Central Coast amateur radio operators gathered on Saturday and Sunday at impromptu broadcast stations ranging from a football field to the base of a 400-foot-high antenna.
Their goal: to call into the void for 24 hours straight.
Their goal: to reach as many operators as possible by playing at some 1,500 American Radio Relay League Field Day venues across North America.
The annual exercise allowed amateur radio operators to test the radio system often used during major national disasters.
More than 2 million operators are licensed worldwide, nearly half of which are located in the Americas, according to the American Radio Relay League.
“We have all of these old resources available,” said John Kendall, president of the Santa Ynez Valley Amateur Radio Repeater Group. “You say it will never happen, but after major events like earthquakes, hurricanes, some of these massive fires, cell phone towers and landlines can be overwhelmed or completely crippled.”
With a radio, antenna, battery, and microphone, an amateur radio operator can quickly provide communication services.
Licensed Amateur Radio Operators, often referred to as Amateur Radio Operators, can contact anyone else on the air within the same community or across the world.
“After the Northridge earthquake the phone lines were still working, but you couldn’t go through because the circuits were all busy,” said Bob Harrison, longtime member of the Lompoc Valley-based Satellite Amateur Radio Club.
He remembers a woman trying to contact a hospital in the south to check on the status of a relative.
Phones weren’t doing the job, but radio communications linked her to her loved one.
“When we ask people what they would do in an emergency if their cell phone didn’t work, you get that deer look in the headlights,” Kendall said. “People think it can’t happen, but it can, and it does.”
Amateur radio operators were deployed to Puerto Rico to provide communications services after all channels were destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Closer to home, Kendall said, amateur radio operators assisted with US Forest Service communications during the 1993 Marre fire on Mount Figueroa.
“Amateur radio doesn’t just talk on the radio,” said Ryan Elliott, emergency coordinator for Santa Ynez Valley / American Radio Emergency Service. “Today it’s all about figuring out how to hook up computers across the world through amateur radio, seeing how far away you can get your signal from your house with the least amount of power. There are things. in amateur radio beyond mere conversation. “
Amateur radio operators use a variety of frequencies – FM, AM, sideband, the Internet, and beyond – to connect voice, text, data, and even live video.
They connect with other radio users halfway around the world, even the International Space Station.
“Amateur radio is the oldest form of social networking,” Kendall said. “We can talk to people all over the world while people in the same room with their cell phones, landlines and satellites cannot.”
Elliott discovered ham radio while attending Cal Poly. He passed his first license test in 1999 and now has his own radio setup available for his whole family in an emergency.
He also uses it to contact other operators around the world.
“In an emergency, you may not be able to really rely on the mobile phone system,” Elliott said. “During the storms of last winter, the cell [service] came down to our house, we had no electricity, there was no way to communicate.
“That’s why we keep a fixed line – these traditionally have their own power supply, but with new systems or during larger disasters, they can also fail.”
In an emergency, his wife at home in the Santa Ynez Valley could always contact him at work in Goleta.
In March, Solvang City Council formalized its long-standing agreement with the Santa Ynez Valley Amateur Radio Repeater Group to maintain an amateur radio antenna and associated equipment at the Chalk Hill Reservoir 2 site.
The equipment had been in place for decades, but the latest deal, including a low-cost lease, formalized the partnership and responsibilities of the Santa Ynez Valley Amateur Radio Repeater group.
The organization also maintains radio equipment at the Figueroa Mountain Fire Station.
“It’s a very interesting hobby with the potential to serve the community as well,” said Kendall. “It’s like my father said about fishing: ‘The fishing is always good, the catch can vary.’ The radio is still good, but the conditions for talking to someone else vary.