Amy Kritzman and her husband, Ron, occupied some prime real estate as the 41st annual Fort Wayne Hamfest and Computer Expo opened Saturday.
Facing the entrance, the Kritzmans don’t carry the adapters, cords and tools that thousands of ham radio operators forage through every year.
What the couple have in stock is personality.
One look around Memorial Coliseum Exposition Center’s floor and it’s obvious the Kritzmans are known for their custom-embroidered hats, featuring the names and call signs of radio operators in different thread colors.
Amy Kritzman estimates they’ll embroider nearly 100 hats at the two-day convention. When it comes to communicating within a realm that’s mostly faceless, the call sign is the individual’s signature, she said.
Everyone here identifies themselves with their call sign, she said. They want to show their call sign because they’re proud of their skill and what it took to get what they got.
Featuring a flea market, forums and long-distance friendships, the Allen County Amateur Radio Technical Society’s annual event continues to reflect an active community of amateur radio operators in Indiana and surrounding states. Potential operators were also able to take the licensing exam to become full-fledged hammers.
This is a culture. This is a club. This is people talking to each other on the radio, Kritzman said. In today’s terms, it would be like getting together with people you only know through Facebook and seeing them for the first time.
Hamfest Chairman James Boyer, known as KB9IH, said convention attendance appeared to be on average with previous years. He estimated the event, which continues today, will bring in nearly 3,000 people. In the past, attendance has ranged from 2,500 to more than 6,000.
We put on Hamfest for people to talk to each other eye to eye. Plus, you have the opportunity to find a bargain, he said.
Susie Baker and Kim Machamer, members of the local chapter of the Young Ladies Radio League, have attended Hamfest for several years. Though they have seen attendance at Hamfest decrease in recent years, the camaraderie holds strong.
You can’t walk down an aisle without seeing someone you know, Machamer said. You may only see them once or twice a year but you talk to them all year long on the radio.
Baker said demographics are continuing to shift from predominantly middle-aged men to include a higher number of women and young people. When the FCC eliminated Morse code from the license exam in 2006, the number of amateur radio operators in the U.S. increased. There are more than 700,000 ham operators nationwide.
Amateur operators play a significant role in emergency or disaster situations. With the ability to wirelessly communicate, ham radio operators are able to support communications even when computers and cellphones are disabled.
Phil Prescott, who lives in White County, said there isn’t an official emergency response team for operators where he lives, but he has used his ham radio for storm watches and disasters since being licensed 10 years ago.
I do it for the storm chasing and the community-service portion for it, he said.
Baker said the increase in amateur radio operators is also in response to new generations looking for individual expression.
It personalizes it more. I think people like something where you have your own identity and people know who you are. It’s different than the technology world where you are a blip. Here, you are a blip – but you have a call sign. You are your own operator. I think people like having something of their own, she said.
Boyer said planning will start immediately for next year’s event. Although the attendance for Hamfest may not boast the 6,000 people it once did, the excitement comes from watching those on-air connections form in person, he said.
It’s looking better than last year. We don’t have an official count yet, but as you go up and down the aisles, it’s pretty crowded, he said, overlooking the afternoon crowd.
We’re not here to make a lot of money – we’re happy if we break even. As long as we continue to do that, then it’s a successful Hamfest.