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Working to make contact

June 24, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

BUNKER HILL, W.Va. - For 24 hours Saturday and Sunday, the world was at the doorstep of a group of local amateur radio operators.

Setting up shop in a remote field overlooking the Shenandoah Valley near Bunker Hill, the ham radio operators were able to talk to people in places as far away as England, Germany and Hawaii.

The conversations took place during the annual Field Day event, when ham radio operators throughout the Western Hemisphere try to make as many radio contacts with each other as possible.

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The event was sponsored and organized by the Eastern Panhandle Amateur Radio Club.

Ham radio has thrived since at least the early 1900s, but it took on increased significance following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Rod Rockwell, one of the local Field Day participants.

When the two passenger jets slammed into the World Trade Center towers in New York, cell phone lines and telephone lines were overloaded with callers, said Rockwell. To coordinate rescue efforts, officials turned to ham radio operators to funnel information back and forth between agencies involved in the rescue efforts, he said.

"It makes you feel a lot better about your hobby because your hobby could be pressed into serving your community," said Rockwell, of Martinsburg.

There are about 15 radio bands that are reserved for amateur radio, said Rockwell. They are scattered between other bands used for commercial radio, police radios, pagers and other forms of communication, he said.

To become an amateur radio operator, a person must pass a test and be approved by the Federal Communications Commission, said Rockwell.

Ham radio hobbyists can set up their operations anywhere, which makes their capabilities useful in disaster situations, Rockwell said.

Because of the way they are set up, they are less susceptible to disasters. Telephone communications and cell phones are susceptible to disasters because they depend on land-based equipment, Rockwell said.

The amateur radio operators who were camped out on Dan Lefevre's 230-acre farm off Sam Mason Road used a generator to run their equipment. Several radio stations were set up under tents, and a thin wire was looped high in the air through some trees to serve as an antenna.

As of Sunday afternoon, the local group of operators was close to making 1,000 contacts, which is considered good, said Rockwell.

It was a fairly standard process.

After making contact with another operator, they would exchange their call signs, their operating class and the state and section they are in.

Then they would move on to the next contact.

The radio transactions sounded good sometimes, and full of static on other occasions.

"It's difficult to listen to, quite frankly," said radio operator Bill McCarrey of Waynesboro, Pa.

Many of those gathered at the Bunker Hill site are involved in commercial radio.

Rockwell does engineering work for radio stations and McCarrey works as a disc jockey for Oldies 106.9 in Hagerstown.

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