Tents, radios, antennas and lots of folks with geeky clips hooked to microphones. In what might be described as the polar opposite of a New York fashion show, 40,000 or more North American HAMS (amateur radio operators) will again descend on open spaces for the annual Field Day. They'll gawk at equipment, show off their superior knowledge of electronics, propagation and tech, all while introducing their pastime to newbies. It's also an excuse to make radio contacts with fellow HAMS in different spots around the globe while practicing emergency communications techniques and exploring new aspects of the hobby.
Full disclosure - I count myself among the questionably attired. I'm VE7HHI.
As we look toward the June 26-27, 2021 edition of Field Day, we can't ignore the obvious. Things are very different this year.
COVID Changed HAM Radio
A repeated phrase but so true - HAMs are the original social distancers. An interesting thing happened during the COVID lockdowns - the hobby grew. To be sure, it always skewed toward an older demographic...those at greatest risk from contracting COVID-19. So, no one should be terribly surprised that many of these same people dusted off their old radio equipment, renewed licenses and got back on the air. It's been a chance to reconnect with old and new friends in defiance of physical restrictions.
A long running, Vancouver-based daily radio check-in sheds more light on this. At the start of the pandemic, fewer than 80 people radioed in to the Rainbow Country Net, a VHF based meeting for those in southwestern British Columbia and the US Pacific Northwest. By this June, that number grew to about 140.
But it didn't stop there. Similar word spread around North America and the hobby became more inclusive. Old timers started pro-actively encouraging younger people to get their licenses. As local HAM clubs turned to online prep courses, the kids and grandkids of that older generation took a greater interest. Voices started to change, becoming younger, more multicultural and less male-dominated.
The Future of HAM Radio in Emergency Operations
When someone stumbles across a Field Day event, it's hard to ignore that overarching feeling of emergency prep. This is the traditional face of the hobby. HAMS have been there during hurricanes, earthquakes and other major disasters, providing assistance when cell phones, landlines and conventional infrastructure fails.
Groups such as VECTOR in Vancouver regularly liaise with government and emergency first responders as they stay up-to-date on the best protocols for providing disaster assistance. VECTOR's members are on hand at Field Days to show people the equipment and systems involved in keeping them safe.
Yet, today's HAMs are doing so much more. Digital communications allow text based messages to be sent, without cell networks or the internet, from any location to any other location. Radio waves are free and reliable.
Field Days are again where one can see such examples in play. Interfaces with computers are more common - and in many cases, much more relatable to those unfamiliar with the hobby.
Technology and Demographics Changed the Hobby
As tech expands to include digital, the application and relevance of the hobby grows. Data (photos, text and recorded voice) can be sent efficiently over radio waves allowing stations and their ops to simply use laptops - if desired. The hobby is even more inclusive for the hearing impaired. Microphones and CW (Morse Code) keys are 'old school.'
Still, internet links, when desired, can be used between repeaters allowing HAMS to talk locally or around the world from $200 handheld radios which work in areas where cell coverage is not available. As such, it's becoming more popular with hikers, off-road clubs, mariners and those in small and isolated communities.
For a younger generation interested in space, receiving photos from the International Space Station is its own draw. There's also a chance to talk with those on the ISS who have increasingly been using HAM radio to reach out to kids in classrooms around the world.
Weather enthusiasts are turning to HAM to track satellites and their images - all possible through equipment that's dropped in price as the tech improves. HAMS also monitor extreme weather through groups such a SKYWARN (partnership with the National Weather Service) and the Canadian Weather Amateur Radio Network. Many use their own backyard weather stations, linked to APRS systems, to share temps and other data in real time.
Amateur radio is far from an old, dead hobby. But, it has changed and will continue to adapt. With this comes a long list of new questions for HAM radio operators to answer as people stumble across tables and tents full of equipment on Field Day. Fortunately, it's a hobby full of mentors - and those mentors still love to talk.
More information on Field Day...