Lewisville ham club tests emergency communications

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A Korean War-era "RATT" rig communication box mounted on a trailer held a high-frequency amateur radio transceiver. (Photo by Steve Southwell)

Amateur radio operators participated in ARRL Field Day event, proving ability to help with long-range communications in the event of a disaster.

By STEVE SOUTHWELL
KG5HUF

In a widespread regional disaster, if the power grid goes down, most means of communication go down with it. Cell towers can be overloaded, and backup power eventually goes down. With no telephone or internet for communications, it is essential for first responders and essential services that they be able to communicate with the outside world to coordinate relief.

“When nothing else works, ham radio still functions,” said Len Shipp, president of the Lewisville Amateur Radio Association (LARA).

LARA President Len Shipp makes contacts on the 40-meter range on his ham radio in the Lewisville Emergency Operations Center. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
LARA President Len Shipp makes contacts on the 40-meter range on his ham radio in the Lewisville Emergency Operations Center. (Photo by Steve Southwell)

LARA members exercised their technical and logistical abilities in setting up a continent-spanning radio station this past weekend. Field Day, a nationwide annual event held in conjunction with the American Radio Relay League, was setup locally in Lewisville at Central Fire Station.

The group had four separate high-frequency radios or “HF rigs” at the event. These radios are capable of reaching out across the continent using less power than a couple of lightbulbs. Battery and generator power were used to transmit, and portable antennas were erected.

Stations across the U.S. and Canada spent 24 to 27 hours communicating with one another, competing to earn points in various categories by making the most contacts, and meeting various technical challenges.

LARA member Dan Howard operated his ham radio on 20 meters, making contacts with people across North America as part of Field Day. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
LARA member Dan Howard operated his ham radio on 20 meters, making contacts with people across North America as part of Field Day. (Photo by Steve Southwell)

LARA member and field day participant Dan Howard brought his Korean War-era “Ratt rig”. The Radio Telegraph (RTT) shack, built by the Bendix corporation originally was mounted on a military vehicle. The old military radio and cryptographic equipment has since been removed, and replaced with modern amateur radio equipment, and an antenna mast with a rotor. Barely big enough to seat two operators, it was mounted on a trailer, and served as one of the four operating stations for field day.

Gasoline-powered generators 20 feet away hummed, providing power to the unit, which even had its own little air conditioner.

Members of LARA take a break to chat with a Lewisville police officer who stopped by to check out the Field Day operation. A map on the wall shows states and provinces where the group had made radio contacts up to that point late Saturday night. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
Members of LARA take a break to chat with a Lewisville police officer who stopped by to check out the Field Day operation. A map on the wall shows states and provinces where the group had made radio contacts up to that point late Saturday night. (Photo by Steve Southwell)

Inside the fire station’s training room, which also doubles as the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), two HF rigs were setup. The group had enough food and drink to provision an army.

Shipp’s personal rig was operating on the 40 meter band. Operating bands are named for the wavelengths associated with their frequencies. As the dial was scrolled, faint echoes of conversations could be heard – first shifted into low pitches, then higher until it was tuned just right or close enough.

“C-Q Field Day. Alpha-Delta-Zero-Juliet-Alpha,” I heard. “Whisky-Five-Lima-Victor-Charlie,” I responded with the club’s callsign, making my first “DX” or distance contact. We exchanged information about our station classifications and location, and I learned that he was in Missouri. “QSL,” we each said – ham lingo for “understood – received.” We each recorded the contact, and continued the process. It takes a fine touch to find the frequency and jump in at the right time to make the contact. Later that night, I would make another contact in New York, but after attempting to exchange info my signal just couldn’t make it to him. I didn’t get the QSL.

Radio wave propagation is complicated. The waves travel in a straight line, but the Earth’s surface is curved. Atmospheric conditions and the interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field with solar activity and the ionosphere all combine to make the hobby both interesting and challenging. What works one hour may not work the next.

At one point, the Shipp and the others decided that the antenna needed adjusting. Shipp climbed up the main antenna mast and adjusted something on the roof of the fire station.

Club members repeated the DX process hundreds of times overnight Saturday, and into Sunday. A map projected on the room’s wall showed states and Canadian provinces where contact had been made.

Wire antennas in an inverted-V shape strung from the mast of the Lewisville Fire Department's mobile communications command unit. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
Wire antennas in an inverted-V shape strung from the mast of the Lewisville Fire Department’s mobile communications command unit. (Photo by Steve Southwell)

Across the parking lot, club members had the use of the Lewisville Fire Department’s mobile communications vehicle— essentially a bus-sized RV with radios and a telescoping mast with camera. The vehicle was rolled back, and disconnected from grid power for the event.

Shipp said the use of the vehicle for Field Day was mutually beneficial. “By running the generators, we exercise the vehicle and make sure it works.” The club had an HF radio at one of the vehicle’s several workstations, and an antenna was affixed to the vehicle’s mast.

LARA Vice President Jim Lavin shows the ham radio setup in the Lewisville Fire Department's mobile communications vehicle. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
LARA Vice President Jim Lavin shows the ham radio setup in the Lewisville Fire Department’s mobile communications vehicle. (Photo by Steve Southwell)

“Chief [Tim] Tittle, and assistant chiefs [Mark] McNeil and [Terry] McGrath, and the rest of the fire department have all helped a lot,” said Shipp. “The support we get here has been great!”

Shipp has been a ham radio operator for 20 years – ever since he and his friend Brian Ulmer passed the operator’s test together. Their FCC call signs are even sequential. Shipp’s is KC5MPX, and Ulmer is KC5MPY. “For that reason, I’ll never change my call sign,” said Shipp, rejecting the vanity call signs that can be issued to privileged operators like himself.

Even though he has been licensed for many years, and has participated as a storm spotter in SkyWarn, and other activities, he was not always as highly-involved. He said at times the hobby felt cliquish, and overly technical.

But two years ago, Shipp decided to get more involved in the hobby, and use it more for public service. “I want to use what I know to help people out,” he said. In addition to founding LARA, Shipp is also involved in ARES – Amateur Radio Emergency Service for Denton County.

“My vision for this club is more about serving the community. We gladly help out with various events in the city,” said Shipp. “We’re even happy to help out our neighbors in other cities.”

About midnight, some of the guys took a break to sit outside and smoke cigars. The group is tight like a family, but very welcoming. They talked about plans, and shared thoughts on a wide range of topics.

When the cigars were done, they headed back to the EOC. City Councilman Neil Ferguson showed up to learn more, so he sat with Shipp, while Shipp continued to try to make more contacts.

In the past year, the group has offered a free basic technician class, even giving free ham radios to all of the class members who passed their license test. They currently have a class going for more advanced level operators, but will do another intro class later in the year.

According to club member Kent Moore, the LARA’s field day event had more than 20 amateur radio operators, who contacted over 100 other operators throughout most of the 50 states.

Learn more about LARA by visiting their website at w5lvc.org.

Steve Southwell is a licensed amateur radio operator, and a member of LARA who is usually too busy working on the newspaper Saturday mornings to attend the club’s weekly breakfasts.