EFFINGHAM — On Saturday, people huddled around radio transmitters in Community Park in Effingham to participate in a worldwide competition put on by ham radio enthusiasts.
The event is called Winter Field Day and was organized by the Winter Field Day Association. Running 24 hours, from 1 p.m. on Saturday to 1 p.m. Sunday, the event is centered around making connections with other people.
Throughout the event, radio operators turned their dials to different frequencies, searching for other radio operators. If they find someone calling “CQ,” which is a radio-style invitation to talk, they briefly exchange information like their call sign and location and then get back to hunting for others.
“The main reason for the event is to keep ham radio operators active,” said Ben Meinhart, whose radio call sign is KD9LJF. Meinhart is president of the National Trail Amateur Radio Club, the local amateur radio group.
The event also serves as a time to practice setting up radios and looking for others, which could be the only form of communication in an emergency situation that downs cell phone towers and landlines. In the event of that kind of emergency, amateur radio operators could assist governments or aid groups like the Red Cross relay information throughout the area.
“This year, with COVID, we didn’t have as big a turnout and the weather wasn’t really cooperative,” added Meinhart, who didn’t compete at the event, but did drop in to say hello.
The local group participated in the “outdoor” category with the idea that it better simulates setting up radios in real world conditions. On Saturday, the high was just 35 degrees with rain and snow coming in and out throughout the day. Still, everyone had comfortable coats, a pavilion to keep their equipment dry, and a warm fire to stave off the cold.
“Not exactly roughing it,” Meinhart said with a laugh, but added, “We weren’t in too much luxury.”
Ed Frey, call sign K9EMP, was one of the participants at Winter Field Day. He estimated only a handful of operators attended, though several people came by the event to socialize. Frey said he was participating from the start of the event to 7 p.m. when he packed up and headed out.
When asked how he thinks he did, Frey responded, “Not too bad,” though the official results are still being tabulated.
Frey made connections with 26 other radio operators from around North America, ranging from Utah to Canada. He also had a handful of connections in Canada, with some people from Ontario and Prince Edward Island.
“It was quite a bit more difficult because I was operating at low power,” he said. Because of the type of long distance antenna he was using, his connections were all direct radio-to-radio connections with no other repeaters or infrastructure needed.
The local club has roots going back to 1958 and over the years has had somewhere between 50 and 100 members, according to Meinhart, though the numbers are lower nowadays.
“We probably get 10 to 20 members that are considered active,” he said.
For most of their events and meetings, Meinhart estimates that about 10 people come.
One of the primary functions of the club is to train new radio operators, who must pass a licensing test developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to broadcast on the frequencies ham radio operators use.
Russ Thomas, call sign WI9B, is the group’s volunteer examiner and teaching coordinator. He organizes the classes that prepare people for the licensing tests. Classes are offered for free, though students need to provide their own copy of the book they use as a supplement.
The next licensing class will be offered in the next month or two, according to Thomas.
“A lot of people get into amateur radio because they like the technology,” he said. “A lot of people who are into preparedness get into it.”
Frey just passed into the highest level of licensing in January. His new license, which is called “Amateur Extra,” gives him far fewer restrictions than the mid-tier “General” and entry-level “Technician” licenses.
“I wasn’t planning on getting it for a while, but the FCC announced a new $35 fee,” Frey said.
Frey, who passed his first licensing test in May of last year, said it was easier to get the most exclusive license early on since he was in the groove of studying. The tests contain a mixture of questions about regulation and also about mathematics and electrical engineering.
“It feels good. Now I don’t have to worry about whether I am in the right band,” he added.
When he’s not finding contacts in organized competition, Frey researches new technologies in radio, like transmitting data packets over the radio through technologies like WinLink to send emails over radio signals and the automatic packet reporting system, a standard for sending other kinds of data like GPS signals over the airwaves.
“Amateur radio, most people think of it as an older person’s hobby, but it’s really not,” Frey said.