By Mike O’Sullivan
Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
Rain or shine, on the last weekend of every June, amateur radio operators throughout the United States set up equipment in parks, on beaches and at emergency operation centers using electrical generators, makeshift antennas and two-way radios to display the role of their hobby in disasters.
It’s called Field Day and on June 25-26 this year, radio enthusiasts set up operations at Veterans Memorial Regional Community Park in Sylmar, with help from the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation and LA Sheriff’s Department. Other sites were established for the 24-hour exercise around California.
Alex Auerbach, president of the 110-member San Fernando Valley Amateur Radio Club, says his hobby provides communication “when all else fails” — “the Internet, cell phones, telephones systems, in an emergency such as an earthquake or some other disaster, you can still use ham radio to communicate” he says. Amateur radio provided life-saving links after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005 when Hurricane Sandy battered the Eastern US seaboard in 2012, and after floods, fires and quakes in California.
Amateur radio was developed alongside commercial broadcasting in the early 20th century when radio professionals derisively called their amateur counterparts “hams.” The hobbyists embraced the name, and ham operators have played an important role in international communications ever since, in ever-expanding formats.
Voice communication is a mainstay of the hobby, today supplemented by digital modes that connect computers by radio, often over great distances because of the long-range capability of some ham radio frequencies.
Auerbach and fellow club member Barry Gordon share a passion for Morse Code, an early form of communication once used for ship-to-shore communication, which is still heard on the ham radio bands today. Gordon, of Valley Glen, served in the US Coast Guard and once operated a ham station from Sand Island in the Johnston Atoll in the central Pacific, providing a rare contact for hams lucky enough to reach him.
Gurbux Singh embraces on-air telegraphy as well. Born in Punjab, India, Singh grew up in Burma (now known as Myanmar), where he and his father were both ham operators. The authoritarian Burmese regime banned amateur radio stations in 1968. Singh escaped to Singapore, where he stayed with a ham radio acquaintance. He would marry his friend’s daughter and the couple moved to the United States in 1974. Today, in retirement, he communicates with the world from his home in Chatsworth.
A self-described tinkerer, Singh proudly displays two brass Morse Code keys that he crafted by hand, which he was using to contact other hams on Field Day.
He notes that Morse Code is international because it uses conventions inherited from the early days of radio. “QTH,” for example, denotes location, as in “QTH (is) California.” “QRM” means other stations are interfering with reception, and “QSB” means the signal of the ham that you’re speaking with is fading.
“I can communicate with people who don’t speak much English,” Singh says, calling Morse code, with its system of dots and dashes, or dits and dahs, “a language of sound.”
The US Federal Communications Commission, the US regulatory agency for amateur radio, counts more than 775,000 hams in the United States and its territories. Each has passed a test on radio regulations and electronic theory, and the more difficult tests offer a higher level of license with greater privileges.
While ham radio clubs in schools and colleges recruit young people to the hobby, hams say it’s a challenge attracting youngsters in the age of the Internet. Some hams first enter the hobby or re-enter it following decades of inactivity only after they retire. Auerbach once worked as a financial reporter for the Los Angeles Times and has been a ham for just three years.
“I started it at the age of 75,” he recalls, “figuring that it was a good way to exercise the gray cells.”
“It has been wonderful,” he summarizes, “partly in terms of learning and partly in terms of the social relationships” made with fellow enthusiasts through the hobby — and facing challenges such as getting on the air from a county park on Field Day.
For more information on amateur radio, go to www.W6SD.com or www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio
Mike O’Sullivan holds the amateur radio call sign W6KIC and is a journalist based in Los Angeles.