Amateur radio operators from across Steele County got together this past weekend for the annual American Radio Relay League (ARRL) National Field Day.
The test/competition is conducted throughout the United States and Canada and sees amateur radio operators connecting up for a 24-hour period beginning Saturday at 1 p.m. local time until Sunday at 1 p.m.
One of the main purposes for the field day is to test each group’s readiness in case of an emergency situation. These could range from a flood, to a bad storm, to even something like infrastructure issues.
Mike Conrad, who organizes the event each year, explained that amateur radio operators have been called in to help assist emergency personnel during situations such as the 2007 flooding in Rushford, Minn., and the aftermath of hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.
“A few operators went over to Rushford, and they were rotating in and out,” he said of their assistance during the flooding. “For several days, the only communication out of Rushford was amateur radio.”
Conrad has been participating in the event since 2008, and he says that he was always interested in amateur radio. “I had an interest years and years ago and never really did anything with it,” he said. “A lot was because back then you had to know Morse code to do it.”
After the requirement for using Morse code was dropped as a mandatory part of the event, Conrad said he took a beginner’s class and has been active in it ever since. “I’ve been the field day organizer for the last five years or so.”
According to Conrad, there were about 20 participants this year, which is a little bit down from previous years, a result he attributes to the sun experiencing a solar minimum, which means there is less ions in the atmosphere to bounce the radio signals off of.
“Sun spots can and do affect radio communication and right now the sun is at a solar minimum,” fellow radio operator Tom Karnauskas explained. “So particularly at the higher frequency the sky is not being charged for the higher frequencies.” This means that the higher frequency signals will not be able to bounce of the sun’s charge in the atmosphere.
During the event there are 83 designated regions scattered throughout North America that each host their own teams of radio operators. “Last year we had about 900 contacts,” Conrad said of the many radio operators they connected up with at last year’s event.
The competitive aspect comes into play as each team tries to reach these 83 zones spread across North America. The team who connects with the most gets the bragging rights for the year. The Steele County team has come within two or three of the 83 regions in prior years, but has never connected with all 83.
“When we connect up, we give our call sign, and how many transmitters we’re running, and what they call the class, which just describes that we’re operating off of generator power rather than traditional electricity and that we’re in a public place, and our location, in our case it’s Minnesota” Conrad said.
While some states with large populations such as California, Florida, and New York are split up into different regions, Minnesota’s smaller population means that the entire state counts as one single region.
“Last year, there were 37,000 amateurs that participated in this event,” Conrad said. This included folks from all over North American, including Canada. “Mostly it’s just because people enjoy it, and it’s fun, but there’s an importance behind doing it, and that’s practice.”
For those who would like to get involved in amateur radio, Conrad says the best approach would be to participate in an event like this one. “They should jump at the chance and come to events like this,” he said. “That’s kind of another reason for us to do this.”
For 24 hours Conrad and his fellow radio operators were able to connect up with other operators throughout the continent in what was a fun way to test their emergency preparedness. “We are a tool the county can use,” Conrad said of the group.