When Rich Clausi was in university, he was in a band with a saxophone player who decided the band members needed a way to communicate with each other from their vehicles. This was in the days before cell phones and Bluetooth, so the members of the band took a course and became ham radio operators.
Clausi, head of math and computing at Elmira District Secondary School, has been a “ham” for 35 years now. Amateur radio, or ham radio, involves using radio equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs.
Many hams use radio frequencies to talk to friends or strangers around the world, but there are many aspects to the hobby. Some, like Clausi, are interested in the technical side and build their own equipment; others collect QSL cards, or postcards from hams around the world, confirming receipt of their transmission; while others communicate via amateur satellites.
A more critical use of ham radio is establishing emergency communications. After disasters like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, ham radio operators are often the first people to establish emergency communication when conventional systems are destroyed or overwhelmed.
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In June, ham radio operators across North America hold a “field day,” where they practice emergency communications. Hams set up their equipment in a field using emergency generators, and keep the station on the air for 24 hours, transmitting messages and subbing off with relief operators.
In recognition of the public service they provide, hams have been given a three-year exemption from Ontario’s new cell phone driving ban, allowing them to use radios in their cars.
In the 1970s, Clausi remembers that all the members of the ham radio club were issued red cards by the Region of Waterloo as part of the Region’s emergency measures preparation. The cards gave them clearance to get through roadblocks to take radiation readings in the case of a nuclear attack.
People who are interested in ham radio tend to be very creative and innovative thinkers, Clausi said. He vividly remembers a ham radio meeting in May 1982 when a young man came to speak to the group. The young man had brought along a big, clunky laptop, radio and modem, and he described his vision for sending text over the airwaves.
“That was the first time I met Mike Laziridis.”
Laziridis went on to found Research In Motion and develop the BlackBerry, allowing millions of people to check their email and browse the Internet wirelessly.
To become a ham radio operator requires more than just the equipment. Hams are governed by the Radiocommunication Act and have to be licensed. In this area, the Kitchener Waterloo Amateur Radio Club offers courses for people interested in getting their ham licenses.
There are also rules around what frequencies radio amateurs can use; they are not allowed to interfere with other amateurs, or with commercial radio signals. Hams are also not allowed to use the airwaves to sell things or charge for their services.
One thing to keep in mind is that ham radio is a bit like a party line – everyone can hear everyone else, simply by tuning into the right frequency.
When hams are licensed, they also receive a unique call signal used to identify themselves during all radio communications. Many hams know each other only by first name and call signal; Clausi is “Rich VE3DCC” to his radio friends.
On Wednesday evening, Clausi switched on his transceiver and made contact with the Elmira network, asking them to describe the Elmira Radio Club. Al Macdonald introduced himself as Al VA3TET and explained that the 25-member club operates a repeater with a 100-foot antenna, allowing people as far as Woodstock, Fergus, Cambridge and Orangeville to pick up their signal.
There’s another twist to ham radio that hadn’t occurred to Clausi until recently, when he and a friend were discussing the Jodie Foster movie Contact. The 1997 sci-fi film involves aliens making contact by transmitting human radio signals back to Earth.
If there are alien life forms out there, Clausi pointed out, the first sign of human life they would encounter would be radio signals.
“I’ve been transmitting into free space for 35 years, which means that technically my voice is 35 light years from Earth as we speak. Any ham who has been operating for any length of time has audio out there somewhere. You never know, first contact with an alien species could be a ham radio transmission.”
For more information on the Elmira Radio Club, contact Al Macdonald at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about ham radio or becoming a ham radio operator, see the KW Amateur Radio Club website www.kwarc.org.