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The Value of Making Connections

Communications: Ham radio operators' contest promotes skills that are vital when disaster strikes.


COSTA MESA — During the week, they're administrators, doctors, truck drivers and even talent scouts for a pro baseball team. But for a 24-hour period this weekend, these professionals and a couple dozen more became hard-core amateurs.

Members of the West Coast Amateur Radio Club literally set up camp at Fairview Park on Saturday and Sunday to participate in an annual ritual called Field Day for ham radio operators. It's a nationwide contest that challenges ham operators to make as many radio contacts as possible.

The exercise, which ended Sunday at 11 a.m., is meant to prepare ham operators to communicate with the outside world in case of a major disaster such as earthquake or flood. Typically during such disasters, police and fire communications are overwhelmed, and ham operators must step in to fill the void.

"This really can turn into a 24-hour pressure cooker," said Warren Hoffnung, 61, an administrator at Chapman University who helped organize Field Day in Orange County. "It's much different than just chatting with friends over the radio."

The makeshift campsite confirmed Hoffnung's observation about the emergency radio station, which was powered by a 10-kilowatt generator. Operators were either making radio contacts or catching naps in a recreational vehicle or tent.

Arnie Shatz of Santa Ana spent nearly 24 hours straight sending and receiving the high-pitched dots and dashes of Morse code. In all, the 53-year-old urologist made an impressive 830 radio contacts.

"I'm exhausted," said a smiling Shatz, one of about 35,000 radio operators in the nationwide contest. "I'm just exhausted."

The pressure of the contest, whose winner won't be known for a while, precluded idle chatter. Like the ham operators, Shatz spent his day dispatching signals seeking a new contact. Once someone responded, Shatz and the source would exchange and log identification codes, then Shatz would start his search anew.

The event supplied its share of fun too. Ham operator Margie Tully of Long Beach said her two children gladly took turns staffing the radio.

"I believe in doing things together as a family," she said. "And on the radio, they don't get treated like kids, but more like adults."

Daughter Colleen, 15, added: "There are a lot of cool people out there. Plus I get good experience using a radio that is more powerful than the one I normally use."

Most radio contacts were found either in the United States or Canada, said Hoffnung, but some operators reached Japan and Guam. Event organizers concede that the contest can be tedious, but add that skilled communications are vital during a disaster when civilian networks are jammed.

Many of the operators who were at Fairview Park know exactly how important they can be during a crisis. Dick Bruno, for example, helped coordinate communications for the Red Cross during the Laguna Beach fires in 1993.

Hoffnung remembers an eight-hour graveyard shift with lifeguards in 1990 on the night of a major oil spill in Huntington Beach. He helped lifeguards spot birds endangered by the spill.

"It's a wonderful feeling to be able to help," Hoffnung said. "Of course, you're unhappy about the disaster, but you're happy that you can contribute to the community."

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