Survival-Pax Blog: ARRL Field Day 2013

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

ARRL Field Day 2013

Recently, I have taken the initiative to learn more about Amateur (Ham) Radio. Having the ability to communicate is critical in an emergency. Communication comes right after having shelter and water in terms of importance, and it's something that is very often overlooked by many people seeking to prepare for emergencies.

Solar Panels charging a battery. A typical scene at Field Day.
This past weekend, I participated in the ARRL Field Day. The ARRL is the American Radio Relay League,. It is the nation's largest Ham Radio Organization, similar to the NRA when it comes to firearm ownership. It was founded in 1914, and has over 154,000 members. Every year on the fourth weekend in June, they have what's known as Field Day. Field Day is a 24 hour event where local Ham Radio clubs meet up and practice their emergency response capabilities. All equipment used during the event is portable and runs on off-grid power sources (generators, solar panels, etc.)

I was invited to this event by a friend who has about 20 years of Ham Radio experience and has been working and helping me get more involved. So, not knowing much about Ham Radio in practice, I showed up Saturday morning at the Field Day site.
The water tower that our antennas were strung off of.
You can see a directional antenna in the top left of the image.

I always carry 550 Paracord when I go to events like this.
We used a 10' piece of Paracord to help us string up
one of the dipole antennas. 
The Field Day site was located next to a water tower. They used the height of the tower to attach temporary antennas to. When you have an antenna, you want it to be as high as possible so as to minimize any obstructions from other tall objects such a buildings, trees, mountains, etc. A tall antenna also allows for a further line of sight, since transmissions at certain wavelengths are limited in their distance by the curvature of the earth (think of viewing the horizon from atop a tall building). The further the line of sight, the further those transmissions will go. All in all, with a tall antenna, you are able to transmit and receive signals more clearly than with an antenna mounted at a lower elevation.

Field Day officially started at 1800 UTC, which is 1 pm Central time. I arrived at around 10 am, so I was there for much of the setup. The day started by setting up tents and stringing antennas off of the water tower. I learned a lot seeing how antennas were setup. After setup, we had to tune the antennas to make sure that they resonated at the proper frequencies. I learned that if the antenna is not properly tuned, energy put into it to transmit actually turns into heat, which can damage the radio transceiver. Since transceivers can cost several thousand dollars, you really need to pay attention to tuning your antenna.

All contacts are recorded in a logbook. Most logs are now recorded on
specialized software for convenience, although there are still people
who keep pen and paper logs.
At 1 pm the action began. The club that I was with had various stations, each one devoted to a different wavelength used for transmission. While Field Day is officially organized to test emergency response, it has become a huge contest day, and you have people competing all across the country for who can make the most contacts. A contact consists of exchanging Call Signs and Locations with another person over the radio. A Call Sign is a unique identifier that every licensed Ham Radio operator is granted upon receiving their license.

The concept of a Ham Radio Contest was all very new to me. People at each station were calling out for contacts, racing to try and get the most points possible for the local team. Transmissions at longer wavelengths usually have a longer range, and those stations were receiving much more traffic than the stations transmitting at shorter wavelengths. Transmissions on shorter wavelengths have a limited, line of sight range of a just over 100 miles. I spent some time at the VHF (Very High Frequency)/UHF (Ultra High Frequency) tent and they only had about 10 contacts after an hour or two of communication due to their short range. The HF (High Frequency) station has many more contacts than that, because HF wavelengths are longer than the VHF/UHF wavelengths.

Here's a picture of me at the GOTA tent
tuning the radio to try and find a contact.
Since I was a newbie, I spent a lot of time at the GOTA (Get On The Air) tent. That tent was set up to transmit on HF bands to allow people new to the hobby to communicate with the big boys. In contrast to the VHF/UHF tent, which was very quiet with few contacts, the HF frequencies of the GOTA tent were jammed with constant communication. People were talking over one another, trying to get a contact in. I had a hard time finding the right moment to answer a call, but over the course of an hour, I was able to get a couple of contacts in. People I spoke with were located all across the United States. Contacts from California and Arizona were coming in especially clear. I am located in Illinois, which is about 2,000 miles away from California. It was really amazing to think that I was speaking with someone clearly, who was so far away, all without the use of cell networks, phone networks or the internet.

This woman is using a paddle to transmit messages via
Morse Code. Morse Code signals are still used because of
their narrow bandwidth which means that signals can be
heard across the globe with very little power required.
But, Field Day isn't all about the contest... it's also a great time for local Hams to get together. The club hosted a barbecue for everyone, with places to sit down and talk with people. I was really surprised at the friendliness of everyone there. I spoke with a lot of people, and learned more about Ham Radio in one sitting than ever before.

My experience at this year's Field Day was great. It has given me a new perspective on Ham Radio, and revealed to me how powerful of a communication tool it can be. However, it's also shown me that getting good at it is much more difficult than I had initially thought. It's not just something that you can pick up and expect to know how to use. Over the coming year, I hope to learn more about Ham Radio and eventually even get my own radio and equipment.

Have any of your participated in Field Day 2013? Are any of you involved in Ham Radio? Let me know in the comments below.

Take care guys!

Simon - Survival-Pax Team Member

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