These Local Amateur Radio ‘MacGyvers’ Bolster California’s First Responders During Natural Disasters

Radio operators to set up shop in Pasadena this weekend, test airwave skills during drills overnight Saturday

Published : Thursday, June 20, 2019 | 4:49 AM

Members of the Pasadena Radio Club at the 2018 ARRL Field Day. Photo by Paul Gordon.

Some real-life communication “MacGyvers” will be camping out overnight Saturday on the grounds of ArtCenter College of Design’s West Pasadena campus for what’s known as “Field Day,” but it won’t be a picnic.

Field Day is a chance for amateur radio operators to test out off-the-grid communications as JPL Radio Club, Caltech Radio Club, South Pasadena ARC and Pasadena Radio Club members set up shop to deliver and receive radio messages from all over the world.

“A lot of people have an idea amateur radio is old fashioned but believe me the equipment has kept up with the times,” said Bruce Nolte, past president of the Pasadena Radio Club. HAM radio gives people an opportunity to communicate and obtaining a license to operate a radio is a goal of many.

HAM radio is the first line of communications when cell phones go down during an emergency. These radios need to operate under all sorts of conditions and with the smallest amount of battery or solar power.

But as much as there’s serious business going on during the setup and deploy, it’s actually a pretty fun time as well, Nolte said.

“One thing, it’s camaraderie with your club but it also lets us test our equipment out in case there’s a major disaster — we can set up our equipment and back up other public service channels,” Nolte said. “One of the advantages HAM radio has for the general public is we are off the grid, independent of any other technology. Cell phones and Internet are great things but they are susceptible to interruptions in disasters. There’s even satellites orbiting the Earth we can use.”

Field Day started back in 1930 when the American Radio Relay League wanted to have a day where people could get together keep their skills honed and get together with gear and radio technique.

Nolte thanked the ArtCenter, which has allowed the groups to gather at the same location for 12 years, he said.

“They’ve been kind to host us all these years,” he said. “It’s an excellent site because its elevation gives us a clear shot to launch our signals. It’s an excellent site because of our elevation.”

Debby Miles, an administrative assistant at Caltech and radio enthusiast, said there are interesting and service-oriented people involved in the clubs.

“I worked the Station Fire for 12 days. We took the non-emergency communications off the Sherriff and we would handle that and that freed them up to do other things.”

“There was a time when one of the communications cell tower site had water dumped on it and it went out so for an hour we were the only communications for the Sherriff’s Department. One hour doesn’t sound like a lot, but in a fire an hour it is a lot.”

Hearty ‘MacGyvers’ People

“HAMs are McGyver-ish,” Miles said. “They can take nothing and put it together. This whole weekend is so you can practice for emergencies. Setting up in a location that’s not at your house. Some groups go as far as to set up special equipment like going off solar or wind power. It’s a great weekend to practice. When hurricanes and tornadoes come through we’re the only ones out sometimes.”

Miles said the group may seem like mild-mannered hobbyists but they serve a crucial function.

“They consider it a hobby but when it comes to stuff that hits the fan, the HAMs do things so that you can get your message through,” she said. “It’s a way of communicating without the congestion of a cell phone.

David Hodge said the experience is a great opportunity to go out into the field set up a station put up antennas and “see what you can do in 24 hours.”

Hodge, who has been affiliated with the Caltech Amateur Radio Club since 1972, said it’s a purposeful get together where the elevation and outdoors enhances the endeavors.

“It’s a lot of fun, it’s a great experience in preparing the equipment and the radios. If we were to have an emergency that could take down standard modes of communications, we as amateurs can set up equipment and communicate. It’s basically what cell phones are but HAMs were doing it long before cell phones were commercially available,” he said.

Hodge said the technology has advanced over the years. But Field Day also gives people a chance to get away from day to day and build bridges with fellow radio operators in other locations across the globe and also bond with radio club mates locally. And that’s a good reason to get the next generation involved.

“If we can show young people there are other young people in the world there are other young people interested in radio that can help get young people involved,” Hodge said. “There’s something about the spark of making a wireless communication that cell phones don’t quite encompass. If we can show young people that there are other young people in the world who are interested in radio, that can help because they can have peer to peer interaction. “

He said that the radio enthusiasts will be manning the overnight and a cup of hot cocoa and a heavy jacket on a clear night also works wonders in opening the lines of communication.

“There are clear communications from up there,” he said. “And there’s a beautiful view.”

The ARRL Field Day runs from Saturday, June 22 at 11 a.m. straight through to Sunday, June 23 at 11 a.m. at the ArtCenter College of Design Hillside Campus, 1700 Lida Street, Pasadena.

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