DUBOIS – Members of the American Radio Relay League across the country participated in the organization’s annual day this past weekend. Clubs in Treasure Lake, Jefferson County, and Crooked Creek, Armstrong County have set up their ham radio equipment in remote locations to show how radio amateurs operate with little to no public infrastructure.
Steve Smith, a representative for the Treasure Lake Sportsman’s Club Amateur Radio Club, said his group had good attendance at the event.
“It was a rainy day, but we had about 50 people showing up,” he said. The attendees were a mix of club members, ham operators, and members of the general public interested in exploring the modern take on a vintage hobby.
Attendance was lower at the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association site in Crooked Creek State Park near Ford City. However, the park’s Environmental Discovery Center provided shelter from the rain and plenty of space to set up members’ amateur radio stations.
Steve Fazekas, the current emergency communications coordinator for the club, was pleased with the turnout. Club president Jody Farr said most of Saturday’s attendees were members, but Sunday’s better weather could have drawn more members of the public.
Smith and Fazekas both said amateur radio is far from a quaint pastime in the age of cellphones and the internet.
Smith said, “We have set up a local repeater for the use of our club members, not all of whom are federally licensed as amateur radio. There is no law against listening to radio traffic, however, if you are not licensed. The club provided inexpensive amateur radios that were configured to receive only, not to transmit. “
The goal of the sports club is to provide local information in the event of a generalized emergency that has destroyed or submerged public communication infrastructures. The club has its own repeater, which functions much like a cell phone tower, relaying signals to radios tuned to its particular frequency.
The Fort Armstrong club, a long-standing group of veteran hams, is focusing more on regional communication. Part of the Armstrong County Emergency Communications Office, the club performs mock emergency tests each spring and fall, testing its ability to communicate with emergency responders and the Kittanning Hospital.
Fort Armstrong can also deploy its club trailer to support emergency communications in the field. Members of the club can often be found operating out of it during the Fort Armstrong Folk Festival and other public events, mostly canceled this year due to COVID-19.
While Hams can do everything from chatting with their close neighbors to talking to crew members aboard the International Space Station, the 2020 natural disaster is different from what they trained for. When it became clear that utilities would not be affected, Hams turned to daily or weekly welfare checks.
Social distancing requirements have meant that monthly in-person club meetings are suspended for a period of time. During this time, the Treasure Lake club began to organize virtual gatherings on the Internet.
But the Internet requires the contribution of public services. The June 27 field day demonstrated that licensed amateur radio operators can keep lines of communication open when nothing else is working. Using batteries and alternative energies like solar power, their radios always work when all else fails.