Members of the Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club chatted with fellow “hams” across the country and around the world this weekend to test their readiness for emergency communications as part of an annual field day.

Although it has been almost four decades since he made his first “contact”, Gary Mitchell can remember every detail of his first communication on amateur radio in 1975.
“My very first contact was with a homemade 6-meter, 22-watt (power) antenna. I spoke to W2SNI about the city of Rochester,” said Mitchell, referring to another ham operator’s callsign. “That was about 11:30 in the morning when my mother wasn’t there to see the antenna stretched across the kitchen from cupboard to cupboard!”
Mitchell was one of 22 members of the Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club who set up antennas, radio transceivers and other communication devices in a tent city in Jackson Park this weekend for a 24-hour field day that the club shares with ham fans worldwide in June Splits.
“The main purpose is not necessarily to be able to compete (see how many contacts you can reach over the radio), although that’s a big part of it,” said club member James Reed. “It’s also about testing your equipment, trying new radios, trying new antenna plans, and all of the things that help your radio station be better than it is.”
All of this fine-tuning has a greater purpose, Reed said: to promote emergency communications among radio operators. Approximately 30,000 “hams” in the United States are participating in the international exercise, testing their ability to communicate with each other, aid agencies, and emergency response teams during a disaster.
“The reason this is important is because a properly equipped station can operate if all other communications fail,” Reed said. “When you’re in disaster relief after a flood or avalanche and people can’t find a family, phones won’t work. If you connect to a radio operator, you can establish communication. It’s as good as a smoke signal on a mountain.”
Unlike cell phones and landlines, amateur radio operators can send their signals from remote locations in a variety of ways, Reed said. They are only operated with a battery, a solar panel or a generator. On Saturday, the Hendersonville Club contacted several solar-powered operators who were using juice from three photovoltaic panels.
Club member Michael Parente, who received his radio license for the first time in 1969, helps the American Red Cross with communication.
“We have ice storms, hurricanes and cellular service is going down,” he said. “We have to communicate with our trucks and the other shelters. I need ham. If normal communication is broken, I have to be able to rely on something. We practice how to work together in an emergency.”
The field day also offers the club the opportunity to inform the public via radio and to win new members. On Sunday, Mills River’s 10-year-old Nick Andrews sat patiently on the club’s “GOTA” station, which stands for “Get On The Air,” while Reed oversaw the intricacies of the broadcast.
“We’re trying to suck him in,” said his grandmother Vivien Andrews, who was watching nearby. Andrews, who splits her time between Mills River and Addison, Illinois, said her husband fell in love with amateur radio first and encouraged the whole family to get a license.
“You meet nice people and it’s a nice hobby,” she said. “It’s an expensive hobby, but then what isn’t it? It’s better than drinking in a bar.”
Seth Lawson, 14, agrees that amateur radio is a great way to meet new people. He first discovered the medium while visiting his grandparents in Ohio last summer. After doing some online research, he graduated from the Federal Communications Commission in March of last year and received his entry-level license as a “technician”. He joined the local club about a month ago.
“It’s the ultimate social network,” said Lawson, who lives in the Blacksmith Mountain Community. “You get in touch with someone you’ve never met, in a part of the world you’ve probably never been to, and have a nice conversation with them. There’s just something amazing about that.”
The Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club is open to anyone interested in amateur radio. No license is required to become a member. The club meets monthly at 7:00 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at 801 Glover St., Hendersonville. More information is available at www.radioclub.org.
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Reach Axtell at [email protected] or 828-694-7860.