Critical communications resilience: What I learned at the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Field Day
by Ari Young, Global Resilience Institute
June 27, 2018
I had the privilege this past Saturday of attending the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Field Day alongside Global Resilience Institute (GRI) Chief Technology Officer, Mark Patterson. The ARRL Field Day is widely considered to be the largest and most popular on-the-air event for amateur radio operators in North America, held annually on the fourth weekend of June. On one hand, the event is a contest, the object being to contact as many other ham operators as possible in suboptimal conditions. On the other hand, the event serves as a massive civil defense exercise; after all, ham radio operators are often relied upon for critical communications when other networks are disrupted during disasters.
Mark and I were at Field Day to interview some ham operators about what motivates them to participate in such events, as well as their motivations for assisting in real-life emergencies. The purpose of conducting these interviews was to gain a better understanding of the ways in which a game-based emergency simulation model provides added incentives for participation. We hope to soon have a smartphone app that will leverage the peer-to-peer technology built into most devices such that when the cellular network is disrupted, phones themselves can form an ad-hoc network that can be used for emergency communication. In order to build and perfect this app, we will need to find a way to somehow compel thousands of people to not only use it, but to use it in a certain way. The ARRL Field Day was a unique opportunity for us to study a gamified emergency communications network in action and begin thinking of ways to approach this challenge ourselves.
The first location we visited was a park in Danvers, MA, where some two-dozen ham operators had set up a series of tents and antennae in the middle of a large field. I admit I was intimidated when I first got there. I had arrived a few minutes ahead of Mark, and I figured I would be in over my head without my scientific broker by my side. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Every person who saw me made a point to introduce themselves and made me feel completely welcome. In fact, by the time Mark arrived I had already been given a tour around the field and shown some of the radio operations inside the tents, where people sat intently listening to Morse code and using combinations of equipment that transcend generations.
Once we began our interview, I quickly realized that there is a multitude of reasons why people choose to become amateur radio operators and participate in events like Field Day. A lot of the people we met were emergency management professionals and civil defense volunteers who viewed the experience primarily as a preparedness exercise. Many others that we met were mainly interested in the contest aspect, focused on racking up as many points for the group as possible. Some others just enjoy it as a social gathering, and they look forward to the camping and barbequing that I learned are crucial elements of Field Day.
The other location we visited was a local amateur radio club in Gloucester, where we encountered a much smaller group, but no less enthusiastic. This local clubhouse was inside an old, converted firehouse that appeared to have been built pre-1900, and the walls were lined with antique and aging radio equipment, as well as the equipment that was being operated for Field Day.
The biggest difference between the two sites was that the Danvers site was powered entirely off the grid by fuel generators and solar cells, while the Gloucester club was using its primary power source. In general, the folks we met in Gloucester seemed to view Field Day less as a simulation and more as an opportunity to polish their ham radio skills. Nonetheless, everyone we met there expressed their intent to assist in emergencies with their ham radio skillsets should the opportunity ever arise. By and large, it seemed the vast majority of amateur radio operators have either assisted in emergencies in the past, or hope to do so in the future.
Something that struck me during our visits was an undeniable absence of young people. A lot of participants were retirees, and I had the impression that I may have been the youngest person present at either site. Beyond my own observations, this was a recurring theme in my interviews. Several people expressed varying degrees of frustration and concern over the fact that they are struggling to attract younger generations of ham operators, particularly those of us who are accustomed to the convenience of smartphones and social media.
As we grow increasingly dependent on our digital communication networks, the risk of disruption is becoming more severe. If not enough young people are motivated to become amateur radio operators now, I wonder who will be there to provide emergency communications further into the future, should a major network disruption occur. At the end of the day, I felt inspired, I felt challenged, and I had the unshakeable sense that ham radio may be a hobby worth pursuing sooner rather than later.