A ham radio operator is your best friend when technology fails, so it’s fitting that the Smoky Mountain Amateur Radio Club’s annual Field Day fell hours after storms blew transformers and downed trees across Blount County.
Members already were hooked up to generators and contacting users by the 2 p.m. opening time Saturday as rain passed over Maryville.
“We operate as if there was a storm,” said Maryville’s Bob Polk, also known as call sign KB2ENJ. “If we use the generators, we get extra points.”
The event drew about 35,000 club members and individual participants across the United States and Canada.
Amateur radio operators often are former military, aviation or civilian employees with Morse code and field telecommunications experiences.
Many are seniors who learned the craft in the mid-20th century, the heyday of ham radio operation when children and adults alike were as likely to scavenge parts from old units as they were to buy them.
Others, like club President Bob Wilson (KK4XA), simply enjoy talking to others with a safety net of being able to help if cellular technology fails.
He earned his license from the Federal Communications Commission in 1987.
“I was an avid hiker and I wanted to be able to call for help if I needed it in the mountains,” Wilson said. “I also like talking to other people. Sometimes at night I sit and talk to guys in Spain about our grandchildren.”
Being able to pass on the skill to youngsters who are interested is another draw, Wilson added.
At no time was that more critical than when Wilson received a transmission 15 years ago from a teen, Jordan Webb, who was on a trip in Cades Cove when tragedy struck.
“He sneaked a radio in with him,” said Jordan Webb’s father, Greg Webb. “One of his classmates fell over the waterfall and drowned. He couldn’t save him, but he had that set with him and he managed to get a signal. Bob got in touch with emergency services and they were able to recover his body more quickly.”
Greg Webb, himself a second-generation operator under the handle W4ITR, came out Saturday to watch his 28-year-old son log contacts with Don Mulls.
A chart showed seven relays from Florida, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Connecticut by 2:30 p.m., less than an hour into the competition.
The conversations were short and sweet, giving a call sign and confirming the transmission was complete while also giving users a chance to check to see if any gaps popped up across a region, indicating outages.
That could be critical during a natural disaster or other large-scale event, because ham radio operators are a backup network for responders, government officials and others who relay calls about health conditions, public safety and other time-sensitive data.
“The exchange is very quick,” Wilson explained. “We also use login software that prevents us from duplicating the entries. We hope to make about 5,000 to 6,000 contacts as a group over the whole weekend.”
Five stations were set up inside Middlesettlements First United Methodist Church’s Field of Dreams pavilion.
Two allowed participants to chat using Morse code — used since the early 18th century by mariners and militaries worldwide to communicate with land stations and each other.
Two others used voice systems and a fifth utilized modern computer technology.
“Morse code isn’t required for your license anymore, but it’s good to know,” Wilson said.
Another technique not included in the competition that Wilson said is good to know in an emergency is phone patching or autopatching.
It allows a radio operator to access an outgoing telephone line and make calls using a land station or repeater and a transceiver device.
Some Blount County operators also are active in the Tennessee Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which assists with emergency communications during emergencies and public events.
The club also uses weather spotters in the field who assist in reporting weather-related conditions to the National Weather Service.
“We have a saying, ‘When all else fails, ham radio,’ “ Wilson said. “If there is a heavy snow event, cellular phone traffic gets tied up. Ham radios don’t use cellphone towers because we have our own independent networks.”
For club information, call Wilson at 865-755-3810 or visit www.smokymountainarc.org.