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There’s as many reasons for getting into the hobby of amateur radio as there are radio operators. That’s what you will find when you start talking to them, either in person or “on the air,” as you could very easily this weekend. 

An American Radio Relay League, or ARRL, National Field Day was held during the weekend, and the airwaves were enormously busy with operators, also known as “hams,” trying to make contact with their radio brethren across the country or around the world.

The Southaven Arena parking lot was the site of one such Field Day event, jointly held by the Olive Branch Amateur Radio Club and the Chickasaw Amateur Radio Association of Hernando.

Beginning about 1 p.m. Saturday, ham operators went to work putting out call signs in hopes of getting return contacts from others who were trying to do the same thing. The calls went out continuously for 24 consecutive hours until 1 p.m. Sunday.

The activity is more than just trying to accumulate contacts, although each club involved tries to get as many of those as possible. Ken Johnson of Byhalia, who is the ARRL District Coordinator in Northwest Mississippi for the Emergency Response Amateur Radio Group, said the fun also has a serious purpose.

“A lot of this is preparation for if we had to deploy and be the last source of communication available,” Johnson said.

The operators provided their own power and set up their own base station, complete with transmitting equipment and towers. The power to run the equipment was set up as if they were on their own out in the field, without any source of electricity due to storms or disaster.

Johnson said time spent as a storm chaser is what got him interested in amateur radio.

“That’s what got me involved in Civil Defense, now known as the EMA,” Johnson said. “When I got involved with the EMA, they had this other radio that they used when they went out spotting storms in Kansas. I went ahead and got my technician license and was told that I could talk around the world if I get the next license. I thought that was cool, so I ended up upgrading as far as you can. I’ve been a ham since about 1995. I’m actually now the District Coordinator for the ARRL in northwest Mississippi for the emergency response group.”

Johnson said he enjoys working with the people who are also enthusiasts of amateur radio.

“I enjoy the camaraderie, the operating, and I meet people from all over the world,” said Johnson. “I get QSL cards and even gift packages from there. I got a gift package from somebody whose husband worked for Disney World with a whole bunch of Disney memorabilia. You just never know who you are going to meet on the radio.”

A QSL card is a written confirmation of either a two-way connection between stations or a one-way reception of a signal from an AM radio, FM radio, television or shortwave broadcasting station.

Glen Popeil of Southaven has been working the airwaves since 1973 and said some of his teenage friends got him interested in ham radio.

“They introduced me to it and I just thought it was fun to talk around the world from my bedroom,” Popeil said. “The next thing you know I got on the air and got bit by the bug.”

Popeil said events like the weekend Field Day are what he enjoys the most.

“You’re out here and everything we have we threw together first thing this morning,” Popeil said. “Now our goal is to contact as many people as we can. I just love to make those rapid-fire contacts.”

At one time Saturday, the DeSoto County operators were making as many as 120 contacts an hour, or two every minute. They have to share their call sign and location, then get the other call sign and location, to have it count as an official contact.

“The underlying thing about this is disaster preparedness,” Popeil said. “The goal is how fast and how good of a station can you put together on an emergency, split-second basis. This is an emergency simulation where we have to talk to people and pass this message back and forth.”

Popeil pointed to Hurricane Katrina as a situation where amateur radio became vitally important in the weeks following the hurricane to get messages out from the Mississippi Gulf Coast as it started its recovery without power to the area.

“They had nothing for weeks and ham radio was the only one they could talk to,” Popeil said. “We were their communication lines for weeks and weeks.”

EMA volunteers and the Olive Branch Civil Air Patrol radio-equipped trailer were also part of the weekend’s Field Day, which was held as stormy weather threatened the area.

While nothing serious took place, Brad Kerley of Senatobia, a DeSoto County EMA volunteer, said radio operators spring into action if storm damage took place.

“We’re going to pre-position ourselves before the weather gets here,” Kerley said. “That way, if there’s a need for emergency radio communications, or anything like that, we’re already in position. We’ve got storm watchers who are out, and we’re in our emergency shelter with our radios out and running our repeaters. If information needs to get out, we can get it out.”

Kerley said he “kind of stumbled into” amateur radio.

“It started out with the little race radios or walkie-talkies, and we kind of wondered how they worked,” Kerley said. “I started looking into frequencies and learned a little bit more about it. It just evolved into communicating to a larger platform, and then a larger platform. Now, I can communicate globally from my truck.”

In fact, Kerley said he spends time on his commute from Senatobia to his work in Memphis talking to others who are also heading to work, just in another part of the country.

“It’s like having somebody to ride with,” Kerley said. “I’m going down the road and I’m talking to somebody down in Gulfport. He’s on his way to work and I’m on my way to work. It helps keep both of us awake, having our coffee and talking on our radio.”

The serious purpose of amateur radio in disaster situations cannot be overstated, but as Popeil said, being a ham is just a lot of fun.

“We had an event here last fall and one of the younger kids talked to Norway on the station we had set up,” Popeil said. “He was grinning from ear to ear the whole day. That’s the thing we enjoy doing. We have a station here for people to get on the air and see what it is like.”

Bob Bakken is Managing Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.