Ham operators hold field day at Shay Park

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Jack Beith was at the gathering of amateur radio operators at Shay Park in Picayune this past weekend, but what he is really looking forward to is July 12, the “Night of Nights,” which is the last date on which commercial short-wave radio operators handling ship-to-shore dispatches were on the air.

Beith was one of several Pearl River County ham operators — amateur short-wave radio operators are called “ham operators” — at Shay Park practicing how they will handle emergency communications in case an emergency, such as a hurricane, strikes South Mississippi and interrupts normal communications channels.

Beith is retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, where he was a radio operator, and from a civilian firm that handled ship-to-shore communications until that came to an end with satellite telephones and computers.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Beith also is one of the ham operators who can communicate using Morse code, a skill once required of all short-wave radio operators but which has not been required for the last seven-and-a-half years, which is when the Coast Guard quit using it and the commercial sites shut down as satellites and computers took over long distance communications once done by short-wave.

The retired Coast Guardsman, however, is worried about the demise of short-wave radio communications.

“If somebody takes out our satellites, we’re in big trouble,” Beith said. He noted that the Chinese have taken out a couple of their own satellites with missiles, something he believes was practice for a darker purpose.

“Really, we actually have only one satellite that handles the bulk of our (U.S.) communications,” Beith said.

He and the other ham operators, though, were at Shay Park for their annual practice for emergencies, to show off their skills to people who stopped by and try to recruit some of them to their ranks and to help Boy Scouts earn their radio badge, which a troop from Vancleave was there doing.

Members of Troop 286 were gathered near Jeff Urbaniak — call sign KF55TK, he was quick to point out — as he discussed with them short-wave radios and how they are operated.

Many of the ham operators also were participating in a contest to see who could contact the most other operators in an hour. The contest would run 24 hours, from 12:01 p.m. Saturday to 12 p.m. (noon) Sunday with the operators working in relays from three radios set up at Shay Park.

The radios were set up to operate just as they would be operated under emergency conditions, said Billy Morrell, one of the hams at Shay Park helping set up the radios to be used in the contest.

He said the all the radios were operating on 5 Watts and getting their electricity from generators the hams had set up for the contest. Score was being kept on laptop computers they had set up with each of the three radios.

The local hams had been at Shay Park since Friday afternoon setting up their equipment and preparing for the contest. However, one of the ham operators said that realistically, during an emergency, a ham operator should be able to set his radio and be operating in about 45 minutes. Others were not quit so optimistic, with one man saying 24 hours was probably more realistic given the amount of damage the hams might be facing from the hurricane or other cause of an emergency that required their unique skills.

Ham operators in the county have held such a gathering each year for the several years, with Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 being their catalyst for organizing locally and hold the gatherings, alternating yearly between Picayune and Poplarville.