Issaquah Amateur Radio Club ‘hams’ it up on Field Day

“Whiskey Seven Bravo India, Whiskey Seven Bravo India.”

“Whiskey Seven Bravo India, Whiskey Seven Bravo India.”

A woman’s voice emerged from the radio with a hint of a southern twang: “Whiskey Seven Bravo India? This is One Alpha South Texas, please copy.”

“One Alpha South Texas, this is Two Alpha Western Washington.”

“Two Alpha Western Washington?” she asked, waiting for confirmation.

“Roger, roger.”

“Thanks for the contact.”

That conversation was one of more than 200 contacts the Issaquah Amateur Radio Club (IARC) made Saturday and Sunday during the American Radio Relay League’s annual Field Day at Sunny Hills Elementary School in Sammamish. Competitors in this amateur radio — or ham radio — contest set up stations as if they were in an emergency situation. The person with the most contacts earns bragging privileges and national ham radio fame.

But the IARC said it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“You can go into Field Day as a contest and try to win,” said Sammamish resident Bruce Helbert, 58. “I did that one year. I thought we talked to as many stations as we possibly could, and we ended up getting second.”

Helbert, an engineer, said that the winner that year had three times the score he did.

“I decided then I’m never going to win Field Day,” Helbert said. “That was many years ago when I was young and foolish.”

Instead, the IARC, an organization with about 25 members and more than 25 years of history, focuses on practicing, socializing and just having a good time. If they can recruit a few new members in the process, all the better.

“We want to expose as many people as we can to the hobby and show them what it’s about and what the emergency communications can do,” Helbert said.

Several members of the club said they have been captivated by ham radio for the majority of their lives.

“I was interested in electrical things since about the age of 7,” said club president Jim Horn, 72. “Amateur radio was a way to do things. At the time, there was no Internet or anything of course and (with ham radio) you could contact people at distances — talk to people a long ways away.”

For many, this childhood or adolescent love continued into their adult life, and many now use amateur radio to aid various emergency services. Horn is still active in Amateur Radio Emergency Service, a national organization. Another member used the skill in the Coast Guard. Several others currently belong to the Issaquah Ham Radio Support Group, which assists the Issaquah Police Department if connections go down.

In 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake demolished communication systems for some departments in the Olympia and greater Puget Sound area. The support group stepped in to keep contact open.

“There were some snafus in the police department,” said club vice president John MacDuff, 62. “Their emergency backup generators quit, and their whole 911 system went down.”

The system responded by sending all of the 911 calls to Bellevue’s police station, where a ham radio operator set up a station and transmitted information from each call via radio to operators in Issaquah.

“There were about two hours where all of the 911 calls were handled by this ham radio link to Bellevue,” MacDuff said.

Hurricane Katrina caused a similar situation in New Orleans, said Sammamish resident Doug Phillips, who is chief engineer on a ferry.

“After Katrina, the only people that could talk were the hams because all the other radio systems were down,” Phillips said.

Members of the IARC cited these examples to show that ham radio will remain relevant, although some consider it a dying hobby in the wake of the Internet.

MacDuff pointed out that the Internet needs some “infrastructure” outside of individual users to function. Ham radios, however, only need operators, radios, and antennae.

“In a lot of emergencies, earthquakes, and even in the hurricane in New Orleans, all of that infrastructure disappears, basically. It gets destroyed or knocked down, and so those communication systems that depend on that don’t work,” MacDuff said. “But amateur radio still works.”

Life-saving contributions aside, ham radio is just plain fun, enthusiasts say.

“It’s a neat hobby,” Phillips said. “I like tinkering with electronic stuff. It’s one of those things that I’ve always like to play with.”

The club’s annual Field Day is just another way to explore that passion.

“It’s the camaraderie of coming out, setting the stations up, taking them down and spending the night here, just trying to talk to as many other hams as we can,” Phillips said.

MacDuff, from behind the mic at his radio station, agreed.

“It’s unique. It’s something to look forward to,” he said. “We usually have a pretty good time.”