Sunday, 27 June, 2004

Field Day

Field Day was a soggy affair.  It's been raining pretty much every day here in central Texas for the last two or three weeks, and today was no different.  I got a little later start than I had hoped, and managed to get soaked by the rain while I was running between the house and the garage to load my truck with all the stuff I needed to take out to the Field Day site.  The site wasn't any better, and we spent most of the time until 1:00 PM slogging around in the mud trying to get antennas up and the rest of the site arranged.

I'd never done Field Day before, or even participated in an amateur radio contest.  It's an experience unlike any other.  Mostly it consists of sitting in front of the radio making and logging "contacts" with other operators.  For these contests, we'll typically have an operator working the radio and a companion logging contacts on the computer.  A typical contact goes something like this:

Us:  CQ Field Day, CQ Field Day.  November Five Tango Tango.
Them:  November Five Tango Tango, Kilo Bravo Seven Uniform Quebec Delta.
Us:  KB7UQD, please copy two alpha south Texas.
Them:  N5TT, I copy two alpha south Texas.  Please copy three alpha Long Island.
Us:  I copy three alpha Long Island.  Seventy three.

There's a lot of jargon in there, but the translation is pretty simple.  It starts out with one station making a call "CQ," which translates to "calling all hams."  It's an invitation for anybody to reply.  The "November Five Tango Tango" is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) phonetics for the call sign we were using, N5TT.  The responding station replies with our call sign, followed by their call sign; in this case KB7UQD (which is my personal call sign, by the way).  After that is what's called the "exchange."  This is a contest, so the ARRL wants some kind of verification that you actually made the contact.  For this contest, the exchange was the station classification (2A in our case, 3A in the responding station's case) and location.  The "I copy" is simply an acknowledgement.  And "seventy three" is ham shorthand for "best regards."  It doesn't sound like shorthand until you're doing this with Morse code, where "73" is only two characters.

You can make several such contacts a minute if you have a good antenna and plenty of power.  This goes on for 24 hours, obviously with some breaks to switch operators and such.

The primary purpose of Field Day is to practice emergency response.  In the case of natural disaster, ham radio is often the only means of communications.  Power, cell phones, and Internet connectivity go out very frequently.  But amateur radio stays on the air.  Hams pride themselves in their ability to run on backup power and get signals out when nobody else can.  Within hours (sometimes less) of a major disaster, hams can have antennas set up at a site and start coordinating communications with the outside world--anywhere in the outside world--without having to rely on commercial power or telecommunications providers.  You don't know how vital that is until something knocks out every other means of communication.