SURREY — If you felt the recent earthquake that hit B.C., you may have pondered the aftermath of a large disaster.
Technology, as we know it, would likely be rendered useless.
Our phones no more useful than paperweights. Our televisions and computers worthless without energy to power them.
Enter amateur radio.
Hams, as amateur radio operators are nicknamed, are often called on to help with emergency communications during disasters around the world when all other communications fail.
We’re in pretty good shape should we ever need to call on our Surrey Hams.
The club placed first in Canada and second in North America in their category in the annual North American Field Day last year.
While there are tons of competitions, this one’s their Super Bowl.
And for Surrey Amateur Radio Club (SARC), this year was a comeback of sorts.
Two years ago, they also placed first in Canada in their category (3A – which means they had three radios operating under emergency power).
Changing their category last year yielded a second place for the group.
So it was a fight to regain the top spot this year and they surpassed their own expectations, battling more than 38,000 other operators over 24 hours, bringing home the highest score in the club’s history.
They set up shop at the former Grandview Elementary school at 176th Street and 20th Avenue and managed to make over 800 contacts throughout North America and beyond.
And they did it using only five watts – that’s the power of a single Christmas tree bulb – competing with stations using 100 watts or more.
To compensate, they used the highest gain antennas possible, which required an innovative approach to design and deployment. And of course, they used the best gear around.
As club treasurer Brodie puts it, field day is “a dress rehearsal for the real event.”
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Brodie’s been licensed since the 60s and said it’s the “mystique” of amateur radio that drew him to it.
“The mystique is still there, but the mystique in 1960 was amazing,” Brodie recalled. “You could make your own equipment, which most amateur radio operators did… then being able to talk to the world with a very small amount of power or equipment. I studied for a whole year out of my own books before I got licensed.”
Back in those days, you had to pass an oral exam and would then have to draw out full schematics in order to gain a license, he explained. You also had to know morse code.
“That was quite daunting thing for a 15-year-old,” Brodie said with a chuckle. “It was intimidating but I passed.”
Today it’s a lot easier technically and they’ve dropped morse code as a requirement.
“But I still use it,” remarked Brodie.
The breadth of the hobby is massive, he said, from bouncing signals off the moon to voice communication to digital transmissions through decoded messages. Increasing in popularity are outings similar in concept to geocaching where operators hide transmitters, referred to as “foxes,” in the woods or someone else outdoors and the game is on to locate it.
“It’s more than just a bunch of guys sitting on the radio and talking about the weather. There’s a lot more to it than that,” stressed Brodie.
And make no mistake, this isn’t CB radio.
“Amateur radio operators like to think they’re gentleman on the radio. Profanity is definitely frowned upon,” said Brodie. “Not CB. Enough said about that.”
But mystique aside, Brodie (shown left) said the justification for the hobby is the real world application during disasters.
“Whenever there’s a disaster around the world, amateur radio operators are often involved,” he explained.
Stan Williams, who organized operations for the 24-hour field day competition, echoed the sentiment that it’s much more than a past-time.
“It’s regulated by the government,” explained Williams. “Just like the radio stations you tune into… every person has a unique call sign. We practice through our whole career in radio to be prepared for emergencies.”
Williams has been involved in emergencies in B.C., including the Kelowna fires in the early 2000s.
“At that point some major communications equipment was at risk,” Williams recalled. “(Amateur radio operators) were called out. We went on-site and handled emergency communications.”
He was also personally involved in remotely handling emergency communications for an Alaskan earthquake while he was in the U.S.
“We happened to be down in Seattle when the earthquake happened,” said Williams. “A number of us took over another ham station, aimed the antennas up to Alaska. We handled all the emergency traffic out in Alaska.”
While Williams hasn’t personally been involved in an emergency event overseas, he said it’s common for amateur radio operators to kick in during massive disasters such as the tsunami in Japan.
“There’s been so many where they have no communications at all. It’s all destroyed or unavailable expect for the amateur radio operators that can get to the outside world,” said Williams. “So quite often, it happens quite frequently, where the ham radio operators handle communicate for the first week before its reestablished.”
It’s been more than four decades since Williams got his license in ’63 and he said times have changed.
In those days, you had to sign a top-secret government document promising to keep anything received on the radio confidential.
“Technically I’m still under that. Anything I receive on the air I’m not permitted to relay,” he explained. “So not only is it part of the nature of the radio to respect the privacy, if you go back it was also the law. There’s a level of honour and respect.”
Surrey Amateur Radio Club offers training to obtain a radio license. The next one is coming up in April. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.