MANKATO — Taking a break from her work at the Harry Meyering Center Saturday, Becky Utz stood in a parking lot and watched curiously as a man sat on the roof of a large storage shed and fiddled with a rotating antenna.
Utz has been working at the center for 14 years and has noticed that every year, around this time in June, big antennas go up around the American Red Cross building next door. One antenna dangles from a huge forklift that reaches three stories into the air. Another is a pair of long wires that stretch through the air across the grassy area on the other side of the Red Cross building.
“I always thought they were tracking storms or something,” she said as she watched the guy on the shed adjust the third antenna.
Utz didn’t realize all she had to do was go inside the Red Cross building at 105 Homestead Road to see what was actually taking place. Richard West and any of the other ham radio operators inside would have been happy to explain that this weekend is the American Radio Relay League’s annual Field Day event. The event continues this afternoon and is open to the public.
More than 35,000 amateur radio enthusiasts from across the country set up huge antennas, fire up their ham radios and have a friendly competition to see who can make the most radio wave connections. It’s also a chance to let others see what it’s like to use a ham radio to communicate with the world.
“We’re doing a search and pounce,” West explained Saturday as he honed in other operators giving out call signals. “We’re tuning around until we have a strong signal then calling them back to see if they have a strong contact from us.”
If communications are established, the two operators exchange call signs and log a connection. The call sign for the Mankato Area Radio Club is whisky, zero, whisky, charlie, lima or W0WCL.
Some might think an event like this would fade away like citizens band radios in world where almost everyone has a cell phone and/or access to Internet communications. But Tom Rieff said the number of people obtaining the Federal Communications Commission licenses required to operate a ham radio is increasing.
One reason for that is radio operators are able to help people when disasters strike, wiping out cell phone towers, land lines and the cable systems needed to communicate the way most people do. Ham radio operators can use gas generators, wind power or solar power to get their radios working and let emergency responders know where help is needed. In fact, the antennas propped up at the Red Cross building this weekend are stored there and can be transported wherever they are needed during an emergency.
“The whole thing is about emergency preparedness,” Rieff said. “We like to set up and operate under less than ideal conditions.”
The Mankato club uses the Red Cross building because it’s an emergency operations center for the city. Other clubs around the country trek out into the wilderness with their antennas and set up operations in tents.
As Shaunah Stepanek, 10, sat next to West and listened as he pounced on calls from operators all over the country, she said having an amateur radio license runs in the family. She’s studying the regulations now and hoping to take the required licensing test soon.
“My parents are members of the club,” she said, adding that they have ham radios in their house, their cars and, sometimes, in their pockets. “My dad has a whole room full of hand-held radios.
“I want to be able to talk to my parents if I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t get to talk to people now — I just get to listen.”