About 130 volunteers and ham radio enthusiasts gathered at the park next to Babylon Town Hall on Saturday afternoon to send radio signals bouncing off the atmosphere and around the globe at the 40th annual American Radio Relay League Field Day.
The Internet, cellphones and other forms of modern communication are ubiquitous; but in major disasters like superstorm Sandy in 2012, widespread blackouts can leave entire regions without communication. That's when amateur ham radio operators and the clubs that back them leap into action.
The 24-hour, nonstop Field Day -- running from 2 p.m. Saturday to 2 p.m. Sunday -- is an opportunity for amateur radio fans across the United States and Canada to educate the public about their role during major emergencies.
"We provide a service to the community, and a lot of people don't realize it," said John Melfi, president of the event host, the Great South Bay Amateur Radio Club.
The Field Day exercise has six radio antennas and operates off the grid, using gas generators or solar power. An estimated 35,000 North American radio amateurs participate in Field Day, according to the American Radio Relay League website.
The Great South Bay Club has an arm called The Town of Babylon Amateur Radio Club Emergency Services, which helps in a disaster. After Sandy devastated parts of Long Island, the group helped village officials get information from people in shelters out to relatives in other parts of the country and reported on damage through an ad hoc radio network, said Melfi, 49, of Babylon Village.
Visitors can stop by during the public demonstration and try sending out a message and scanning the airwaves to make contact with others operating on ham radio frequencies.
"It was fun," said Max Schmidt, 8, of Wantagh, who was there with his father, John. "I got to say stuff on the radio."
On Field Day, amateur radio fans can also compete to make the most connections with fellow radio operators around the world. Competitions include who makes the most contacts during the 24-hour period, or who can make contact with at least one person in every U.S. state. One station was set up to communicate exclusively by Morse code. The trailer where the five competitors worked was silent, except for "a lot of beeping and bopping," Melfi said.
"We all get together and get to spend time and practice for emergencies," said Mike Sartoretti, 46, of Babylon. "It's camaraderie."
Melfi said ham radio will always be relevant. "We don't depend on satellites, we don't depend on continual power, we don't depend on the Internet," he said. "Radio frequencies work without all of that stuff."
To learn more or to take a free class to get licensed as an amateur radio operator, go to gsbarc.org or arrl.org.