Disasters can wipe out phone lines and the Internet, leaving those hardest hit cut off from the world. That’s when “hams” come to the rescue with an almost forgotten technology that can go where fallen cell towers cannot reach.
Hams are the operators of amateur radio, the old-time tech that once connect people across oceans. Nowadays, hams are practically a stereotype—laid-back, white-haired retirees who fiddle with dials and antennas, talking to fellow operators across the globe.
One of our ongoing challenges is to keep the public aware of our hobby and the benefit we bring to the community.
— CenTor Peter Dale
But when disaster strikes these hobbyists provide a lifeline of information to areas in desperate need.
“A lot of agencies use amateur radio as a means to provide communication. Whether it’s the Red Cross or emergency measures, a lot of public safety organizations leverage amateur radio capabilities to provide communication when all other types of communication have failed,” said Don Trynor with the Central Toronto Amateur Radio Club (CenTor).
If a tornado or flood threatens local communication, hams are called upon to volunteer their time and help direct relief information.
On June 23, the Toronto club pitched tents filled with radio equipment in the parking lot at Leaside Retirement Centre to participate in a 24-hour international exercise called “Field Day,” when ham operators around the world test their ability to relay a message globally.
For CenTor president Peter Dale, the event was not only a place to introduce the community to ham radio, but also provided a good training ground for new members of the club.
However, the public’s reaction hasn’t quite met the hams’ expectations.
A common misconception of ham radio is that it’s an outdated and nerdy hobby practiced by retirees.
“One of our ongoing challenges is to keep the public aware of our hobby and the benefit we bring to the community by providing a source of reliable communication when a natural disaster temporarily cripples the normal commercial services,” Dale said.
A common misconception of ham radio is that it’s an outdated and nerdy hobby practiced by retirees. In fact, the ex-King of Jordan and his wife were hams, as well as the King of Thailand. Many astronauts and politicians also practice amateur radio operating.
In Canada, there are over 45,000 licensed ham operators. In the U.S. the number reaches 700,000. In Canada, hams need to pass a test and be certified by Industry Canada to get a licence.
Club member Don Hutton said it is a rewarding pastime. “Ham radio operators tend to die old, in their 80s and their 90s. I think it’s because they’re happy in their work,” he said.
“It must be the radio waves,” Dale added jokingly.
Linking to Other Hams
Partly a contest, Field Day began with an introductory message and instructions broadcast by Morse code from an amateur radio station in Connecticut. The station, W1AW, is part of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). Amateur radio stations across North America need to copy the message as precisely as they can because the message is worth many points.
The instructions outline how to “link” to other hams. The more links that a station makes, the more points they earn. The goal is to get more links, more points, and ultimately an award of recognition from the ARRL.
Hams use call signs to identify each other. A call sign is a combination of five or six letters and numbers. Peter Dale’s is VE3EYI. Each country is assigned a couple of two-letter prefixes, and the numbers correspond to provinces. Ontario is the third from the east, so it has number 3 in the middle.
Previously, call signs were assigned according to what was available next in line, but nowadays hams can apply to have their initials as the suffix of their call sign, like Toronto club chairman John Evelyn’s, which is VA3JE.
Many hams prefer to have their call signs as licence plate numbers, and often have their radio equipment set up in their cars.
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