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Amateur Radio: ‘A Hundred Hobbies in One’

By Carol Radin

Peter Kragh at the Field Days CW station at Camillus Ski Hill, 2023. CW” stands for”Continuous Wave,” a type of transmission.

“It’s a hundred hobbies in one!” exclaimed Jerry Wright.

Wright and his fellow ham radio operators in the Radio Amateurs of Greater Syracuse experience all the fun and wonder of meeting people across the distance, as well as the more serious public service side of amateur radio communications.

It could be a simple signal contact with someone in a distant national park, directions for someone on the road, a contest to accumulate locations or a team effort in crucial situations: Radio Amateurs of Greater Syracuse (RAGS) participates in monitoring community events like races and parades and several “hams” have come to the aid of first responder agencies during natural disasters.

Wright, 76, of Camillus, recalls the North Country ice storm and the Labor Day storm, both in 1998, two natural disasters when phone lines were down and licensed amateur radio operators were called on to park themselves in the local firehouses, set up their power sources and equipment and relay communications for community provisions and house-to-house needs.

RAGS member Dave Rice (front) and Doug Falcon (background) work with their grandchildren during AARL Field Days, 2023. An unlicensed operator may transmit over the radio if accompanied by a licensed amateur radio operator.

Hopefully, hams will not be pressed into emergency service, of course. Nevertheless, ham radio operators view every individual communication and every equipment set-up as practice for any community demand that might arise.

Ever been to the Syracuse St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Or participated in a 5K or a marathon?

Your event runs smoothly not only because of the organizers, but because amateur radio operators are monitoring the routes.

Walter Bordett, 75, of Syracuse, explained that amateur radio operators in these events “provide eyes on the course, and help with safety and communication.”

In the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for instance, Doug Falcon, 75, said, “Every side street has five, 10 parade groups ready to go, and every side street has a radio operator. They need to know when to go. If halfway through, the Shriners [as an example] are not ready, operators have to relay that information along the route and the side streets. Ham radio operators are situated at the mayor’s grandstand, with the parade coordinator and, of course, are in communication with the police.”

Other annual events that RAGS members monitor are the Y-Triathlon at Green Lakes State Park, the Syracuse Workforce Run (formerly the Corporate Challenge, Onondaga Lake Park); Syracuse Chocolate Challenge at Onondaga Lake Park; the Myles Keogh Great Race in Auburn; and the Great NY State Marathon at Onondaga Lake Park.

People unfamiliar with amateur radio communications might ask, ‘Why not use cell phones?’

“Cell phones are one-on-one,” Falcon explained.  “With ham radio, everyone hears what’s going on at the same time.”

Doug Falcon and his granddaughter, Rebecca Lloyd, at an AARL Field Day, Camillus Ski Hill in 2023. Rebecca learned everything about ham radio from her grandfather, and is now a licensed operator and the recipient of a RAGS college scholarship.

Anyone who can visualize all the pieces that go into a safe and successful mass people movement with start and end points, water tables, bathrooms, first aid, etc. can see how any one glitch could impact the route.

Both Falcon and Bordett put their skills to the test for perhaps the most stressful national event of the 2000’s: the bombing of the World Trade Centers when cell phone communication was down and regular phone service was knocked out.

“Every agency had hams at both ends,” Falcon recalled.

He was assigned to the 9-1-1 Control Center in Poughkeepsie, where he lived at the time. The center had set up radios and a power source in the ham radio room, so the hams didn’t have to bring an ounce of their own equipment. Hams relayed agency needs and individual needs on the air and communicated with medical personnel and fire departments. They facilitated delivery of supplies like blankets, gauze and water, and even arranged transport for responders reporting to work or going home.

Bordett, a biomedical engineer at Syracuse’s Veterans’ Administration Medical Center at the time, worked here in Syracuse, covering backup communications in case any casualties were triaged to local hospitals. From day 10 through 14 of the crisis, he was with a team of three other local hams who went down to New York to assist with the shelters opened to house people displaced by the damage.

All hams who serve in emergencies and in public service are volunteers and licensed by Federal Communications Commision. To participate in public service during emergencies, they go through extensive training with NIMS, the National Incident Management System, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

It’s Not All Serious

RAGS ham Amir Findling at a POTA (Parks On The Air) activation on a beautiful autumn day in Klondike State Forest near the Oswego County town of West Monroe in 2022.

Though ham radio communication has its serious side in community emergencies, it also has a lighter side. One-on-one communication with individuals around the world, as well as contests to tally the most contacts, are some of the more fun activities.

One of Wright’s favorite activities is “Parks on the Air,” or POTA. He and fellow RAGS ham, Peter Kragh, do frequent outings to state parks and forests, where they set up their own power source and equipment, pick up a frequency, and reach out for hunters — not animal hunters, but hunters listening for radio contacts. The message can be a simple “hello,” or just a handle on how strong the connection is, and then Wright and Kragh get credit in their “hunter logs.” Radio transmission is only possible from state or federal land, and each park has a POTA-assigned number. So national parks are POTA territory!

Wright said that some people “collect” parks in a certain region or around the country. He has hunted 1,050 contacts. Other programs include SOTA, Summits on the Air, for people who hike up registered mountains and IOTA, Islands on the Air.

Aside from the fun, programs like POTA encourage hams to get out and set up their equipment in remote areas — again good training for public and emergency service events. “Field days” accomplish that, too.

Linda Jackson, another RAGS member, describes the field days as two-day emergency practice sessions. Ham operators set up emergency power sources, which could be generators, their own batteries or even solar power. One example of a trial run might be to practice setting up their antennas during inclement weather. RAGS’ annual Winter Field Day is scheduled for Jan. 27 – 28, 2024; Summer Field Day is always the last full weekend in June.

Linda Jackson holds her hand-held radio, which was essential for her when she used to drive around the state doing site visits to schools for her work with special needs education.

Jackson, 75, from North Syracuse, got hooked on amateur radio communications by her husband, Bob. An educator who is certified in special education, Jackson relied on amateur radio communications when she was on the road doing site visits at schools in all kinds of weather and sometimes in the dark.

“I always knew if I got lost in a strange school district, I could contact someone,” she said. “I had a number of times when the person on the other end stayed on the line until I got on the right path. Some people kind of ‘adopt’ me.”

Amateur radio communication also came in handy during the COVID-19 pandemic when Jackson and her husband stayed put in Florida.

“We couldn’t gather, but we could communicate,” she said.

One way to perk up their days was to play a game of contacts on a golf course.

“A couple got on a golf cart, changed frequencies, and you could hunt for them and get points for picking them up in different frequencies,” she said.

Joe Coppola also enjoys the day-to-day communications with others. From his home in Fayetteville, he has reached out to people as far as North Africa; what he finds is that many people are “just like us!” What do they talk about? Their location, equipment, the ever-interesting weather, or perhaps a community service project. Never politics or religion. The Code of Federal Regulations’ section on amateur radio operations strongly discourages religious and political discussions, and also strictly prohibits business-related content and commercial activity and advertisements.

Coppola, 75, is new to ham radio and took the test for the license because he was looking for a mental challenge more than anything else. A retired engineer, he had been interested in radio and electronics since childhood.  He earned his “Extra Class” license in 2022. Test prep materials are provided by the national American Radio Relay League.

Coppola also likes the Hamfests, which are large flea market-type fairs where people browse for equipment. RAGS holds an annual Hamfest every summer. The cost of equipment varies, of course.  A hand-held, basically a walkie-talkie like the ones used to communicate in a parade or race, costs about $20 and can transmit 5 to 10 miles. A high-frequency transceiver costs about $200. Coppola’s transmitter is 100 watts. In the U.S. the maximum legal power limit is 1,500 watts.

What about the younger generation?

Joe Coppola in his basement radio room. A retired engineer,he earned his amateur radio operator’s license in 2022.

Though the internet and cell phones have superseded good old radio communications, RAGS members continue to see interest among youth.

All four of Falcon’s grandchildren got hooked on amateur radio communication. Three of them now have their licenses and the fourth is applying.

Falcon said the three generations of family have communicated with handhelds from car to car or corner to corner during family vacations.

Jackson tells how her 7-year-old granddaughter was fascinated for a time by the morse code that Jackson tried to teach her. (Morse code was once required, but the requirement was dropped 20 years ago.)

The RAGS organization offers a scholarship for qualified high school graduates enrolled in college. Recently, they awarded three scholarships.

The national AARL even runs two “Kids Days,” in January and in June, to promote interest and on-the-air experience for children. And locally, a search on the website for Syracuse’s Museum of Science and Technology describes the MOST’s very own radio station and offers links to the possibilities for ham radio communication.

Amateur radio transmission actually seems a natural for capturing new hobbyists in all generations. Amateur radio operators can bridge long distances, meet faraway people and assist behind-the-scenes in important ways.

The possibilities truly capture the imagination.