Amateur radio operators from across the Golden Triangle gathered over the weekend at the Community Counseling Services Administrative Campus, formerly Mary Holmes College in West Point.
By the end of Sunday, at least one operator had made it 7,850 miles from there, to Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, using Morse code.
The farthest radio contact was one of the highlights of a picture perfect weekend for Mississippi State University’s W5YD Amateur Radio Club annual field day event.
“Four months of planning went into putting this together,” said Colby Stevens, club vice president. “There’s more to it than just fellowship. It takes effort.”
Club public information coordinator Caleb Rich said the event assembles individual amateur radio operators as well as amateur radio clubs to set up their portable stations and practice operations in the field.
“This gives them an opportunity to see how well their equipment is, or is not, working before any event occurs that may require that emergency response,” he said.
Participants in the field day ranged from teens to seasoned veterans who find common ground in the fascinating world of radio communications. Tents and antennas were scattered around the parking lot with teams reaching out across the globe to contact colleagues, since the field day is an international event.
A Methodist pastor from Columbus, Reverend Gene Bramlett has been involved in amateur or “ham” radio for 10 years.
“It’s a hands-on hobby,” he said. “It begins with theory that is perfected through experimentation to become real-time communication.”
A global community of amateur radio operators
Stevens offered some background about the term “ham.”
“The term comes from the start of amateur radio in the early 1900s when Morse code was the only practical way of communication in the hobby,” Stevens said. “Some of the first members of the hobby were professional Morse code keyers who worked sending telegrams across the country and world. When amateurs joined the hobby, they weren’t nearly as professional in their Morse code keying and had wildly inconsistent forming of their dits and dahs (dots and dashes).
“This led to professional keyers terming amateurs as ‘ham-fisted operators’ as an insult because they couldn’t keep up with the speed or match the consistency of the professionals,” he added. “This term was then shortened to ‘ham’ and the name has stuck ever since.”
The amateur radio hobby exercises skills from a previous generation that still find useful applications today, but you have to know a few old-school things to connect. The glossary of related terms covers the entire alphabet with overlapping terms from the field of electronics.
“There is some overlap with electronics, but it’s simple enough for young students to understand it,” Stevens said. “We have a group of home-schoolers that are operators.”
Even though the technology used by amateur radio has progressed as much as the rest of our world, radio communications are still affected by the weather.
“Atmospheric conditions can change on a dime,” Stevens said.
Lowndes County club president John Buckley said digital modes connect amateur radio and distribute communications between radios and computers globally and beyond.
“Ham radio operators can bounce a signal off of the moon and talk with astronauts about the international space station,” he said.
In the world of acronyms and abbreviations, ARRL stands for the American Radio Relay League — a global community of amateur radio operators.
“One of the greatest features in amateur radio, in my opinion, is the ability of amateur radio operators to set up a minimal station quickly in response to a natural disaster or emergency,” Rich said.
Amateur radio operators work in tandem with public emergency services agencies to aid in recovery efforts in the wake of disasters that may knock out normal communications for a while.
“We’re always preparing for when 911 doesn’t work,” W5YD club secretary Patrick Younes said. “We’re the last-ditch means of communication when all else breaks down. When the plug is pulled, options are limited.”
In the case of power outages, amateur radio operators can continue broadcasting as long as there is fuel available to power a generator. They wear distinctive reflective yellow vests bearing the title “Amateur Radio Communications” emblazoned across the back.
“It’s not overboard; it’s preparation,” Younes said.
Rich said amateur radio operators have provided emergency communications to support natural disaster response such as following an earthquake in Puerto Rico and following tornado outbreaks in north Mississippi and northeast Georgia.
“These operators are individuals throughout every community with various backgrounds and ages — from university professors and lawyers to home school students and pilots,” he said.
Since the network of amateur radio spans the globe, international agreements govern the practice.
Colby said every country makes its own laws to supplement the agreement of the International Telecommunications Union. He pointed out some extreme cases.
“The countries of North Korea, Yemen and South Sudan ban radio communications altogether,” he said.
“Violators are subject to the death penalty.”
Bramlett summarized the mission of amateur radio from the standpoint of a pastor.
“Our primary mission is to spread goodwill,” he said.
Buckley endorsed Bramlett’s statement in a practical sense.
“We’re looking for ways to be as resilient as we can,” he said. “Amateur radio is the last bastion of free communication.”