Amateur radio field day showcases emergency communications equipment

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COLUMBIA - This year's amateur radio field day kicks off at 1 pm Saturday. The Central Missouri Radio Association will participate in the national event highlighting radio communications in remote environments.

The group will test skills and equipment that may be called into action during emergencies.

Bill McFarland is a 'ham,' which is what amateur radio operators are called. He said field day is a chance to have fun with his hobby.

"We go out and spend 24 hours playing with our radios and trying to contact as many people as we can just for the fun of it. We put up wires in the trees, and some other antennas on poles and see what all we can do," McFarland said. 

McFarland said there will probably be 30,000 hams on the air Saturday afternoon.

While ham radio is a hobby, McFarland said it also provides an important service to the community.

"We call it the amateur radio emergency services," McFarland said. "In the case that the cell phones don't work, if the cell tower is down, my ham radio is still going to work."

Joe Piper, deputy director of Boone County Joint Communications, said BCJC provides dedicated space and equipment in the Emergency Communications Center for Boone County Amateur Radio Services, or BCARES.

Piper said the group is commonly activated during severe weather.

"Their network of trained weather spotters are a force multiplier providing valubale information, not visible by radar, to personnel working in the Emergency Communications Center," Piper said.

McFarland said the group is lucky that Columbia and Boone County see the value of working with ham radio. 

"Our value is we have a lot of people with equipment that we can send around, and not take police or sheriff off the road, and we can communicate on behalf of our served agencies," McFarland said.

The group requires it's members have an amateur radio license and training to help out during emergencies, like severe weather. McFarland said they are able to act as an extra set of eyes, ears, and communication equipment for public service agencies when they are called into action.

During the severe weather on Friday morning, McFarland said Boone County Joint Communications asked the group to come to the 911 dispatch center to tell them what their amateur radio operators were reporting from around the community.

"They're looking at their radar and their weather stuff, but they don't have someone at Route B and Blueridge who told us there was hail," McFarland said.

Amateur "hams" can not be paid for any of the services they provide, but McFarland said the work is worth it.

"There is something that we can do that we need to be doing to support the community that doesn't cost us anything except a little time, and sometimes some hail damage," McFarland said. 

Piper said their work is appreciated.

"Boone County is fortunate to have such a dedicated group of volunteers in our community," Piper said.

Field day is at Rock Bridge State Park from 1 pm Saturday to 1 pm Sunday. The public is welcome to attend and find out more about how ham radio works.