are free and open to the public. "Field Day keeps us sharp, but we wouldn't do it if it weren't fun."

Based in Severn, the Mobileers, or MMARC, will meet in Downs Memorial Park in Pasadena, the Anne Arundel Radio Club on the grounds of the Davidsonville Family Recreation Center, between 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday.

Members of the public will have their own chance to go on the air, with the hams' help.

Field Day, held on the fourth weekend of every June, is a chance to take a fresh look at a hobby many operators say has come a long way. "People don't realize what an enjoyable pastime this is," McPherson says. "That's one reason we hold Field Day. It's not your father's amateur radio anymore."

'The magic still holds'

The stereotype of the ham operator (no one knows exactly where the nickname comes from) is as dusty as the Lone Ranger comics your packrat great-uncle might have saved in his steamer trunk.

Many see the ham as the guy surrounded in his basement by antennas, tubes and old Band-Aid tins, as happy chatting up new pals in Maui or Minsk as speaking with the people next door.

"We're geeks and proud of it," says McPherson, who got his operator license in 1973. "More and more, though, there's room for all kinds in this hobby."

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Talk to a dozen short-wavers and you'll get 20 different reasons why they love it. Some like supporting their community's events. To some, the social element of being in a club is enough. Others just crave new technical challenges, like figuring out how to use their equipment to bounce signals off the moon or the trail of a meteor.

For many, though, it's still the romance of the thing.

"When I was 13, the idea of talking to someone in Europe any time I wanted to was a big carrot," says Ross Sorci of Arnold, one of the Mobileers' 130 or so members. "Even though I could just send an e-mail [nowadays], I still get a thrill talking to someone on the other side of the world. The magic still holds."

Engineers and other technical types abound in the Anne Arundel clubs, perhaps because of the region's proliferation of jobs in that area. But soldiers, secretaries, housewives and more belong to the Mobileers and the Anne Arundel Amateur Radio Club.

Members range in age from their early teens to their senior years.

For reasons few can explain, most operators are male, though McPherson says he sees signs of that changing. "There's nothing inherently masculine about [ham radio]," he says. "It just seems to appeal more to men than to women."

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But for all enthusiasts, it has a serious foundation. The Federal Radio Commission, precursor to the FCC, established the Amateur Radio Services in the early 1900s, reserving bandwidth for licensed, noncommercial operators so they could improve their technical skills and be ready in case of emergencies.

Operators must pass an exam and gain an FCC license before using the "amateur bands" — frequencies that exist above the AM broadcast and up into high microwave frequencies.

Anne Arundel County reserves a room at its Emergency Operations Center in Glen Burnie for a few who come in and practice once a month.

"We haven't had an emergency yet where communications have failed," says Battalion Chief Steve Thompson of the Anne Arundel County Office of Emergency Management, "but [ham operators] are there if we need them. They're a great insurance policy to have in your back pocket."

Tomatoes and technology

By the 1950s, amateur radio had become a hobby people took up for fun. While it has evolved technologically, ham radio remains that way.

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Take Bob Delamarter of Lothian, one of the 360 members of the Anne Arundel Amateur Radio Club (AARC).

Delamarter, 51, a member of the disaster relief team at his church, got his license to help him in that role six years ago. He soon moved up to Amateur Extra, the highest level of proficiency, and made his new interest a family affair.

His wife, Kim, and 29-year-old son, Robbie, got licenses, too — Kim a general license, the level below Bob's, and Robbie's is a technician's (the lowest level). "My other son has a Droid" smart phone, says Delamarter, a supervisor for Washington Gas. "I still think there's hope for him."

Delamarter, his club's Field Day coordinator, has loved setting up the many antennas in his yard, including the 558-yarder that winds semi-invisibly through his trees. Sorci, his MMARC counterpart, has a 70-foot backyard tower.

It helps them as "DX-ers" — ham-speak for operators who like connecting with users a long way away.

Sometimes, Delamarter gets on just to see who's there — like the three fellows up and down the Eastern seaboard who were talking tomatoes one night.

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"The guy in South Carolina had planted his. The one in Maryland was still thinking about it. The one in Maine wouldn't plant for a while; it was way too cold," he says. "It was funny just to listen in."

McPherson, of Odenton, says the real eccentrics can keep things lively. Some operators travel to exotic islands, even remote coral reefs, and set up shop just so their friends can notch a "contact" from an odd place. Others collect postcards from every country they've contacted. One friend has contacted every country in the world but North Korea, where amateur radio is prohibited.

Closer to home, hams often volunteer their talents at community events. Operators help police coordinate the Fourth of July parade in Severna Park, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim each June and more.

And McPherson, 55, models the way in which operators have found ways of embracing newer technologies, from Global Positioning Systems to satellites to the Internet.

Every March, he rides his bike alongside the leader in the B&A; Trail Marathon. Employing a capability developed by Bob Bruninga, an Anne Arundel native, he uses a radio that signals his GPS coordinates in such a way that race officials can see his location on their computer screens.

Another relatively new system, EchoLink, allows operators to use the same sort of technology used in Skype to send their voices over the Internet, establishing reliable links between a speaker and local ham systems all the way across the globe.

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That kind of innovation helps ham radio stay ahead of the curve, hobbyists say, helping it steadily grow. As of last year, 682,497 people had amateur radio licenses in the U.S., according to the American Radio Relay League, or ARRL, the nation's largest membership association of ham radio enthusiasts.

That was up nearly 40,000 from 2007 — a notable jump after a couple of years of decline — and there are now some 2.5 million ham operators worldwide, the organization says.

"A lot of people don't understand ham radio isn't ancient history," McPherson says. "It's a leading-edge hobby."

Making contacts

The American Radio Relay League, founded in 1917, ran the first Field Day Contest in 1933 and has conducted every one since. During last year's, more than 37,000 operators made contact with others around the world.

Volunteers have been planning the 2010 version pretty much since last year's ended. MMARC's website and AARC's newsletter, Ham Arundel News, have been trolling for volunteers, publishing plans and supplying countdowns.

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"Field Day is less than three months away," AARC President Rick Creagher wrote in April.

The clubs will set up tents, antennas and transceivers at their sites Friday. Starting at 2 p.m. the next day, they'll send out voice and digital signals and Morse code (still used because it's understood internationally). They'll use only battery and generator power, as they would if normal communications were down.

As always, members will take turns trying to contact as many operators around the country and the world as they can before the clock runs out. "We won't be stopping to chitchat," McPherson says. "On Field Day, you never do."

ARRL awards competitive points for every contact made, to clubs that offer public demonstrations, to those that attract news media attention and more, and some of the 1,559 registered sites will be trying hard to dominate. Not so the locals. "It's about having a good time, staying sharp and sharing the hobby," McPherson says

To Delamarter, last year's highlight came when an elderly man brought his 8-year-old grandson to Davidsonville for a first ham radio experience. The boy went straight on the air.

"He must have made 10 contacts," Delamarter says. "He had such a smile. He has been taking classes" at AARC ever since.

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But even if you're not trying to win, Field Day can be a strain.

"Last year, from setup through breakdown, I was at it for 36 straight hours," Delamarter says. "That's not happening again. This year, I'm leaving time for a nap."


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