Tim Watson, president and co-founder of the Wireless Society of Southern Maine, demonstrates the assembly of his ham radio kit. His club will be participating in a national amateur radio field day exercise this weekend in Scarborough. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

Tim Watson is ready to take part in a national amateur radio field day exercise taking place in Scarborough this weekend, and everything he needs can fit into a series of bags in his trunk with plenty of room to spare.

The ham radio hobby has come a long way over the years. Gone are the days, Watson said, when operators worked with massive, boxy devices that took up a substantial part of their basements in the 1950s.

Watson, 39, of Saco, is president and a founding member of the Wireless Society of Southern Maine. The society will be assembling Saturday and Sunday at Wassamki Springs Campground, at 56 Saco St., Scarborough. The annual Field Day event dates back to 1933, encouraging similar clubs nationwide to test operators’ skills.

The public is welcome to attend June 26, from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., when members will offer demonstrations, he said.  He hopes the event will spur more interest in the hobby in Maine.

“We’re trying to get people to kind of put Maine on the map,” he said.

Watson helped create the club in 2010. It’s a fun hobby for people who enjoy social contact combined with technical challenges, he said, but it can also can provide valuable services to state and federal officials during times when extreme weather makes traditional communication unreliable.

Watson traces his interest in amateur radio back to his childhood in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when he would visit his father at work at local radio station WBEC and hear the engineers talking about it.

“I always thought it was cool,” he said.

In a demonstration last week, Watson showed off his 100-watt transmitter, an unassuming box less than 2 feet long, less than a foot wide, and less than 2 inches tall, but far more powerful than the massive desktop stations of yesteryear. He hooked it up to a six-hour battery unit less than half the size of a toaster, and connected the radio via cables to a 10-foot antenna, which he produced from two nylon bags that were a size and shape that suggested they might carry tent stakes or a camera tripod.

“Everything’s come down in size,” he said as he fired up the transmitter.

As simple as it looked, it could do a lot. At midday June 15, a voice came through that Watson identified as coming from California, and he said he could easily reach other operators in the Midwest or the South.

“If it was later in the day, we’d start hearing Europe,” he said.

According to FCC data provided by the national Amateur Radio Relay League, there are more than 779,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States. It is difficult to come up with exact global numbers, but some enthusiasts estimate as many as 3 million operators are on the air worldwide.

The southern Maine club got started with five people, Watson said, but now has 92 active members ranging in age from high schoolers to operators in their 80s. More than half are in Maine, but the club has members from as far away as Germany and Palestine.

Members chat about all manner of topics and form bonds even with oceans and thousands of miles between them. Watson said he met his wife, Stefania, 34, on the air, while she was still living in her native Romania.

“We’re communicating,” he said. “It’s a social thing.”

The ease of instant communication via the Internet might appear to make ham radio obsolete, but the hobby is about more than socializing. The technical aspect attracts people who enjoy working with electronics and technical gear, said Watson, who works in IT, marketing and human resources at a Volvo dealership in Scarborough. Online social networks are too easy to connect to, he said, and he enjoys the challenge of working with the hardware.

In recent years, however, Watson discovered that his club could do more than just have fun talking with people. In 2014, he said, the National Weather Service in Gray reached out to ask if club members would like to join their Skywarn Network, a collective of amateur radio-savvy volunteers who have been providing NWS with weather-related information nationally since the 1970s. Since then, he said, the club’s members have gone into action during severe weather events to relay data from throughout Maine and New Hampshire.

“They gather reports and relay them to us,” said Donald Dumont, warning coordinator meteorologist at NWS in Gray.

In the 1970s, Dumont said, the network was a reliable and critical source of information during severe weather events.

“That’s all we had. It wasn’t like we had cell phones,” he said.

During blizzards and other weather events, radio is still more reliable than cell phones and other means of modern communication, he said, and the network of ham radio operators continue to be valuable to the NWS.

“They give us reports in places where we don’t have any information,” he said.

Watson’s club also volunteers to do relay work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. During one big storm, he worked out of a FEMA bunker in Windham, helping to relay reports of road closures and downed limbs from other radio operators statewide.

“It was pretty intense,” he said.

This weekend’s event promises to be a little lighter in tone, though members do plan to train and practice for the next time they are activated. They also intend to participate in an informal contest where they try to contact as many operators outside of Maine as possible.

“This is a fun event that gives us an opportunity to share our passion with the community and to improve our operating skills, all while getting everyone out there and on the air,” he said.

To learn more about Field Day and club in general, visit mainehamradio.com.

This story was updated June 28 to correct the name of the club’s  president, Tim Watson.

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