Amateur radio operators are vital unsung heroes

Amateur radio operators have a long and storied history across the globe and are often referred to as “ham” radio operators. Defined as a “duly authorized person interested in radioelectric practice with a purely personal aim and without pecuniary interest (either direct or monetary or other similar reward) and differentiated from commercial broadcasting, public safety (such as police or fire), or professional two-way radio services (such as maritime, aviation and taxis or the like).”

But that strict definition belies an important truth, especially in these internet dependent times so amply demonstrated by the recent Rogers blackout. The ham radio operators are not internet dependent and function even when all other means of communication have failed. As such ham radio operators, like those members of the Manitoulin Amateur Radio Club who held their annual general meeting at Little Current’s Low Island Park this past weekend, form a volunteer backbone communication system intricately linked with local emergency services when catastrophe strikes. As such, they are the unsung heroes of disasters not yet happened.

Normally, ham radio operators are a deceptively solitary lot, often sequestered in a hidden back room in the family home, usually somewhat older (something they would very gladly ameliorate if given the chance to engage a younger crew).

Many cut their teeth on crystal radio sets once found in the back pages of Popular Mechanics and other hobby magazines, spending hours of dogged concentration wiring up tiny components under magnifying glass to finally jump for joy as the buzzing sounds of Morse Code’s dots and dashes could be faintly heard—gradually moving up the technological ladder to tinny voices. For many of those pre-digital “nerds” ham radio operation became a lifelong passion, and many ham radio operators can be identified by the call signs that appear on their custom vehicle licence plates, the vessel names on their boats floating in the marina or a plethora of T-shirts, coats or baseball caps.

Today’s amateur radio sets are as far away from those early hobby kits as a soapbox racer is from a Formula One race car and just about any operator can chat for hours on the nuances of atmospheric skips and the influence of sunspots, if you let them. But make no mistake, these seeming relics of a bygone age contain within their skillset the ability to link the world.

Whenever a global disaster, hurricane, typhoon, earthquake or war engulfs a region, amateur radio operators often become that region’s soul connection to the outside world—providing a crucial link to lifesaving rescues and support.

Because of that solitary, stuck in the basement/attic domain, where many amateur radio operators ply their skills, they remain out of sight and out of mind of nearly all of the general public—but when that moment comes—they spring into action as the heroes of the day—and thank goodness for them.

Manitoulin Amateur Radio Club members can sometimes be seen assisting in marshalling parades in Island communities during the summer months, when you do meet or see one of these elusive creatures, take a moment out to thank them for being them and maybe, if you think you might be interested in learning more about amateur radio, find out how you can enter the hobby. Someday the community may depend on your skills and connections.

Most practitioners are gregarious, if sometimes garrulous, but don’t be put off. One of the more interesting aspects of the hobby is connecting with other radio operators across the globe and boasting of rare and remote connections is one of the great joys each shares with their colleagues with pride. That’s what amateur radio operators are doing in those back rooms, attics and basements—connecting with people, OG-style.