Going over-the-air with Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society for National Field Day

Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society gathers for 2023 National Amateur Radio Field Day.
Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society gathers for 2023 National Amateur Radio Field Day.

A world with no internet or cellular service is almost unimaginable in the dawn of the digital age. But given the unforeseen circumstances of any natural disaster, it’s important to know about other ways to communicate without these entrusted devices.

For over a century, amateur radio operators, also known as ham operators, have been integral partners in providing free services to the public in times of need when other means of communication have fallen short.

With the goal of teaching people how to use radio equipment in less than optimal conditions and practicing emergency response capabilities, the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society is participating in the National Amateur Radio Field Day from 2 p.m. Saturday, June 22, to 2 p.m. Sunday, June 23, at the Tom Brown Park tennis courts.

This year, the club is expecting an increase from last year's attendance of 50 to at least 100 participants for Field Day, because they've done more advertising than before for this free event. The Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society, with 150 active members, has even extended personal invitations to the local Scout troops, emphasizing the importance of STEM discussions so that kids can also learn at Field Day.

“It’s easy for anyone to pick up a computer or smartphone, connect to the internet and communicate, with no knowledge of how the devices function or connect to each other,” communications manager for the American Radio Relay League David Isgur said in a release.

“But if there’s an interruption of service or you’re out of range of a cell tower, you have no way to communicate. Ham radio functions completely independent of the internet or cell phone infrastructure, can interface with tablets or smartphones, and can be set up almost anywhere in minutes.”

Stan Zawrotny is a senior ham with the Tallahassee club, who was first introduced to amateur radio on a bus ride from school after hearing that people were using their wooden radios at home to hear Sputnik, the first artificial satellite sent to orbit Earth in 1957. At 15 years old, he earned his amateur radio license from the Federal Communications Commision (FCC), after a series of tests required for all ham operators.

Stan Zawrotny, Senior Amateur Radio Operator with Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society
Stan Zawrotny, Senior Amateur Radio Operator with Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society

Amateur radio has always piqued Zawrotny’s interest, even allowing him to earn a certificate of recognition for his service in the Cold War, where he communicated with war veterans on the frontline through ham radio. But, while working a position for a national security agency Zawrotny was advised to let his license expire.

“For some reason, they didn’t think it was a good idea for a Russian analyst to be talking to people all around the world,” Zawrotny, 81, said as he tuned his digital radio to connect with other operators across seas.

Upon retirement from his business, Integrated Management Services Group, years later in 2006, he decided that it was time to rediscover his passion for technology and global exploration from the comfort of his own home with an upgraded radio set up, costing him almost $12,000. Zawrotny says there are less expensive alternatives for beginner operators that can start as low as $29.95.

In the event of a disaster, ham operators are required to provide their services free of cost. Zawrotny recalls using his amateur radio, during Hurricane Michael and Hurricane Katrina, to assist people with contacting their displaced loved ones.

It’s at times like this where their expertise is needed most.

Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society members at 2023 National Amateur Radio Field Day.
Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society members at 2023 National Amateur Radio Field Day.

Though it’s not always such a serious matter. The same technology used to operate amateur radio systems is also used at large, pre-planned events like marathons, bike-a-thons, parades, and fairs, making it a transferable skill set that can be beneficial in a multitude of everyday scenarios.

Some clubs use Field Day as a mock contest to determine who can contact the most qualified stations. While the event doesn’t result in awards, winners for official contests, like CQ World Wide, can win prestigious amateur radio awards.

According to the Amateur Radio Relay League, ham radio is the last remaining place in the usable radio spectrum that individuals can develop and experiment with wireless connections. Amateur radio’s involvement spreads across organizations like FEMA, DHS, NOAA, ARC, and CERT team initiatives. Its operators are essential parts of every state’s emergency plans.

Each year, more than 40,000 hams across North America participate in the National Amateur Radio Field Day hosted by the Amateur Radio Relay League. Public demonstrations of ham radio’s science, skill, and community service are led by operators representing clubs and organizations, like the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society, which will have three stations this weekend.

The Tallahassee crew will begin setting up Friday night for the 24-hour gathering with food, fellowship, and over-the-air festivities.

Another active operator with the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society is Adrienne Hendrix, who took an interest in ham radio just three years ago in 2021, after seeing a lot of social media videos that inspired her to pick up on the hobby she now loves. Last year was her first time participating in Field Day, as she operated the "go-over-the-air" station which allowed others to experiment with her equipment and contact operators in a variety of places.

"There's a lot of experimentation, and there's a lot of failure and success," Hendrix said. "But the club that I'm in, those people are very, very talented. They are also very supportive and giving. If they see somebody that really wants to learn and get into ham radio, they'll do everything they can."

This year, Hendrix looks forward to exploring other niches of amateur radio she hasn't mastered yet, like digital radio.

For more information

∎ Learn about National Amateur Radio Field Day at www.k4tlh.org.

Democrat writer Mycah Brown can be reached at MJBrown@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society goes over-the-air for Field Day