Last week, in this post I gave a very brief introduction
to our neighbour, Bob Biggart, ham radio operator, and resident emergency services helper in our street. He works with very old technology, but, guess what, when the chips are really down as they were in Puerto Rico after the awful damage from hurricane Irma, first responders put out a desperate plea for operators of this reliable communication method to take over.
Bob lives right across the street. He is very involved with emergency services in our community, and of course with all technology involved in amateur radio work. His radio antennae can be readily seen by everyone, and they are curious about them. He gets lots of questions, and the neighbours are truly grateful to have such a potential helpful presence if it should ever be needed in our area.
Bob’s an obliging soul, and was willing to be interviewed this week.
BB ~ I only did my Canadian Amateur radio license in 2015, but have been involved with other aspects of radio since I was 10 years old when I built my first crystal radio set and in my job as a consultant in the field airline operations and radio communications, so at a professional level radio has always been a significant part of my work, but in semi-retirement I thought it was about time to do my amateur licenses.
BB ~ As a young lad I was fascinated by radio and in bed under the covers listened on my crystal set to powerful US AM stations into the early hours, and although it took me years to get around to the amateur side of radio, I have been an avid short-wave listener all my days. Shortwave radio or SWL is a hobby unto itself, though alas, many of the shortwave broadcast stations around the world have closed down with the advent of the internet.
BB ~ There are several explanations as to the origins of the term ‘ham’ radio. One accredits it to three of the earliest amateur radio operators in the 1920’ who initials form their station call sign, another I have read references novice railway telegraphy operators as being ‘ham fisted at the key’. The first explanation is considered the most credible by many in the hobby. Nowadays, it seems most ‘hams’ prefer the use of the term ‘amateur radio operator, though of course ‘ham radio’ is still widely understood to mean the latter.
Amateur radio operators first have to obtain a certificate of competence, or licence to operate in the ‘amateur radio service’. In Canada this is administered by the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. In the US it is under the FCC.
We have three levels of certification, a ‘Basic’, Basic with Honours, and Advanced Certificate of Competence. Each level is an advance on the other in terms of frequency bands that can be used and powers of transmission. Typically, 4-6 weeks of study is required for each examination covering radio regulations, transmission protocols and electronic theory and formula.
VW ~ Whatever happened to Morse Code? That's another dinosaur, isn't it?
BB ~ Morse code is by no means dead! Certificates of competency are issued for ability to transmit and receive morse at a given words/minute. It's a skilled listener thing. Click here for an example, and you'll see what I mean!
VW ~ Is amateur radio operating just a hobby?
BB ~ It is important to note that government considers amateur radio as a ‘service’. Implicit in the granting of your license is that amateurs are prepared to offer their services in an emergency.
Across the world amateur radio operator emergency communications teams form the backbone of backup emergency communications and partner with local and National authorities, such as FEMA and the National Hurricane Warning Centre.. Even as I write this, the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) is supporting relief efforts in Puerto Rico and relaying health and welfare messages from the affected areas to family and friends in the USA and Canada.
VW ~ How do hams communicate with each other? How do you know who you're talking to, and where that person is?
BB ~ Amateur radio covers a very wide range of communications techniques; everything from bouncing VHF signals off the Moon and speaking with the International Space Station, which interestingly is equipped with an amateur radio station for that very purpose - to using hand held direction finding equipment to track low power transmitters in a forest.
However, most amatuer radio operations are about communicating with other people locally and across the World, it is truly an international community of like minded souls who find a fascination with radio and a desire to speak with others with the same interest.
When you obtain your first license the government will issue you with your own unique radio callsign, mine is VE7-XNC, VE7 is the designator for British Columbia, and my personal call letters are ‘Xray November Charlie’.
All my transmissions must contain.Victor Echo Seven Xray November Charlie, using the international phonetic alphabet. Similarly, when I hear another station calling, I will know what country he is in by the first letters and am able to identify him personally by the second group. It used to be amateurs had a large catalog of operators call signs, nowadays we use the internet website QRZ.com.
VW ~ These natural disasters that have happened lately make people pause and think. Please give us some pointers on what we need to do in order to prepare for the possibility of having to deal with our own. How should we be thinking?
BB ~ Well, communications during an a disaster of any significant scale are very important - amateur radio operators who form part of local emergency communications groups also have to consider their own and their families wellbeing in the first instance, so preparedness on their part is very important.
They must be ready to respond knowing their loved ones are safe and catered for while they respond as part of the team.
There is extensive advice and support on the internet these days regarding emergency preparedness.
VW ~ How do I prepare for a natural disaster?
BB ~ In recent years, US and Canadian government bodies have recommended the fundamentals of preparedness as being, ‘ ‘Know the Risks, Have a Plan, and Get a Kit!. Basically, don’t expect any help from them for at least 72 hours, or three days.
However, today the ‘received wisdom’or reality is for those living in the Pacific Northwest of North America to be prepared to look after yourself for at least two weeks following a major subduction zone earthquake off the NW coast of the US and Canada.
Preparedness is first of all a state of mind - thinking what could happen?, how will I protect my family? and what do I need to keep us safe?
It’s a big subject but the basics are - four litres of drinking water each/day, a means of protection from the elements, food and cooking supplies, a good first aid kit, flashlights (best headlamps) and batteries and of course a portable battery/crank operated AM/FM radio to monitor advice and information from local authorities.
VW ~ Finally, if someone wanted to learn how to become a ham radio operator, how do they go about it?
BB ~ There are several approaches:
- Find a local amateur radio club and seek their advice; many run training courses and administer examinations.
- Or, there are online course available these days which you can study up yourself and sit the exams at the regulating body offices.
- Or simply, buy a study guide and work your way through it at home. In Canada local amateur radio licensing examiners are listed on the ISED website.
Many thanks for all this interesting info, Bob. It's so reassuring to know you're so involved and knowledgeable about something that none of us really want to think about too much, but must do for the protection of our family and neighbors. If this post makes you wonder what you can do to prepare for natural disasters, it's been worthwhile!