MONROE, Maine — John Butler manned his post Sunday morning in the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency’s communications trailer and listened intently to otherworldly noises that came from the radio.
As the Belfast man carefully adjusted a dial, the static and squeaks resolved themselves into the voice of a fellow amateur, or ham, radio enthusiast from New York state. Butler scribbled down the man’s radio call sign and then resumed turning the dial, searching for more voices from around the country and Canada to emerge from the static.
It was the annual American Radio Relay League Field Day, when more than 35,000 amateur radio fans gather to operate their equipment. The day is also a chance for ham radio fans in Maine to socialize and practice their skills. About 25 people turned out in Monroe for the field day, held at the home of Carol Inman and her husband, Gary Daigle.
“The best part is being able to talk anywhere,” Butler said. “At almost any time of the day, you can find someone out there talking.”
He regularly speaks with other ham radio operators as far away as Europe and Moscow. In many ways, ham radio is the original model for popular technologies that include sending text messages, talking on cell phones and using the Internet to communicate with people far away. “It’s the original chat room,” he said.
But while those who love amateur radio appreciate the way they could use their equipment to speak with astronauts in space or radio buffs on the other side of the world, ham radio continues to play a crucial role in emergency communication and preparedness, they say. According to Inman, amateur radio enthusiasts have provided critical communications in emergencies this year including the earthquake in China, wildfires in California and storms in Oregon and Michigan.
“Whenever there’s an emergency, the amateur radio community goes to different places, like hospitals, fire departments, police stations and the Red Cross,” said Robert Struba, president of the Waldo County Amateur Radio Association. “Our job is not to step on anybody’s toes. We only step in when other communications break down. When things don’t work, they know there’s a backup.”
Struba and Inman remembered a large-scale disaster training exercise two years ago in Castine that involved military personnel and a lot of high-tech communications equipment.
“But the only people who could talk between Castine and Belfast were hams,” Inman said.
In fact, Inman first became interested in ham radio when she was preparing for Y2K as the communications director at St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor.
“Radio operators came to the hospital and offered their services,” she said. “They were concerned we’d lose communications.”
She came home and told Daigle about the ham radio aficionados.
“He got a license, so, of course, I got my license,” she said with a laugh.
Cathie Hinds and Bill Akins of Winthrop spent the field day zipping from event to event in Maine. They had been to gatherings in Fryeburg, Turner, Auburn and Monroe, and were planning to get to events in Waterville and Windsor before the day ended.
“It was on my bucket list,” said Hinds, whose call sign is KB1MHH. “Maine’s happiest ham.”
She said that she sees how much ham radio operators can help during emergencies, and she likes being part of that help.
“I dragged my feet about becoming a ham,” she said. “I thought it was for geeks. But I can tell you, I’d rather have a ham radio in my vehicle than a cell phone any day of the week. It’s a good feeling, a safe one, especially in Maine.”
For more information about amateur radio, go to www.arrl.org.