Zero Bias – The Hidden Value of Field Day
BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU
The ARRL likes to promote two major aspects of Field Day, but there is one other significant part of the event that is too often overlooked. I was reminded of it during my FD visit with K2MFF, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Amateur Radio Club. The parts that are well-promoted, of course, are the event's value as an emergency communications exercise (for which K2MFF's setup in a university parking deck — see photos — may have been more realistic than operating in a park or similar location); and its value as a public demonstration of amateur radio and our ability to communicate, both locally and nationally, without relying on the telephone/ internet/commercial power infrastructure.
These are certainly both valid and important. At K2MFF, like at countless other stations, we operated various modes on various bands, using a generator, batteries, and solar panels for power, with antennas ranging from a G5RV to a rotatable dipole, homemade VHF quad, and a military surplus NVIS (near vertical incidence skywave) vertical, all set up on the roof of the parking deck. We also learned that one of the "safety features" on a 5-gallon gas can caused it to leak while pouring it, prompting us to improvise a new way to refill the generator's fuel tank. The operation also provided the club with an opportunity to strengthen existing relationships and build new ones with members of the university administration and its public safety department, the very people who might call on the group to provide backup communications in the event of an emergency. And if there ever was such a need, experience setting up and operating from the downtown setting of a parking deck would be much more valuable in this case than operating from a park or out in the woods.
Getting New Hams Active and Involved
But here is the third, equally important, and often-overlooked aspect of Field Day: It provides an opportunity, in a relatively relaxed setting (remember, Field Day is not a contest!) for newer hams to get some on-air experience, discover different modes and use a variety of radios, along with the community-building experience of simply shooting the breeze with a diverse group of hams. We have often pointed out in this space that one of our greatest challenges, as a group, is to reach out to "licensees" who may not be active on the air, help them get some on-air experience and encourage them to become part of the active ham community. This is at least as important as efforts to recruit new licensees but is frequently one of our communal points of weakness. Field Day provides a blueprint for one effective way to meet this challenge.
Roughly half of the hams who came out to K2MFF were relatively new licensees (KD2 callsigns); several are students at NJIT. It was the biggest group of under-40 hams I've been with in a very long time! For many of the newer hams, Field Day provided their first opportunity to make an HF contact, to try a new mode, or to get on the air at all. And it was the job of the older, more experienced hams in the group to encourage and guide them. "I'm just a Tech," said one young ham when I asked him if he wanted to switch from logging to operating at the 40-meter phone station. "You're surrounded by Extra Class control operators," I replied. "It's perfectly fine."We switched seats and he took to it very quickly. The look of satisfaction on his face after completing his first contact suggests that his first HF QSO likely will not be his last.
There were also opportunities for sitting and chatting over a traditional college meal of cold pizza and warm Coke with more experienced members of the group. But as we discussed here a few months ago, the key was a core group of young hams inviting and encouraging other young hams to join in. We older folks were there primarily for support (and to help put up antennas!).
One More Lesson of Field Day
Many radio clubs complain about declining attendance at meetings and declining membership overall. Field Day, many club leaders say, is the only event that draws out otherwise inactive members and prospective members. Let's take a closer look and see what we can learn from that…
The "field" for K2MFF's Field Day operation was a parking deck at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in downtown Newark, NJ. K2MFF is NJIT's club station. This photo shows some of the group members on the air. From left, Rachel Umbel, KD2NDK (NJIT grad student); Chris Harrsch, KD2GYD (NJIT student); Trevor Summerfield, KD2KYC (NJIT alumnus); Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF (NJIT Post-Doctoral Research Associate and club co-advisor); and club advisor Peter Teklinski, WW2I (NJIT Executive Director of Core Systems and Telecommunications).
Here's the big difference between Field Day and a typical club meeting: It's an activity! There's stuff going on with plenty of opportunities for people to help out with different tasks, participate as operators or loggers (or ad-hoc networking specialists), cook meals or just watch, listen, and learn. Meetings generally feature a bunch of people talking at each other, issuing boring reports ("… and we spent $39 on postage and $140 for the phone line at the repeater…") and comparing notes on various medical conditions. Newcomers often are ignored or marginalized.
K2MFF 2016-17 President Josh Katz, KD2JAO, helps NJIT Antarctic Program Research Engineer Andy Stillinger, WA2DKJ (hidden behind solar panel), set up a solar power supply on the roof of a parking deck at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
The most successful clubs take the lesson of Field Day and apply it to their meetings. Day-to-day business is left to the executive board to discuss and debate, the treasurer's report is published in the club newsletter and the bulk of each meeting is devoted to an activity, whether it's building a kit together; inventorying and inspecting club equipment before Field Day; getting it put away afterward; doing group code lessons (those who know, help teach); a fixit night with expert troubleshooters and professionalgrade test equipment, etc. Clubs with regular activities have more active members. Clubs with more active members attract more prospective members. Active clubs grow. So take the lesson of Field Day and do something at your club meetings, every club meeting, then promote your activities among local hams and the general public. And be sure to welcome new attendees and get them involved in something right away.
Here's a great club activity for this month: Join the several groups of hams taking advantage of the total solar eclipse on August 21 to help conduct propagation research or just have fun! Maybe hook up with a local astronomy group to combine safe viewing with radio operating. The path of totality will sweep across the continental U.S. in a fairly narrow line from northwest to southeast, but most of the country will be in the 75%-90% zone (see map on page 27).
One of the lead organizers at K2MFF's Field Day was Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF, who is also one of the leaders of HAMSci, Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation, which is sponsoring both the Solar Eclipse Project research activity https://hamsci.org/eclipse and the Solar Eclipse QSO Party https://hamsci.org/seqp. We encourage you to check out both of these activities and see how you and/or your club can be part of the fun when "the lights go out" on August 21. And don't forget the Perseids meteor shower, which peaks on August 12. Get out there and do radio!
– 73, W2VU