Radio operators have a Field Day |

Radio operators have a Field Day

As the dits and dahs came over the receiver amid a light crackle, Jerry Bliss sat back in his Grass Valley home with his headphones on, listening to the Morse Code just like any other language.

Through radio waves bouncing off the atmosphere came the message of a ham operator in the San Joaquin Valley participating, like Bliss and other enthusiasts in western Nevada County, in a National Field Day.

Bliss and the rest do it mainly for fun, making as many contacts in as many places as they can and collecting certificates – they call them “wallpaper” – along the way. But as smoke continued to hang over the region and firefighters pressed on against blazes in the Yuba River, American River and Shasta-Trinity areas and around California, the role of such amateurs in case of a widespread disaster revealed the serious side of the hobby.

“Field Day is to practice communications during emergency situations,” said Bliss, a retired aerospace engineer and former Cold War radioman on a Navy submarine. “You take your radio, batteries, generators, tents, sling shot – anything you need that will help you communicate in an emergency.”

Firefighters use telephone and cellular telephone infrastructure for most communications because they are convenient and everywhere.

But if the electricity fails, the cell towers don’t typically have battery back-up, said Gerry Mitchelmore, president of the local Nevada County Amateur Radio Club. And if the telephone lines and signal repeaters burn, or if a disaster the size of Hurricane Katrina wipes out all the conventional infrastructure, “You’re back to radio,” Mitchelmore said.

“We’re here to supplement the government entities. The people who need communications, we’re capable of providing that,” Bliss added.

Some local hams belong to the national Amateur Radio Emergency Services, having received special training, and worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the aftermath of the Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast in 2005, Bliss said. They helped the American Red Cross, disaster relief agencies and families anxious to communicate with each other.

The hams’ local field day was set for Saturday at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, but the presence there of the fire incident command camp for the Yuba River Complex fires canceled that venue. Bliss went ahead in his radio playroom at home, as did many of the county’s 40 or 50 ham operators.

On a normal Field Day, they would have used a sling shot or bow and arrow to shoot line over a high tree limb, eventually hauling up an antenna to transmit their standard codes describing their location, type of transmission and call numbers in Morse Code or voice.

Instead, in air-conditioned comfort, Bliss spun a dial and the dit-dahs shifted to voices from Santa Barbara, Arizona, Oregon and Alberta, Canada.

“Kilo delta five X-ray tango, CQ Field Day,” one voice came clearly on the Elecraft K2 transceiver that Bliss built from a kit. With the revolution of Earth, the areas accessible by radio wave had shifted a bit westward, leaving behind the hams in Mississippi, Texas and Saskatchewan who Bliss had heard earlier in the afternoon.

Bliss flipped a switch. “Kilo six India India India,” he recited his own FCC-given call numbers, K6III. “One delta sierra Victor CQ Field Day,” he added, saying he is a single operator, working at home in the Sierra Nevada region and happy to communicate this Field Day with a another ham.

The facet of emergency communications is just one in the ham world, Mitchelmore said. “Some hams like contests, some like to talk; they’ll call in with the temperature and rainfall. Some like to build things, some like to work with satellites, some get involved in digital,” Mitchelmore said. “Computers are becoming more and more involved.”

Members of the Nevada County Amateur Radio Club can help people get involved in any aspect. For more information, call Mitchelmore at 432-9147 or visit the national ham Web site at Engineers welcome.

To contact City Editor Trina Kleist, e-mail or call 477-4230.

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