Tuned in

GARVIN PARK – More than 35,000 amateur radio operators in the U.S. and Canada gathered their gear and set up their antennas in remote locations last weekend to participate in the annual Amateur Radio Relay League Field Day. Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is a popular hobby for people who want to transmit information through the air to locations across the globe without depending on commercial systems. Some radios are even able to reach beyond our planet, as some operators have prided themselves with making contact with the International Space Station as it passes over them.

“Field Day is a national competition for us,” said Arl Weinerbe of Avoca, who is one of the members of the Murray County Amateur Radio Club that set up camp at Garvin Park to participate in Field Day. “We go out and work all the bands and try to make as many contacts as we can in a 24-hour period. I made Alaska last night at 11 o’clock.”

The goal of Field Day, according to ARRL’s website, is to work as many stations as possible and to learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions. Hams also strive to develop skills and meet the challenges of emergency preparedness as well as familiarize the general public with the capabilities of amateur radio.

Field Day only happens once a year, but Weinerbe said a lot of the club’s members are on the radio all the time.

“I pretty much carry my radio and antenna with me all summer long,” Weinerbe said. “And when I camp I set it up and make contacts and just sit at my camper and play on my radio.”

Weinerbe said he has been doing amateur radio since 2007. He first became interested in the hobby while at work as the director of maintenance at the Murray County Medical Center.

“The hospital got a radio, and no one knew how to run it, so I said I’d go get my license and figure it out,” Weinerbe said. “I even went out and bought a radio to match it so I’d know how to work it.”

Generally, ham radio operators consider their work a hobby and do it for fun, but if there ever was an emergency, they are ready to step in and help ensure that there are working lines of communication. Weinerbe also serves as the District 5 emergency coordinator for Murray County and his ham radio experience helps him in his work.

“If something ever happened, we would send out our ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) response teams,” Weinerbe said. “We would go out, set up and help with communications. We don’t go unless we are requested, but most of us would go out and let officials know that we are here, and if they need assistance, we can get people together to help them out.”

During the summer months, ham radio operators sometimes also serve as storm spotters, and Weinerbe serves as “the net control for storm spotters. When our guys are out running up and down the highways, I sit at the radio and relay their messages.”

Even though its club name has Murray County in it, the club covers Pipestone, Lincoln, Lyon, Cottonwood and Nobles counties, too. Luke Miller of Marshall is a member of the club and has been working with radios for more than a decade.

“I got my license when I was stationed in Belgium back in 2002,” Miller said. “I was in the Army at the time.”

Miller said what he likes most about amateur radio is “the ability to reach across the world on minimal power, and some of the international and local goodwill it brings.”

But what about telephones, the Internet and televisions? Don’t they allow people to communicate across the world? Why do we need amateur radio?

In unison, Weinerbe and Miller replied, “Hurricane Katrina.”

“I was there,” Miller said. “I had just left the Army and joined the Georgia National Guard, and I got a call at 2 o’clock in the morning saying that I’d been activated.”

“There was almost no cellphone communications, the Internet was down and radio communications was it,” Miller said. “When we got down there, it was a mess. We didn’t get as far as New Orleans, but we were in Gulf Port, Mississippi, and that place was hit pretty bad, too. There was a lot of ham radio stations running around. Cell phone coverage started to slowly improve but by the time we were out of there, it was only at 40 percent.”

Gary Busch of Fulda and Dennis Welu of Pipestone were also at Garvin Park participating in Field Day.

“I talked to Hawaii last night, and that would be my farthest contact,” Busch said. “I talked to Bermuda, too.”

Busch said he became interested in radio while in school, “but I couldn’t really afford it. By the time I got older, it was beer, girls and cars that I was interested in! And then I went into the service and then life. Then I found out that Arl was on the radio and we’re good friends, so I got my license.”

Welu said he got his start “way back in the ’60s when I started with CB radio. Then I joined the Civil Air Patrol and did radio there. I’ve always liked radio.”

The club has found that a lot of people involved with amateur radio have past military experience.

“All of us here are military veterans,” Weinerbe said.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Busch said. “It’s a perfect hobby for me because I don’t have to sit out on the ice or look in a fish hole or anything like that. I can sit in my easy chair at 72 degrees and just listen.”