Loud and clear

GARVIN PARK – Area ham radio operators set up camp for a Field Day event at the entrance to Garvin Park on Friday evening to practice emergency preparedness and educate the public about amateur radio. They got more of a chance to show the potential of ham radio than they expected though when a tornado touched down a few miles away that night.

Kevin Haney, call sign KC0YKX, assistant section emergency coordinator for the Minnesota Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) Group, got called out to go tornado spotting Friday.

“People were trying to communicate with cell phones and couldn’t get through,” Haney said. “On my ham radio in the car I was talking to four or five people out spotting.”

Field Days are events held by the Amateur Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio.

“It’s a contest,” Haney said. “People set up in tents in an open field with no infrastructure, only battery power backed up by solar and wind, to see how many people around the country they can contact.”

Arl Weinrebe used to talk to his wife with the help of a ham operator when he was in the service overseas. He’s been personally involved in ham radio since 2007. He set up a 40-foot antenna and a homemade wind generator for his equipment.

“I’m running 20 meters, 14 megahertz,” Weinrebe said. “I’ve probably contacted about 15 to 20 people in between yacking. The farthest so far was Spokane, Washington.”

According to Haney, there are literally thousands of frequencies available for amateur radio use, which makes them uniquely suited for backup to official emergency communications. The effectiveness of different frequencies varies in different conditions and even different times of the day. Ham operators can switch frequencies to find the clearest channels.

“The Southwest Emergency Preparedness Team (SWEPT) is made up of 18 counties in the southwest region,” Haney said. “The goal is to provide hospitals with amateur radio equipment to provide backup emergency communications. Not to replace anything but to back up.”

Haney showed his “go kit” consisting of two different types of radio, batteries and an antenna. Haney also brought along some solar panels for the Field Day.

Amateur radio operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

“I have a general license,” said Michael Runholt. “There are three levels of license: technician, general and extra. Each level gives different frequencies you can use.”

There is no age limit to get a license, but amateur radio frequencies cannot be used for business purposes.

“What we’re doing is providing information to the public on amateur radio,” Haney said. “As a hobby amateur radio has been around for over 100 years. It’s not really new, but it’s being used in ways it hasn’t been in the past.”