BOB CONFER: Amateur radio, a hobby for the social distancing era

Bob Confer

During the coronavirus crisis we’ve been told to be socially distant and remain two meters apart.

Coincidentally, two meters is a very popular amateur radio frequency range which, locally, has taken on special meaning during the statewide shutdown.

Every day, at 11 a.m., local amateurs — called “hams” — get together on the Lockport Amateur Radio Association’s repeater (146.820 for all of you with police scanners) to check in, check on others, offer camaraderie and provide help — such as shopping errands or donations of food and supplies — to shut-ins or the ill who desperately need it.

That daily net, frequented by 20 to 30 radio operators, has served as a beacon of hope, support and love during these difficult times.

That speaks to the value of ham radio as a two-pronged pursuit: It’s a hobby and a public service.

As a hobby, it gives people of all ages the chance to learn about, work with, and develop radio technology that will allow them to communicate (by voice, Morse code, or computer) with fellow ham radio operators around the corner or around the world.

From a public service standpoint, amateur radio operators provide communications when storms and other natural disasters wipe out phone networks, cable and electricity, or when societal upheavals like COVID-19 turn the world upside down.

You might be familiar with amateur radio by its presence in pop culture.

The movie “Frequency” starring Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid had a plot based on a geomagnetic storm that allowed a ham radio operator to talk to his deceased father decades earlier, which then allowed them to change the course of history. Tim Allen’s character on “Last Man Standing” is an amateur radio enthusiast and his hobby has played a part in quite a few episodes of the show.

You might also recognize amateur from its presence in the community.

If you’ve taken part in events like the Ride for Roswell, then you’ve seen a small army of men and women with handheld and mobile radios serving as communications support and observers for the riders. Perhaps you’ve seen the folks from LARA showing off their ability to communicate worldwide at the Niagara County Fair.

Getting licensed to take part in all this is an easy task. A few years ago the Federal Communications Commission abandoned the Morse code requirements for its permits, an obstacle that had proved difficult to many (especially the young) and had prevented them from entering the hobby. Now, you just need to pass a written exam, knowing radio and electrical theory as well as the FCC’s rules and regulations. There are plenty of study guides available and many of them actually provide the hundreds of possible questions and answers that the 35-question exams pull from. With time on your hands because of the coronavirus shutdown there’s no better time to study!

Once the state opens back up, you will be able to take the exam under the watchful eye of local hams. When that time comes, information about the exams and amateur radio in general can be found at the website of the American Radio Relay League (www.ARRL.org).

Back in 2011, I got my radio license (KC2ZZW) from the federal government after decades of participating in other radio pursuits like CB radio and listening to the police scanner or shortwave radio.

In my first days on the air I talked to people in exotic locales like Argentina and St. Thomas with my modest low-power station. Since then, I’ve talked to people in more than 80 different countries and more than half of our states.

I also use ham radio, specifically VHF frequencies like the aforementioned two meter band, as a lifeline. In many areas where I enjoy the great outdoors in New York (like Allegany County and the Adirondacks) there is no cell coverage, but my tiny walkie-talkie can reach ham radio repeater systems listened to by area hams. That offers peace in mind and preparedness for any sort of emergency you can encounter in the wilderness.

While the internet has made the world a smaller place — allowing us to log on to our Facebook and Zoom accounts to share messages with friends and family around the globe — there’s still a place for the joy and service afforded by ham radio. It’s pretty exciting that you can use a small box of electronics and a wire antenna to talk to complete, but welcoming strangers, on every continent or in every neighborhood.

In this era of social distancing, is there a more perfect hobby?

Confer Plastics Inc. executive Bob Confer resides in Gasport. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com

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