Amateur radio event is rehearsal for disaster
In the darkened days following Sept. 11, 2001, when cellphone traffic overloaded East Coast networks and shut off much of New York City from the rest of the world, amateur radio operator Larry Fuksa of Ford City did the best thing he could do to help: He sat at his radio and relayed health and welfare reports to those there who needed them.
“There was no communication coming in and out of New York City except through amateur radio communication,” said Fuksa, 64. “We're the backup for 911 when everything else breaks down.”
He said that's the reason this weekend is so important. From 2 p.m. Saturday to 2 p.m. Sunday, amateur radio operators across North America will take part in the American Radio Relay League's annual field day — a 24-hour event when amateurs set up and operate under emergency conditions in an attempt to make as many contacts (or “QSOs”) as possible.
“It's a really good day just to practice our skills,” said Fuksa, who remembers first becoming interested in amateur radio as a child listening to overseas broadcasts on his father's shortwave radio. Now, as secretary of the Fort Armstrong Amateur Wireless Association, Fuksa looks forward to Field Day each year to connect with operators everywhere who share his passion.
This year marks the first time there will be two Field Day sites in Armstrong County — the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association, which boasts about 40 members, will transmit on high-frequency from a generator-powered trailer along Brick Church Road in Burrell Township; and the North American QRP CW Club (NAQCC), a locally run group geared towards transmitting at reduced power levels, will operate strictly on battery power from a site along Garretts Run Road in Manor Township.
NAQCC president Tom Mitchell of Manor Township, who is also an emergency communications officer with the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association, said he expects both organizations to do well this Field Day, but he's especially excited about the prospects of the NAQCC.
“We have some top-notch operators,” Mitchell said.
John Shannon of Kittanning, for one, has made more than 80,000 QSOs since he was first licensed in 1963. He started a “QSO-a-day” streak that August half a century ago and claims to have made at least one contact every day since — many with low-powered QRP operations.
“Our club promotes QRP operation simply because it's a challenge,” said Shannon. “We don't like doing things the easy way.”
Still, there's very little that's easy about Field Day at all. Operators at both local sites will take turns transmitting around the clock and through the night, all in an attempt to rack up as many contacts as possible. Fuksa said the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association made about 320 last year.
“It can also be a fun time,” said Fuksa. “But it's all about training to be ready for a disaster. If something would happen, we know we'll have the ability to move onto a site with nothing there, set up an antenna and communicate with those who need it.”
The public is invited to the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association site at 180 Brick Church Road. The organization meets the fourth Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. in the war room at the county 911 center in Rayburn. For information, go to NAQCC.info.
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303.