When Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina in 1989, emergency personnel turned to ham radio operators to stay in touch with isolated communities and the outside world. It is a partnership that has lasted for decades.
“Part of the reason the federal communications division gives us ‘real estate’ is because of our ability to provide voluntary services in emergencies,” said Sumter Amateur Radio Association Vice President Hap Griffin.
Ham radio, or amateur radio, dates to the beginning of radio, when inventors such as Guglielmo Marconi were first unraveling the mystery of how electromagnetic waves travel through the atmosphere.
“Basically what we are doing is the continuation of what the pioneers started,” Griffin said.
Since ham radio operators are transmitting signals that can travel around the planet, operators must be licensed by taking tests that show their proficiency with the equipment, including how to avoid interfering with other electronic signals.
Several members of the local amateur radio club were at the Sumter Enduro Riders Motorcycle Association clubhouse near Wedgefield on a recent Saturday to take part in the American Radio Relay League’s annual Field Day activities.
Each year during the last weekend in June, ham radio operators and amateur radio clubs such as Sumter Amateur Radio Association set up broadcasting stations and attempt to make contact with other ham radio operators across the country and around the globe.
“It’s part of our training,” Griffin said. “That’s the whole idea, to keep skills sharp and make sure we have the necessary equipment.”
The field day is a competition, which includes setting up a transmitter at a location which does not normally have one. The competition is judged by which operators and clubs can log the most contacts in a 24-hour period — from 2 p.m. Saturday to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Griffin said some clubs get really into setting up in remote locations with tents and electric generators.
“We are a little older, and we try to find a place with air conditioning, electric power and a place to use the restroom,” Griffin said, laughing.
On that Saturday, club members were erecting a directional antenna at SERMA, as well as a line antenna. Each type of antenna broadcasts at a different frequency, or band.
The lower, 80-40-meter band and the 20-15-10-meter band can be used to communicate with most of the U.S. and several countries, Griffin said.
Ham radio frequencies operate by bouncing signals off layers in the ionosphere, which must be charged up by solar radiation to work most efficiently.
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