Buddy Brown has been an amateur radio enthusiast since the 1970s, when he first got licensed and joined the Baton Rouge Amateur Radio Club.
Brown and about 50 other BRARC members took turns over the weekend making contact with other ham radio operators all over the world as part of the national American Radio Relay League’s Field Day Competition, which started at 1 p.m. Saturday and ran through the next 24 hours.
Operators stayed at the Highland Road Observatory overnight, Brown said, and took shifts working the several antennae that were set up around the observatory grounds, each with a corresponding operator inside the observatory’s main building, listening to a set of headphones while quietly and carefully twisting dials.
“Some people are sleeping on the floor inside,” Brown said. “I’m too old for that. I brought a cot.”
Periodically, he stopped to answer questions from visitors to the observatory about why they were there. The answer has a lot to do with disaster — specifically, how people will be able to communicate over long distances if a natural or other disaster cuts power.
Ham radios use radio waves that bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere and back down to the ground, where other radio operators can pick up the signal.
“It was the Internet before there was Internet,” said Al Taillon, of the Ascension Amateur Radio Club, which also was participating in the Field Day in Gonzales.
The Field Day is a competition set up by the ARRL, the national association for amateur radio operators, as a means to encourage participation in the event, held every summer around the country.
“It’s essentially a practice run for an emergency situation,” said Brown, and that’s why they stay on-site.
“We’re trying to re-create exactly what we would do if there was an emergency.”
The Field Day doubles as a test of skills — an operator’s ability to track signals and make contact.
By 8 p.m. Saturday, the BRARC members had made contact with 700 people, including every state except Hawaii, Montana and Washington. The farthest signal was from Puerto Rico, Brown said.
It’s an interesting hobby with an interesting history, club President Brook Samuel said, as he an Richard Teague, another club member, stood outside the observatory pointing a special antenna into the night sky, tracking the signal of a satellite used for ham radio communication.
It’s fun, and operators can spend as much or as little time and money as they like on it.
“As little as $50, and as much as $10,000,” Brown said. “And I’m sure you can spend more than that, if you wanted to.”
The club is offering a 12-week certification class starting July 16, Brown said, which will meet from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays at the Bluebonnet Branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. The final exam is on Oct. 1. Cost for the class is $15 per person.
For information about the classes, club meetings or ham radio in general, visit the club’s website, www.brarc.org.
For information about the ARRL, visit the organization’s website, www.arrl.org.