By Jennifer Shaw Correspondent
Contra Costa Times
PLEASANT HILL -- Ham radio operators are the go-to resource when all other means of communication are shut down due to a massive power outage or being the sole source of communication in remote rural areas.
They offer reassurance to families who can't reach loved ones through conventional means during a natural disaster, be it earthquake, fire or severe winter storm. And they are able to transmit urgent information in the event of a serious accident.
On Field Day this Saturday, Pleasant Hill resident Bill Brink, a retired U.S. Air Force radio communications and radar noncommissioned officer, and local fellow "hams" will set up their own local access network, activate generators and test equipment to communicate with other participating groups throughout the United States and Canada.
The annual round-the-clock test and demonstration at Dinosaur Hill Park is open to the public. Participating stations, located in parks, forests, people's backyards or shopping malls, are all operated off the grid.
Brink says that more than 35,000 amateur radio operators took part in last year's event and an estimated 1,440 sites are registered this year.
Contestants in the competition, sponsored by the Amateur Radio Relay League, get one point for voice contact and two points for a successful transmission of Morse code.
"Active hams have their hands in (myriad) pots," Brink says, noting their participation in CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and other emergency relief organizations.
Brink humbly describes his avocation as being well-suited for "an old retired guy," who says he likes challenges and fixing things, was among the operators at the AMGEN bike race finish line a few weeks ago.
While law enforcement and other emergency response entities have more capabilities to spot and instantly respond to a situation -- from an accident to a lost child at a crowded event -- the ham operators are the other critical "eyes and ears, (as these agencies) cant' be everywhere," Brink says.
For the first time, the Martinez Amateur Radio Club is participating in the event that will introduce its members to working with large towers and antennae that reliably pick up greater frequency and reach more people at greater distances, chapter president Dave Piersall explains.
Piersall initially learned Morse code in the Army, got his ham operator license in the late 1970s, kept it active to be able to help in a crisis, and to enjoy a hobby that has connected him with other hams more than 11,000 miles away.
Today, Piersall, who retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs, is among the 717,000 people who have ham operator licenses in the United States, and 2.5 million worldwide, which is the highest number of licensees to date.
"There's more to it that turning the radio on and dialing a frequency. There's some technique involved," says Piersall, a volunteer amateur radio operator with the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office, as part of its civil emergency service program.
Pleasant Hill resident Lew Jenkins, a retired U.S. Army captain and former electrical engineer, has communicated with other hams in more than 300 countries, including from his backyard, 600-square-foot "radio shack" -- all without wires.
"All you need between us and people on the other side of the world is air," says Jenkins, an Antioch High School alumnus who relayed 13,000 email messages following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and was a western conduit in a ham radio network that relayed messages immediately following the protest at Tiananmen Square.
"We're concerned about the graying of the (qualified) 'ham' cadre. So, we want to encourage young people to come out (to Field Day) and see the excitement of person-to-person communication over short-wave radio."
Harry Styron, a Walnut Creek resident and member of the Mt. Diablo Amateur Radio Club, describes some of the confounding variables that are encountered when seeking faraway frequency connections with its refracting radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere: the optimal angle; the earth's curvature; the variation due to atmospheric changes, be it time of day or night, or season.
But Styron, who volunteers as an amateur radio operator doing backup communications for the U.S. Air Force's division of the Department of Homeland Security, enjoys his brief exchanges, having reached operators in Russia, Chile and Argentina.