The Suffolk County Radio Club recently hosted Amateur Radio Field Day in Shirley, an annual, nationwide event where amateur radio operators—also known as “hams”—attempt to contact other amateur radio operators simulating emergency situations where all other communications are down.
Radio may be the only means of communication during natural disasters and even man-made disasters, like terrorism. “When the towers came down on 9/11, the only communications standing were the ham operators in downtown Manhattan,” said Ed Wilson, vice president of the Suffolk County Radio Club.
Field Day prepares amateur radio operators for inevitable emergency situations, which on Long Island can mean hurricanes. Ham operators played a critical role in restoring communication in the aftermath of Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria; and during Hurricane Sandy, ham operators held onto communication when traditional methods failed.
“Field Day is preparation for an emergency. Sometimes main communication systems will go down, like cell phone towers and the communication systems that first responders use. Ham radio operators can still get communication in and out, and we simulate that on field day,” said Wilson.
The event was held at the home of Richie Geraci, president of the Suffolk County Radio Club, who, along with his wife, Gail Geraci, grilled hamburgers and hotdogs for members as they attempted communication. It’s estimated that there are thousands of amateur radio clubs throughout the country and an unknown number on Long Island; other Long Island clubs held Field Day events within their own jurisdictions on the day of the event (always held the last weekend of June). The Suffolk County Radio Club also hosted members of the Town of Brookhaven Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and Suffolk County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
“We’re about 120 strong between the three groups,” Geraci said.
Pres Waterman sat behind a computer in an area farthest into the property communicating in Morse code. Behind him, in the distance, was an unassuming antenna allowing for all of the communications of the day. Waterman is able to communicate 30 words per minute, which is considered “fast Morse,” according to ham.stackexchange.com, an amateur radio chat app.
“On that single 30-foot pole, I can communicate 500 miles,” said Waterman, adding that he had made contact with Toronto, Western Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maine and Connecticut so far that day.
A quick sidenote: Waterman’s call sign is W2PW, letters he chose based on the initials of his name. Call signs are issued by the FCC to identify ham operators and can either be sequential or personal, like Waterman’s.
“You can get a vanity call sign—like a vanity license plate,” Waterman explained.
On Field Day, the club was working on four different frequencies, also known as bands. The GOTA station, an acronym for Get On The Air, was manned by Bob Goldstein. Goldstein was trying to make contact with other stations by saying “Can you hear me?” and waiting on another ham operator at a receiving station to reply. Goldstein had already made contact with Ohio and North Carolina.
In addition to simulating emergency situations, a purpose of Field Day is community education, so several local scout groups were present at the event. Scouts can earn merit badges for performing certain duties in amateur radio, according to Kenneth Spiegel, a merit badge counselor who is also a Suffolk County Radio Club member.
Spiegel stood next to a camouflage green box and explained the “ham-o-can” to some of the scouts.
“You can either buy one readymade or make it yourself. It’s a ham radio, battery control panel and antenna. And that’s all you really need to communicate,” said Spiegel.
Spiegel once made contact with Mike Fincke, an astronaut who at one point held the record for having spent the most time in outer space. Fincke was in orbit at the International Space Station when he and Spiegel made contact.
“I told everyone in the room to say ‘hello’ and all at once there were about 30 hellos,” Spiegel joked.
Years later in Dayton, Ohio, Spiegel and Fincke met. Fincke remembered receiving the ham call.
How did “ham” get its name? There are no real good answers.
“It’s a mystery,” said Bob Ciappa, who is a member of Suffolk County Radio Club, but attended another Long Island club’s event on Field Day.
“There are ham operators all over the world,” said Ciappa, who has contacted other operators in Russia, China and Japan. “I contacted Mongolia the other day.”