June 24, 2013
Disaster drill tests radio operators
Amateur broadcasters send out signals from Camp Owahta
SOLON — Cortland-area ham radio operators met Saturday at Camp Owahta, setting up to take part in a 24-hour, international contest designed to help operators practice for situations where their broadcast might be needed by emergency responders.
Groups in the United States and Canada received points for contacting as many ham radio stations using voice communications, digital broadcasts, or old-fashioned Morse code as they could from a remote location as part of the ARRL Field Day contest that began at 2 p.m.
Ham operators with Skyline Amateur Radio Club set up at the 4826 Knecht Road camp’s pavilion, broadcasting from an about 20-foot-tall portable radio tower on the back of a 1986 military Jeep and antennas strung from nearby trees using an air-compressed gun. The group of about half a dozen operators and their families used power from generators they brought with them for the contest that doubled as a picnic.
What makes amateur radio unique is that it is the only form of long range communication that does not require commercial infrastructure, said Andy Slaugh, 56, of Syracuse. Ham radio is especially useful in situations like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, where cell towers either go down or are overloaded, said Slaugh, a Cortland native.
The county considers the ham radio operators a vital part of emergency communications during a catastrophic event, said Kevin Whitney, county legislator and chairman of the County Communications Advisory Board.
Should county communications ever become crippled due to a large wind or ice storm, the help of radio operators would be vital, said Whitney, who is also a commissioner of the Cortlandville Fire Department.
“And this is essentially what would happen,” Whitney said as he surveyed the radio operators at work at their temporary station. He stopped by to check out the contest.
The county can call upon ham radio operators to assist with the American Red Cross, and other groups, responding to an emergency that otherwise would not have radio communications, said Eamon O’Shea, a club member and security systems coordinator with SUNY Cortland’s University Police.
“We wouldn’t have enough radios to hand out to people and this would be a perfect fit ... “ Whitney said.
Slaugh said he is one of the operators the county calls if radio operators are needed during an emergency and was dispatched during the 1993 flood and during the Y2K worldwide computer scare.
During the two days of April flooding in 1993 that caused the Tioughnioga River to swell to over 12 feet, county firefighters responded to 148 calls, more than 10 times the usual number of calls, according to Cortland Standard archives.
Ham radio operators also help out at sporting events, such as the Tromptown Run half-marathon in DeRuyter, where they set up along the course and radio for assistance if any participants need help, said Slaugh, call sign KB2LUV.
O’Shea, call sign N2RQS, was working at a digital ham radio station as Saturday’s contest started.
With digital signals, rapidly alternating low- and high-pitched chirps are sent over the air waves, said O’Shea, 35, of Cortland. A computer then recognizes and converts the signal into text that operators can read, he said.
The advantage of the digital signals is that they take up much less bandwidth than voice conversations, O’Shea said.
O’Shea clicked on different digital signals as they fell vertically across a digital representation of the bandwidth on his laptop and saw the text of the conversations pop up on his screen.
But in addition to his digital broadcast that looked straight from a Matrix movie, O’Shea also had a metal Morse code transmitter and managed to contact an operator in Michigan by voice.
The club usually contacts between 600 and 700 other stations during the contest, Slaugh said.
“There are some groups that are in the thousands (of contacts),” he said.
By 7:08 p.m. Saturday, the club had contacted 220 stations in 17 states and three Canadian provinces, said club member Chris Perrine, 42, of Homer.
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