Ham radio watchmen keep ears open to help others

Thomas Fleming
Rick Kingsley and other amateur radio operators help coordinate communications during emergencies and stay in touch wth others around the world.

Yates County Amateur Radio Club members’ antenna towers may not look like the stone towers that helped guard medieval cities, but amateur radio operators’ dedication and ingenuity make them modern-day watchmen for emergencies and weather.

“You never know when you’re going to be called in to do something you thought you’d never do,” Yates Amateur Radio Club President Rick Kingsley said.

Amateur radio operators, who are oftentimes called hams, helped coordinate communications between emergency personnel during national emergencies such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Kingsley said that being called to coordinate communications during emergencies is what motivates most hams’ dedication to the hobby and public service.

“Once that happens to some of these guys who are armchair hams, they get that bug,” Kingsley said.

One local example of hams helping the community during an emergency was a day when Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hospital in Penn Yan lost telephone and radio communications. The Yates Amateur Radio Club responded to the telephone and radio loss by providing communications between emergency and hospital personnel, according to the Yates Amateur Radio Club Web site, Yates-ARC.com.

“You can’t always rely on cell phones,” Kingsley said. “Actually, the cell and landline phones are the first to go down during a powerful storm. Ham radio works. It always works.”

The Yates County Amateur Radio Club began in 1980 when St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Pastor Vincent Scotto, known as call sign N2ALI to hams, published a notice in The Chronicle-Express calling for amateur radio enthusiasts interested in starting an amateur radio club in Yates County. The club made public service to local organizations one of its principal goals, according to Yates-ARC.com.

When ham radio operators are not coordinating communications for emergencies, they are training to become more proficient at their hobby and service.

Members of the Yates Amateur Radio Club coordinated communications for the July 12-13 Musselman Triathlon in Geneva. Kingsley and a group of 15 other amateur radio operators, including Kingsley’s wife Andrea, reported the race standings and status of the 1,100 participating bikers to emergency personnel and Musselman Triathlon officials and volunteers.

Another form of public service that hams participate in locally is SKYWARN, a weather-spotting program operated by the National Weather Service designed to help weather forecasters make more accurate weather forecasts. Weather spotters can report observed severe weather to the National Weather Service through the Internet, phone or ham radio.

Hams also organize field days where they practice their ham radio skills, Kingsley said.

According to Kingsley, amateur radio is not an “out-of-the-box kind of hobby,” but hams know how to make things work.

Hams use a diversity of technology such as antennas, satellites, digital modes, shortwave frequencies, the Internet and any other form of technology they can use to broaden their communicative abilities.

With so much technical power at their disposal, who watches the ham radio watchmen?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates activity on the airwaves by using official observers.  Observers monitor profanity, improper radio equipment use and operators’ qualifications.

There are three amateur radio classes: Technician class, general class and extra class. Potential hams must pass a multiple-choice test for their desired radio class. The tests include questions about radiation exposure, equipment use and technical information about radio waves and electricity.

According to Kingsley, the old test was not as easy as the current multiple-choice test.

The old test was a written test and test takers needed to learn Morse code.  The FCC eliminated the Morse code requirement in Dec. 2006, easing the requirements to acquire an amateur radio license, according to FCC.gov.

“Right now is the best time to get a ham license,” Kingsley said.

After receiving a license, a call sign is assigned to the new amateur radio operator. Most of the characters in a call sign are random except for a number that represents a ham’s registered location. The number two is used to represent New York State, as seen in Kingsley’s call sign KE2BV. Hams can also pay for vanity call signs if their chosen call sign is not being used.

Amateur radio is a hobby and a public service. Hams are not allowed by law to receive financial compensation for providing communications coordination services, Kingsley said.

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is another organization important to hams since they advocate on the behalf of hams in the government. 

“ARRL supports legislation that preserves and protects access to existing amateur radio frequencies as a natural resource for the enjoyment of all hams,” according to the brochure “Your Guide to ARRL Services.”

Public service is not the only opportunity that amateur radio has to offer. Amateur radio also allows for a unique way to meet individuals from around the world and orbiting the world, such as astronauts on the International Space Station.

Some Hams trade call cards called QSL cards with almost everybody they meet on the air. The cards are the size of postcards and contain a ham’s call sign, address, name and typically a picture of themselves or something representing the area they are operating from.

Kingsley’s wall is covered with call cards from all over the world.

One man Kingsley met on amateur radio lived above a storefront in Belfast that was bombed while he was speaking to Kingsley.

“He went off the air suddenly because somebody had driven by and thrown a satchel bomb of some sort to blow up the store, and his whole floor collapsed; ham radio station and all went flying down to the first floor, and that’s why he had to apologize for why he suddenly went off the air,” Kingsley said.

More information about the Yates Amateur Radio Club, which usually meets at 7:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month at the Penn Yan Red Cross building, can be found at http://www.yates-arc.org/.

Andrea and Rick Kingsley with their HAM radio equipment.