Like most people these days, Bob Byrne carries a cell phone. But the form of communication he relies on the most is his ham radio.
“I’ve been involved in amateur radio my whole life when I experimented with crystal radio sets as a kid,” said Byrne, the president of the North Okanagan Radio Amateur Club (NORAC) and a licensed operator since 1979. “The ham radio is like a chat room. I have my radio on all the time.
“My wife Grace could be at the grocery store and she never carries her cell phone, but she always has her ham radio with her, so we can touch base and communicate.”
NORAC was founded in 1975 and is a group of about 55 radio enthusiasts commonly known as “hams” living in the general vicinity of the North Okanagan. The purpose of the club is to promote an interest in amateur radio and electronics by bringing together like-minded people who enjoy furthering their knowledge of amateur radio and electronics.
“The club provides education and training programs for this purpose. Communication is what it’s all about, and yes, ham radio is still very relevant, even in the so-called digital age,” said Byrne (call sign VE7EZI). “Amateur radio operators have always been innovators in electronic communications and have been using digital techniques for decades. In fact the club has members whose personal ‘ham shack’ contains nothing but software-defined radios. This is still ham radio, the only difference is that there are no knobs to turn or switches to throw — except the ‘power on’ button. It’s a virtual radio set!”
Byrne said amateur radio is not to be confused with CB radio, which does not require a licence.
“Ham radio is one of only two hobbies for which an actual licence is required — the other is firearms,” said Byrne. “The reason is that the government must ensure that frequencies are not interfering with emergency services nationally.
“One practical reason for people to take the course is if you are an outdoors person, these repeaters are accessible from anywhere, particularly in remote locations where cell phones don’t work — NORAC maintains an extensive repeater network.”
And there is no annual fee to have a licence, said Byrne, adding that hams operate from what is called a “ham shack,” a bit of a misnomer since the “shack” can be anything from a kitchen table to a corner of the living room.
“Of course, I would love to have an actual shack in my back yard — right now it’s in my living room.”
And while amateur radio is a fun hobby to most hams, it has also provided a vital communication link during disasters around the world.
When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines Nov. 8, amateur radio volunteers throughout the area provided a primary communication link vital for search and rescue.
“Filipino ham radio operators, like hams worldwide, have a strong sense of public service and have responded magnificently to the crisis,” said Byrne. “This is evidenced by this statement from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU): ‘The ITU announced on November 13, 2013 that it has deployed satellite communication equipment to the Philippines to help re-establish communications vital for search and rescue in areas severely affected by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Amateur Radio volunteers throughout the Philippine archipelago have been a primary communication link since the storm struck November 8, and their efforts continue.’”
The problem with the phone lines, said Byrne, is that during an emergency, whether flood, fire or earthquake, the first instinct most people have is to pick up the telephone.
“People get on the phone and the networks crash. While it has, thankfully, been a decade since local radio amateurs have had to respond to a major disaster, there have been numerous examples around the globe of just how important it is to have these knowledgeable and trained communicators when disaster strikes.”
Another important aspect of amateur radio is to provide communications and other services to the community. For years, NORAC members have provided the communications and on-the-street coordination for the Vernon Winter Carnival parade, and has provided the same service for the Falkland Stampede parade and other events. As well, NORAC provides a small cadre of operators for the North Okanagan Emergency Communications Group (NOECG) who are prepared to provide communications support for Emergency Social Services (ESS0 and other public agencies should they be required.
“It’s a hobby, it’s a service, it’s a past time. It’s a life-long pursuit, and we want to get the message out that amateur radio is still relevant. We do embrace the new technology.
“These texting kids have nothing on us — I can use morse code faster than text,” said Byrne. “The only people using it these days are amateurs, but you don’t have to learn it to get licensed.”
The annual event NORAC members look forward to is field day, which occurs all over North America.
“It’s a fun thing that is a test of our skills and its real purpose is to test the abilities of amateur technicians to set up in the field and operate for 24 hours, so they made it into a contest and you talk to as many people as you can across North America.”
Byrne said the world of ham radio has a way of making the world seem smaller and more connected.
“It isn’t obsolete, it isn’t irrelevant. Our club isn’t suffering from a lack of members, but we need less gray hair and we’d like to inspire some younger people; they can bring their computers and their BlackBerries and they will fit in. The true meaning of amateur is for the love of it, and that’s what we do.”
NORAC will conduct a basic amateur radio course in the new year. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call Byrne at 250-549-4318.