Amateur radio operators work behind the scenes in times of crisis

Amateur radio operators work behind the scenes in times of crisis
(As published by the Edmonton Journal)
By Alex Migdal, Edmonton Journal July 10, 2013

EDMONTON – Piercing the skyline of the city’s eastern edge is a 60-metre radio tower that transmits voices around the world.

From strangers in Australia to friends nearby, the unassuming white trailer stationed at the tower’s base is a global channel for the 120 amateur radio operators who volunteer for the city’s emergency communication service.

But there’s nothing amateur about these radio operators dubbed “hams.” The label only differentiates commercial radio operators from hobbyists. In fact, the stakes for volunteers can run high.

They assist organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, relaying smaller, logistical messages to their emergency operations centres as first responders deal with the immediate aftermath.

“It used to be your grandpa’s hobby, but not any more” says Keehan Dowd, president of the Northern Alberta Radio Club.

“Some people see the hobby dying from the old perspective of vacuum tubes and Morse codes. But we’re embracing the Internet and digital technology, and there’s a new group of young people who are coming in and realizing this is quite exciting.”

The hams, who can spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on equipment, achieved a first in decades this June when the southern Alberta flood ravaged High River. Communication lines overloaded and shut down, forcing emergency responders to rely on the amateur operators’ backup lines for 17 hours.

Three volunteers manned the radios for eight- to 12-hour shifts, delivering 24/7 coverage from Thursday to Sunday. More volunteers set up shop in other affected areas, including Calgary and Medicine Hat.

“When everything fails — Skype, Facebook, Twitter — we still talk. We own our own gear and we’re not reliant on infrastructure,” Dowd says.

Without their help, the situation in High River could have proved much more dire, says Kerry Atkinson, Edmonton’s emergency co-ordinator for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service.

“They wouldn’t have known that they needed helicopters to get people off the roofs. They wouldn’t have known the hospital was being flooded and needed to be evacuated. In terms of the provincial picture, they would not have been able to tell what was going on in High River,” Atkinson says.

Beyond disasters, amateur radio operators serve many roles, such as assisting with search and rescues and providing backup communication for marathons in remote locations.

For Dowd and Atkinson, amateur radio represents more than just emergency relief — it has evolved into a passion. Like most volunteers, they are self-taught and share a keen interest in electronics.

Forging friendships is one of the main draws of amateur radio. Dowd says he keeps his radio on all day. “It’s a comforting feeling.

”He remembers once driving to Reno, Nev., and issuing a call. Within minutes, he was sitting in a coffee shop with a fellow ham.

The yearning for communication can be pushed to the extreme. Operators often compete to contact as many amateur radio stations as possible in a given time period, a radio sport known as contesting. Some people are able to reach several thousand stations within a day, Atkinson says.

That’s because for many of the three million amateur radio operators worldwide, their passion is rooted in one thing: making a connection.Atkinson recalls he was 12 when his neighbour, an amateur radio operator, showed him how to send out a call using an antenna. They waited only a second before the signal launched halfway around the world.

“That’s what really hooked me right then and there,” Atkinson says, “knowing I could talk to anybody I want to on this planet.”

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ARES Edmonton and The Northern Alberta Radio Club wishes to thank the Edmonton Journal for this story!   The original story on the Edmonton Journal website can be found here:  http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Amateur+radio+operators+work+behind+scenes+times+crisis/8632589/story.html