Why Amateur Radio – Part I

Today I want to discuss the hobby of Amateur Radio.  I recently got into the hobby, and received my Basic license (and earned the callsign VA3POR). When telling some of my friends about this interest, some looked puzzled. Why would anyone make a hobby of something that seems so outdated in this age of the Internet, smartphones, and instant connectivity? Well, the answer to that question has multiple answers – answers that speak to my personal interests, but also to the purpose of amateur radio itself. In this two part series of labelled “Why Amateur Radio”, I intend to explore these reasons so that people can get a better understanding of why people would engage in this activity. The articles will focus on two aspects – the public service aspect, and the technical experimentation aspect. This article, part one, is on the public service aspect of amateur radio.

For the average person, the sight of someone communicating with someone else, over a scratchy channel, using rather large or bulky equipment seems to us odd and a bit of a throwback in this age of iPhones, touchpads, and Skype. What possible use is there for having this stuff around? Well, anyone who remembers August of 2003 and the great power outage will attest that there were times that they were not able to reach others. Yes, there was dial tone, but circuits were jammed and you couldn’t get through. Cell phones had the same problem, and the more advanced services (video, email, etc) didn’t work at all. Had an emergency situation occurred during this time and the phone lines jammed – the emergency services could not be contacted. This dilemma has the potential of becoming a disaster. Communications are paramount in emergency situations. The communication services that you are used to, are tied to a massive backend of fibre optics, copper wire, telephone switches, computers, power systems, communications towers, and personnel. This large infrastructure can take awhile to get back online, and if you have a very large disaster – like the earthquake in Haiti, your large scale infrastructure can be wiped out. In many emergency situations, where communications infrastructure for an area or region have been affected, there is a need for a rapid, ad-hoc, off grid, long range capable method of communication. Amateur Radio fits that bill. Experienced amateur radio operators can set up a station in the field, on battery power, using portable equipment to get ranges of hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres. The very old and seemingly outdated Morse Code allows for very long haul communication on a power of only five watts! It is this mix of skills, preparedness and technology that can establish vital communications in a very bad situation. In North America, there exists Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) groups that roll into action in the event of crisis or breakdown. I personally participate in ARES meetings hosted by the Peel Amateur Radio Club (PARC). PARC hosts a radio repeater (a special kind of radio that extends the range of wireless communication) on top of a high location with backup power. This repeater is constantly used, and formal meetings over the air (known as a net) are conducted weekly. These weekly nets provide training and testing for volunteers and equipment. This is just one way of keeping skills and equipment sharp. Contests, Field Day, and the volunteering of amateur radio skills and equipment for public events insures that equipment is constantly being tested and that operator skills are kept sharp. The Peel ARES group has memorandums of understanding with the City of Brampton, the Region of Peel, Peel Region Police Force, Brampton Hydro, and it is the primary supplier of communications for the Peel Red Cross in times of disaster. The amateur radio service is the hedge against systemic failure of primary communications. It is a fundamental part of a civil Plan B. The motto of amateur radio is “When all else fails…”.

The amateur radio service provides a way for people with technical inclination to give back to the communities in which they live. It gives local communities extra resources, particularly in these times of budget restraint. It is a way for those who had retired from the workforce to reengage in an activity of greater benefit to the community at large, and those with long years of experience have an opportunity of passing their knowledge to the next generation. Part of what makes civil society civil, is the active participation of citizens for the benefit of the whole. Amateur Radio performs its share, by participating, and supporting the activities of public life, as well as being available in times of need.

Are you thinking about participating?  Then it’s time to visit the Radio Amateurs of Canada at www.rac.ca.  If you happen to be within the Peel Region of Ontario, Canada, then you can visit www.peelarc.org.  There are usually public events that are hosted in your area which provide “Get-On-The-Air” (GOTA) stations.  June 25th to June 26th, 2011 is Field Day worldwide, and chances are, there will be a GOTA station in your area.


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