James Mounts, foreground, of Upper St. Clair Township, a member of South Hills Amateur Radio Club Inc., his daughter Alexandria, 7, and club members Ron Lentz of Crafton and Mark Phillips of Wellsburg, W.VA., participate in the American Radio Relay League's Field Day in Cecil Township Saturday.

Monday, June 28, 1999

Riding the radio waves


Within a 24-hour period this weekend, a barrage of radio signals showered North America, bringing to life bandwidth that usually remains dormant and opening up obscure lines of communication.

It hasn't been science fiction; it's been an exercise in emergency communication.

Thousands of amateur radio operators, called hams, set up field communication systems in the United States and Canada as part of the American Radio Relay League's annual Field Day.

The event, which started Saturday at 2 p.m., was a contest and an effort to establish a working communications system via radio that can function during emergencies.

Hams, many of which are part of radio clubs, try to make as many contacts as possible during the event by surfing bandwidth, finding radio frequency signals and communicating with other operators.

They operate under primitive conditions, using generators or battery-powered equipment with portable antennas. Some hams also use alternative power sources, such as solar, wind or methane, to run their equipment.

"Say there was an earthquake or a flood and communications were cut," said James Mounts of Upper St. Clair, who is a director of South Hills Amateur Radio Club Inc. (SHARC). "We would be able to establish communications in other parts of the country to let people know what's going on here."

Members of SHARC pitched camp yesterday at a communications tower on Burnside Road in Cecil Township, which is owned by Cecil Township Emergency Management Association.

Hovering over a table with high frequency transceivers, antenna tuners, amplifiers and Morse code boards, members were logging every contact made. They talked in radio jargon, exchanging call letters and frequencies with other hams from Florida to Connecticut.

But tranceivers can be used to send signals anywhere in the world. They also can transmit text to computers and color television pictures by using different bandwidth, or radio frequencies that carry data on waves.

When signals are sent, they bounce between the Earth and ionosphere, some covering 3,000 miles with one bounce.

"If you could see radio frequency signals with your eyes, they would be bouncing all over the place, just like light," said Karl Frankenstein of Bethel Park, who was helping SHARC make contact during the field day. SHARC has about 20 members and has been in existence since 1993.

Frankenstein explained that hams might be essential if the Year 2000 bug causes power outages. "If communications crash," he said. "they could call in hams to establish communication contact."

Radio may be a primitive form of technology, but it is one of the most effective ways to communicate during disasters.

Mounts explained that he has used radios to help find stranded motorists and to communicate with police during snowstorms.

However, Frankenstein said there is some concern that radio communication is being marginalized.

"One of the problems that we have right now is that a lot of municipalities are placing a ban on putting up communications towers, which affects us," he said.

"The biggest problem we have is local government. With antennas, the higher the better. So if the (local government) comes along and says we are only going to allow you 15 feet, that's not going to work."

Frankenstein added that the ARRL lobbies in Congress on behalf of hams and radio clubs.

But communicating via the radio also is a hobby. Most hams use radio on a regular basis to communicate with each other, reaching places around the world and transmitting culture to one another.

Copyright ©1999 Observer Publishing Co. Last updated Monday, June 28, 1999

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