By Lillian Eden
BU News Service
BOSTON – Alan Lewis pledged to do two things when he retired: learn to weld and get an amateur radio license. He did both, and then took his amateur radio license one step further.
Almost immediately after getting his license, Lewis said he started getting involved in the public service aspects of amateur radio, including emergency communication.
Amateur radio, or ham radio, for a very long time was the only federally licensed hobby. The word ham refers to amateur radio operators.
The Federal Communications Commission considers amateur radio a service to the public, to be pursued for the sake of advancing the art of radio and providing emergency communication. All frequencies allocated to amateur radio are shared among operators, according to the FCC.
On a large scale, the amateur radio service was called into action as recently as 2017 following Hurricane Irma and Maria, according to the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), a national association for amateur radio. Amateur radio operators were tracking the progress of the storms and helping to communicate needs for supplies and coordinate rescues across the Caribbean.
After the storm, hams, as they call themselves, also helped to set up a communication network across Puerto Rico, according to the ARRL. Groups of amateur radio operators on the air, called nets, helped before, during and after the hurricanes in various ways.
Lewis is the manager of the morning session of a regular emergency net, during which he and other hams check in at a certain frequency to prepare for receiving emergency traffic every day, such as maydays for boats in distress and to help coordinate rescues.
Operators on emergency nets don’t just sit there and listen, he said. They talk and check in with each other, so it’s a social activity as well as a service. Lewis thought that no one would come back on the net every day if they were just sitting there and listening.
“That’s how we get people to keep it going,” he said.
Even someone with the most basic license can provide a public service. Amateur radio operators volunteer for races and events such as the Boston Marathon and the Head of the Charles, said Jim Wilber, a ham enthusiast. This allows for seamless and easy communication along the entire course or event.
Wilber explained that it’s easy to have operators all listening to the same frequency.
“It would be so difficult to keep track of 20 cell phone numbers,” he said.
Ham radio operators are locally, nationally and internationally organized in clubs and by the Amateur Radio Relay League, although being part of a club is not required to operate. Amateur radio is a community, and there’s a precedent for operators to guide and mentor each other, Wilber said.
Seasoned operators sometimes help newly certified hams set up their first antennas at his local club.
“That’s recognized, universally, as a function of ham radio, is to bring up the next generation of hams,” he said.
Wilber got involved in ham radio after stumbling across something called a “Field Day” operation while hiking on conservation land in Pepperell in June 2014.
There was a small encampment of radio operators, tents, trailers and a half dozen parked cars, he said. Wilber, who now coordinates his club’s Field Day operations, summarized the event as a full 24 hours of operating, eating and educating. This includes explaining what they’re doing to curious passersby, as Wilber was in 2014.
Field Day is a yearly event for operators intended to be a casual, relaxing environment that helps hams gain more experience. In 2019, 36,420 people participated across the country, making more than a million contacts in a 24 hour period according to the ARRL.
“Communications will go down at some point but we will still be able to operate,” Lewis said.
Field Day is one way for hams to practice for that possibility.