For 364 days — or, rather, nights — a year, BREC’s Highland Road Park Observatory is a place to look beyond the Earth. For 24 hours in June, it was a place to listen around North America.
Along with enthusiasts around the United States and Canada, the Baton Rouge Amateur Radio Club participated in the annual national Amateur Radio Relay League Field Day in which the goal was to make contact with as many other ham radio operators as possible. Starting at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 25, they reached 1,070 operators in 79 of 83 sections designated by ARRL.
“This is probably the most popular contest-like activity throughout the year,” said Dana Browne, who coordinated the local field day. “Amateur radio, of course, is a hobby, and there are three-quarters of a million people in the U.S. who hold licenses and probably 2.5 million worldwide, and it’s just a fascination with radio. It’s part contest, but also part social.”
That explained the food that was cooked or brought in, and also the open house in which the public dropped in and learned about ham radio — some even sitting at the radios and making contact with people from far away.
But it wasn’t all fun and games.
Amateur radio, which operates in frequencies outside those in commercial, military and emergency channels, can travel over long distances, and its operators often become vital communication links after natural disasters that disrupt access to electricity and electronic communications.
“A number of us participated in Katrina and Gustav and things of that nature,” said Richard Burroughs, the local club president. “Gustav knocked the hell out of us. Baton Rouge General Mid City, where I was working at the time, it was actually serviced by two power grids. It was very unusual for Mid City to go down, but in Gustav it did go down, and we used radios to communicate with emergency preparedness people at Harding Boulevard.
“One of the local hospitals, Lane Memorial, ended up having to evacuate. They coordinated their evacuation with the emergency folks using ham radio.”
To make things realistic, the field day rules require participants to operate off emergency power. Although the club set up most of its equipment inside the observatory to take advantage of the air conditioning, none of the radios were plugged into the outlets. Most were powered by marine batteries, which were recharged using portable generators.
Part of what makes amateur radio unique is that its signals bounce off the Earth’s upper atmosphere. So, operators have to deal with a variety of conditions to successfully reach other operators, depending on where they are located.
Although voice radios and computer messaging were used, most of the Baton Rouge club’s contacts were old-fashioned Morse code, Browne said. About 45 club members were involved in at least some part of the field day.
Inviting the public to observe — and even participate — is one way the club hopes to attract new members, Burroughs said. Most current members are older men, he said, but amateur radio has the potential to appeal to others. The club website is brarc.org.
“There is a wide variety of interest in radio,” Browne said. “What’s amateur radio? It’s someone who’s fascinated with some aspect of radio. Some people are interested in the electronics, some in the operation of the radio, some of them are interested in how many different places in the world they can contact.”