If there were a disaster, either natural or another type, ham radios may be the only way to communicate with others in the United States and beyond.
For 24 hours this past weekend, members of the Crescenta Valley Radio Club took part in the annual Field Day held by the Amateur Radio Relay League, or ARRL.
Club members set up shop under tents in Verdugo Park, across from Glendale Community College, using a solar-powered van for electricity.
They experimented with different types of antennas and radios to send and receive signals to and from fellow enthusiasts. Simultaneously, clubs all over the United States and Canada were likewise mounting antennas and tuning in.
Part contest, part festival, the purpose of the ARRL’s annual Field Day is for member clubs to make as many contacts as possible and raise awareness around the hobby.
“We’re getting points for being off the [electrical] grid,” said George Eckart, a 20-year veteran of the Crescenta Valley Radio Club. “We’re getting points for every contact we make,”
However, the mood at the park was less competitive and more convivial, with members chatting, eating pizza and taking shifts on the equipment.
Eckart said the hobby draws interest from a wide swath of “tinkerers,” from astronauts to television personalities, all of whom bring unique life experiences and professional backgrounds to the ham radio community.
Lisa Kassner, who first discovered ham radio when she was 19 years old, said it was the “fellowship” that has kept her involved year after year.
“People I met back in ’62, ’63, ’64 are still my lifelong friends,” she said.
Idgie Watkins, a La Crescenta resident and self-described ham radio newbie, said it was the emergency response potential that brought her to the Field Day.
“I belong to CERT — a Community Emergency Response Team — and we help sheriff’s [deputies], paramedics and neighbors in emergency situations,” Watkins said. “This technology would help us communicate in those types of scenarios.”
To Watkins’ point, ham radio is not all fun and games.
Mike Lichtman, the local radio club’s president, said the organization has helped the community in the past.
“Fifteen or so years ago ham radio operators helped convey information to and from Glendale Memorial Hospital,” he said, after construction workers inadvertently severed a telephone line that left the hospital in the dark.
Another important function of ham radios is to establish lines of communication in the event of a major disaster.
“People think they’ll always be able to use their cellphones in an emergency,” Lichtman said. “But the first thing that emergency services usually do is take over the cellphone service if it’s even still available.”
The phenomenon of amateur radio dates back to the advent of the broadcast technology in the late 1800s.
Early pioneering hobbyists were mocked by professional radio operators who claimed the laymen lacked skills, calling their Morse code method “ham-fisted.”
Today, the International Amateur Radio Union is made up of 168 member unions — all with varying numbers of affiliated ham radio clubs — of which the ARRL is one.