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Ham radio fans show off their skills at Santa Rosa event

Using a lightweight handheld antenna made of small archery arrows, Bob Matreci tried to connect to a satellite hovering about 200 miles above the ground.

If successful, sometimes amateur radio operators like Matreci can contact the International Space Station.

On Saturday, though, Matreci wasn’t having much luck with only static coming over the channel.

“You don’t always get a contact, but it’s always hope springs eternal,” he joked.

Matreci was one of about a dozen local amateur radio operators participating in the American Radio Relay League’s annual Field Day. The event brings together thousands of radio amateurs who set up temporary transmitting stations across the country to show off their skills and educate the public on how amateur radio, also known as ham radio, works.

Across the lawn at Finley Community Park in west Santa Rosa, members of the Sonoma County Radio Amateurs set up several stations displaying different types of communications devices. They worked to contact other operators along the West Coast — in some cases as far east as Kansas — through voice, satellite, digital communication and Morse code.

Operating amateur radios started off as a hobby for many of the club’s members but it has real-world practices here in the North Bay where wildfires and power outages can cut off cellphone and internet service, making it difficult to coordinate operations during emergencies, said Darryl Paule, outreach coordinator for the club.

“When all else fails, there’s always ham radio,” Paule said. “Ham radio is an important fabric of the community, especially in fire season.”

Amateur radio was created more than a century ago, according to the American Radio Relay League, the national association for operators that represents more than 170,000 licensed amateurs in the United States.

Sonoma County Radio Amateurs was created in 1931 and has 247 members of all ages and demographics, Paule said. The youngest members are in their early teens and the oldest is over 90.

All operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, which assigns operators call signs, a unique identifying code. There are three different licenses: a technician license for beginners; a general license; and an amateur extra license for more experienced operators.

The club promotes the hobby and offers classes for newcomers and continuing education for members, in addition to public service to the community. The group is always recruiting for its ranks and looking to attract younger operators through STEM programs, Paule said.

During emergencies, radio amateurs work with officials from the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management to assist with communications. Operators are dispatched to shelters and other locations to help coordinate emergency assistance and aid with the central dispatchers, Paule said.

Members also report from the field on weather and damage conditions, along with response and recovery work.

The radios operate off generators, battery or solar power, eliminating the need to connect to the electric grid.

Club members also assist with public events like runs and bicycle rides, providing support with communications if emergency services are needed during the event or if a rider has an accident and needs assistance.

Dan Ethen, chief radio officer with the Auxiliary Communications Service, a volunteer group that helps supplement emergency communications and is housed under the Emergency Management Department, said their skills are invaluable.

Radio amateurs can come up with solutions on the fly to send communications when other technology is overloaded or unavailable, he said.

On Saturday, operators wearing name tags with their call signs manned computers, radios and other equipment, scanning different frequencies as they attempted to make contact with operators in other cities.

Saturday’s event was the first Field Day that club members held in person in two years after the pandemic sidelined in-person events.

There was smaller turnout this year than in the past, though, Paule said.

Rick Cowperthwaite manned the digital communications station that uses a computer and radio to transmit brief messages with the operator’s call sign, location and signal strength.

At a nearby tent, Howard Sidorsky listened to the tone denoting the dots and dashes coming over the signal at a Morse code station. This method is used to communicate long distances and advanced operators can send several words per minute making it possible to communicate quickly, said Sidorsky, who first received his license in 1958 but picked up the hobby again in the 1970s.

He and operator John Breckenridge, one of the longest serving club members – about 45 years — had made contact with operators in Southern California, eastern Washington and even British Columbia.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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