By Bob Jackson
Amateur radio communication has come a long way since the olden days of Morse Code.
But if radio operators have to resort to going old school, they still can crank out the dots, dits and dashes in a pinch.
Whatever it takes to keep the lines of communication open during times of a crisis or emergency, local radio operators say.
“When there is an emergency, the first thing that usually goes out is electricity,” said Wes Boyd, vice president of the Mahoning Valley Amateur Radio Association. “That usually takes with it your cable TV and telephones, and communication is gone. We are the backup [communication] structure for homeland security and emergency management.”
About 25 members of the MVARA are taking part in the American Radio Relay League Field Day, a demonstration of how quickly amateur radio operators can mobilize and respond in times of emergencies. The event will continue through 2 p.m. today and includes other operators participating across the United States and Canada. It’s an annual event sponsored by the ARRL.
Locally, the demonstration is set up this year at the Mill Creek MetroParks farm on state Route 46 across from the Canfield Fairgrounds. It’s the first time the event has been located there.
“We’re trying to revitalize interest of the younger generation, with all the recent crisis-events that have gone on across the country,” said Boyd, 69, of Girard. He was referring to crises such as the bombing at the Boston Marathon and various shooting rampages that have taken multiple lives.
“When something happens, the first 72 hours are critical,” he said. “We have to be ready to step in and assist when we’re called upon.”
Treasurer Frank Sole, 61, of Poland, said the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way amateur radio operators respond to emergencies.
“In the old days, we could just show up at the scene with our radios, and everything would be OK,” he said. “Now, we have to be trained and certified. Even though we’re volunteers, we have to be able to fit into the structure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other emergency responders. It’s much more structured now.”
Boyd said amateur radio operators are always ready to respond, but never do so without being called upon by authorities.
“Under no circumstances do we self-deploy,” said Boyd, who works as chief engineer for Cumulus Broadcasting.
Sole said radio communication has evolved dramatically through the decades, going back to the old Morse Code system, which still can be used when needed. But the most up-to-date equipment is digital, which allows operators to do tasks in seconds that used to take precious minutes.
They carry their equipment in a backpack and can be on the scene of a crisis and have communication opened almost immediately. They generally are talking with other amateur radio operators who are in close proximity to authorities, allowing safety forces and emergency-management personnel to keep in touch when other lines of communication are unavailable.
“We’re like the minutemen of communication,” said Sole, of Poland, who is an assistant professor at Youngstown State University, where he teaches in the management department of the Williamson College of Business Administration. “We set it up, we run it, we engineer it, and it works.”
He said the two-pronged goal of this weekend’s event is to simulate emergency conditions and responses, and to put those skills and techniques on display to the public.
“It’s a fascinating thing that most people don’t see much of,” he said.
He noted that the local club has nearly 70 members and was formed nearly 100 years ago.
The annual national drill began in 1933, and local radio operators have taken part for at least the past 70 years, Soles aid.
“There are between 30,000 and 35,000 operators participating this weekend,” he said. “They’re doing the same thing we’re doing: standing out in the middle of a field, communicating.”