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Valley amateur radio operators communicate old-fashioned way

CANFIELD — While volunteers tended the gardens outside, inside the barn at the Mill Creek MetroParks Farm in Canfield, a handful of ham radio enthusiasts from the Mahoning Valley Amateur Radio Association were practicing emergency communication with other stations across North America.

The MVARA was part of an annual emergency skills Field Day hosted by the American Radio Relay League, a national umbrella organization for radio operators, which took place Saturday and Sunday. The purpose of the Field Day is to train operators in case normal electronic communications are interrupted by disaster.

Participating groups range across the United States, as far as Montreal, Canada, and even to Mexico. The ARRL has hosted this event every year since 1914.

An event hosted by the Warren Amateur Radio Association took place at Mosquito Lake State Park.

“The (Federal Communications Commission) does not record this as a hobby,” Mike McCleery of Austintown said. “It’s a service. We call it ‘a hobby’ sometimes, but then we correct each other. We do things like SKYWARN and everything else as a way of thanking the public for their support,” McCleery said.

SKYWARN is a volunteer operation run by the National Weather Service for spotting severe weather events such as thunderstorms and flash floods. The service boasts between 350,000 and 400,000 trained severe weather spotters.

“These volunteers help keep their local communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service,” its website states.

The ARRL helped during the 9/11 attacks, when many communication systems failed; the many devastating earthquakes in Puerto Rico, when ham radios were sometimes the only form of communication; and during Florida hurricanes and California wildfires, according to Frank Sole of Poland, a retired business professor from Youngstown State University.

“We are advancing the state of the art and we are providing backup communications. We are a backbone in times of trouble, and we have done that regularly,” Sole said.

“Dad was a radio man in China during World War II,” Sole said. “He flew on a B-24. He always had an interest in electronics.”

That interest transferred to his son, who built his first ham radio when he was 10 and was first licensed by the FCC to broadcast in 1976. One of the main purposes of ham radio is the ability to work “off the grid,” Sole said, through the use of batteries, generators and solar arrays.

“Part of it is like fun and contests,” Sole said, “and part of it is that this is really the only time that amateur radio comes out of peoples’ basements and bedrooms and people can actually see what’s going on.”

The MVARA built an array of 11 separate antennae, some of which transmitted voices, and others that transmitted digital signals. Some of the antennas were sophisticated-looking devices that would have been at home in a “Star Wars” movie. Other antennas were simply wires suspended from an apparatus erected by MVARA members on poles made of aluminum and fiberglass.

Operators made clear that the amateur radio Field Day was not a competition in the traditional sense, but their operation was scored by the ARRL.

“We are not competing with each other,” Joe Vasko, an electrical engineer of Boardman, said, “but we are seeing how we compare to other groups and to our score last year.”

Points are scored on a number of practical criteria. For instance, points are awarded based on the number of other participating radio clubs contacted during the event. Points are also awarded if operators are collecting solar power (they were); if generators or charged batteries were used (they were); and if first responders attended to learn about the event (which they did), according to Vasco.

The MVARA doubled its overall score in 2023, going from a score of 4,306 in 2022 to 8,050 in 2023. It contacted a total of 1,286 other stations in North America over voice and digital frequencies in 2023, which placed the MVARA in the top 2% of national radio clubs or 71st place out of 4447 participating clubs, according to its website.

There are 700,000 ham radio operators in the United States, including a program with the Boys and Girl Scouts organization, and 3 million worldwide. Overall, the ARRL provides communications for the U.S. government, disaster relief organizations, public service events, emergencies or disasters, and training exercises, according to their literature.

The sound of amateur radio through headphones could be described as spooky. There was a great deal of static and odd buzzing sounds, and then a faint human voice would come through. The speaker sounded very far away but could be heard distinctly. In the background, other voices also could be heard buzzing like the adults in a “Peanuts” cartoon.

Operating a ham radio is also a great way to build career skills, according to Sole.

In fact, three YSU students participated in the event.

Ryan Pribulsky will be a junior in the fall studying business. Pribulsky started on ham radio in 2022 when he attended the School Roundup Contest, a similar event to the Field Day for students, and met Sole. He is the president of the YSU radio club.

“It’s just cool technology,” Pribulsky said. “A lot of the things in our world are based on tech that radio operators either invented or continued the knowledge of,” he added. “A cellphone can seem like wizardry if you are not really involved in it, but to a radio operator it is a very different thing. You understand what it is and what it’s doing, and that understanding can come from being a ham radio operator.”

Bryce Moldovan, a sophomore studying electrical engineering, joined the YSU radio club after an introduction to the club during class. He was also fascinated by the advancements in electronics brought about by ham radio operators.

“We are going from arc-radios to these really intricate, advanced touchscreen radios,” he said. “(Amateur radio) is pushing technology along the way.”

Alexandrea Lundborg is a sophomore in the YSU engineering department, and she is studying to get her ham radio license.

“Especially all we are doing today with the emergency stuff,” she said, “it is cool to think that if there were no cellphones, this is how we would communicate our emergencies and stuff like that.”

Anyone interested in the MVARA can attend their meetings at 7 p.m. every second Thursday of the month at the Republican Party Headquarters, 8381 Market St, Boardman, or visit the website at http://mvara.org/.

Have an interesting story? Contact the newsroom by email at news@vindy.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.

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