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Local ‘hams’ go coast to coast honing radio skills

NEW HAVEN — This past weekend, ham radio enthusiasts, affectionately nicknamed “hams,” holed up for 24 hours in sites across North America, working non-stop to operate as many stations as possible simultaneously and learn about using ham radio in emergency situations.
Five members of the Addison County Amateur Radio Association gathered in a friend’s backyard in New Haven for the occasion. Tucked away behind an abandoned red barn and surrounded by the Green Mountains, the cohort spent the day calling stations across the continent, with adequate breaks set aside for enjoying the views and sunny weather.
The hams arrived at 9 a.m. — “probably should have been 8,” participant and Middlebury resident Brett Wilhelm joked — on Saturday morning to get organized.
The men set up two generators, a radio tower, a tent filled with radio equipment, a desk overflowing with computers and cables and a maze of wires running all over the lawn, all of which would be taken down Sunday at 2 p.m.
THE TEAM SET up tents, two generators and radio mast next to a New Haven field on Saturday to receive and send messages along amateur radio waves all across North America.
Independent photo/Nora Peachin
They huddled around monitors with headsets on, repeating “CQ Field Day November 1 Foxtrot Sierra,” into microphones. N1FS, or November 1 Foxtrot Sierra, is the Addison County club’s call sign, issued in honor of Frank Somers, former Middlebury resident and charter member of the club. When Somers passed away, the organization adopted his initials for their call sign. “Sort of like a vanity license plate, but instead it’s a vanity call sign,” founding member Bruce Burgess commented.
Soon responses came in — jumbled voices answering with their respective signs, the tent filled with nonsensical combinations of numbers and words. Middlebury resident Kevin Emilio was at the helm, fielding a call from “Ohio or Michigan, based on the call sign.”
Emilio and Wilhelm began communicating with the man, and figured out he was calling from Michigan. The pair struggled to receive the call. “You’re getting wrecked,” Wilhelm laughed. “Is this why it’s called amateur radio?” Burgess contributed.
When they finally succeeded, they logged it on their computer. “Today is a competition, so points are awarded for each successful contact,” Wilhelm clarified.
Every June for approximately the past 25 years, the Addison County team has competed with over 40,000 users from all across North America. Participants come together for Field Days to share in their passion and expand their knowledge of ham radio operation.
Enthusiasm for amateur radio began growing in 1910. Now, over a century later, participants from nearly every country worldwide continue to communicate via Amateur Radio Bands and compete in frequent events like Field Day.
Emilio caught onto the trend in high school. He got his license in 1996, but when he started college he was inactive for years. Last year, Emilio regained interest when he broke his leg on duty as a Middlebury police officer and was out of work. “Brett and I were neighbors… when we realized we were both licensed amateur operators, he helped me get back on the air.”
“I like being able to contact people all over the world. When you can do it with a small piece of wire and an electronic box on your desk, it’s exciting,” Emilio said. Emilio also enjoys the local ham radio community. “We get together once a month for breakfast; we’re good friends.”
But Amateur Radio is more than just a fun hobby. Ham radio is also used to provide communication in emergency situations, because it does not rely on the Internet or any cell phone networks to operate.
“If we ever lose power or resources for a long period of time, we are still able to communicate worldwide using a generator, a car battery or a solar panel,” Emilio explained. For months following Hurricane Maria, communication with Puerto Rico was done strictly by amateur radio operators.
“In case of disasters or inclement weather, often it’s only the ham radio operators who can still communicate. We work with police and other rescue people to pass information along,” Burgess added.
So, hams use Field Days as an opportunity to simulate an emergency, in preparation for a real one. “There’s always roadblocks [during Field Days],” Emilio said, “but you improvise, and that’s what’s preparing you for an actual emergency.”
ADDISON COUNTY HAM radio club member Brett Wilhelm troubleshoots with the digital components at the Field Day event in New Haven on Saturday.
Independent photo/Nora Peachin
Burgess lamented the effect of modern technology on the ham radio experience. “The advent of cellphones has really taken away some of the excitement of trying to see who pops up on your receiver,” he said. Burgess’ daughter would tease her dad for his technological ineptitude, but “part of the excitement of radio is making a call and seeing who answers it. It could be anybody. You don’t have that with cellphones.”
Despite advancements in technology, the Addison County club appears to be going strong. Whether it is the thrill of competing, the love of local community, or the conversations with people all across the world, there seems to be something for everyone. At least, Wilhelm, Burgess and Emilio certainly seemed to think so.
For those interested in obtaining a ham radio license or attending a club meeting, reach out to Kevin Emilio at cqke1vt@gmail.com.

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