Submitted by Phil Cornell / KA7FRZ for Olympia Amateur Radio Society

What is ham radio, really?

Have you ever wondered why the truck in front of you has a funny looking license plate and a bunch of weird antennas on the roof? How about seeing a neighbor with all kinds of antennas in the yard and on the roof? Who are these people?

We are amateur “ham” radio operators who have chosen a hobby that involves many aspects of communications. We are members of an organization called “OARS” (Olympia Amateur Radio Society). Our club is associated with the Thurston County ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service)/RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) organization which assists in emergency communication support at various locations around the county.

Ham Radio
Ham radio hobbiests often can be identified by the large antenna on their homes and cars. Photo courthesy: Phil Cornell

One of the most important parts of our hobby is emergency communications. If we were to have the disaster that is predicted in the recent Cascadia Rising exercise, it would be utter chaos. Land lines would be out, cell phone networks would be overloaded, internet would be jammed up, police and fire communications could be overloaded. Hams to the rescue!  We practice on a regular basis for emergencies such as this. One example of our practice was held on the weekend of June 24 and 25, called “Field Day”. It is aptly called this because we set up our stations out in the field and simulate emergency conditions –conditions that would exist if we had just experienced a major earthquake.

Field Day – Ham Radio’s Open House

Every June, more than 40,000 hams throughout North America set up temporary transmitting stations in public places to demonstrate ham radio’s science, skill and service to our communities and our nation. It combines public service, emergency preparedness, community outreach and technical skills all in a single event. Field Day has been an annual event since 1933, and remains the most popular event in ham radio.

The objective is “to work as many stations as possible on any and all amateur bands (excluding the 60, 30, 17, and 12-meter bands) and to learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions.” (http://www.arrl.org/field-day Copyright 2017, American Radio Relay League, Incorporated. All rights reserved.)

Ham Radio Field Day
The Ham Radio Field Day took place on one of the hottest days of the year so far in 2017. Photo courtesy: Phil Cornell

As noted above in the quote from the ARRL, this is ham radio’s biggest event all year. We spent months planning, weeks testing antennas, all to have a successful outing.

This year we held our “Field Day” at the home of Duane Braford/WB7ROZ. Duane has a very nice field where we setup several tents, canopies, antennas, generators, solar panels, oh, and of course, radios! The purpose of Field Day is to make as many contacts, talk to as many other hams on the radio, as possible in a 24-hour period. It is a grueling test of equipment and personnel, and we look forward to it every year. This year Field Day was held on the hottest weekend we have seen in a long time, the temperature at the site on Sunday reached 98°! No, we don’t have air conditioning! This was truly in line with the ARRL’s description of “less than optimal conditions.”

Preparation began at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday with the raising of several antennas. As soon as an antenna was in place we had operators plugging in radios and beginning to make contacts. The 24-hour period began at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday and went non-stop until 11:00 a.m. on Sunday.  Once all the antennas were in place, our operators began to search out other hams across the country.

Ham Radio Olympia
Amateur ham radio operators are a critical asset during an emergency. Photo courtesy: Phil Cornell

Art Taylor/KL7SK, to me made the most impressive contribution by ensuring the safety of OARS members and others present at the site. For example, he took it upon himself to make sure we stayed hydrated while raising antenna supports and we took a well-timed break at mid-day. As work progressed he seemed constantly on the move identifying, marking and mitigating potential hazards. On top of this he found time to make a number of contacts with (and possibly despite) the encouraging words of a few of us listening over his shoulder. Good job Art!

We had invited several members of our local political leadership but, due to the excessive heat, their participation was minimal. We did have several members of the public stop by to find out “what the poles (antenna supports) were all about.”

We take what we learned here and improve our radio operating skills. This is done so that we can be ready to provide whatever communications assistance we can when a disaster strikes.

How can we help? I’m glad you asked. Ham radio operators believe in the spirit of community service and we practice, a lot. We are good at what we do. Our hobby is not just a hobby, it’s a passion for experimentation, technical knowledge, social interaction and community service. That said, there are many ways we can help during an emergency. We can take your name and pass a message to a family or friend out of the area to let them know that you are OK. We can coordinate with first responders to evacuate critically injured quake victims. We can pass along information about where first responders are needed.  We can coordinate recovery efforts and help life get back to normal. These are just a few of the ways we can help during a disaster.

Ham Radio Olympia wa
Field Day is a chance for ham radio enthusiasts to learn from one another and practice their skills for use in a real emergency. Photo courtesy: Phil Cornell

So, next time you see someone talking into a handheld radio, with lots of antennas on their vehicle with the weird license plate, or lots of antennas in their yard and on their roof, be thankful that they have chosen to take up this hobby.  Someday, your life may depend on a ham radio operator.


You can see us at events all around Thurston County, all year long.  Some examples of what we do:

  • Olympia Arts Walk with OlyMEGA
  • Lacey Spring Fun Fair
  • Communications support for the Capital City Marathon
  • Booth at the Lacy Fireworks on July 3
  • Booth at the Thurston County Fair Aug 2 and 3
  • August 11-15, Bigfoot Ultra Marathon
  • 21—Total solar eclipse day
  • September 16, 17 – Salmon Run
  • October 20, 21, 22 – Scouting’s Jamboree on the Air
  • November 17 – Boy Scout night hike

“When all else fails…ham radio is there!”

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