There are more than 50 among us on the North Fork, though you might not know just by looking at them.
Amateur radio operators silently surround us, though they could be your only hope when other modes of communication fail.
“Amateur radio operation is sort of a stealth hobby because it’s sometimes seen as being geeky,” said Jim Baker, W2NSF, the president of the Peconic Amateur Radio Club.
W2NSF is Mr. Baker’s call signal, the code he relays during transmissions to identify himself to other amateur radio operators, or “hams.”
“Amateur radio operators are also misunderstood because we’re only ‘amateur’ because we don’t get paid for what we do. It doesn’t mean that we’re not professional in the way we execute our jobs when we’re given them.”
As part of Southold Town’s Emergency Response Force, members of PARC regularly perform exercises with the town to practice providing emergency communication in cases where phone lines are down. Club members also participate in a national field day event every year, where hams gather to see how many contacts they can make using only emergency power. For the last three years, that’s meant using solar energy to power PARC’s radios, Mr. Baker said. This year’s field day event will take place June 23-24 at Horton Point.
The ham’s ability to help in emergency situations is not necessarily a directive, Mr. Baker said.
“Amateur radio operation is first and foremost a hobby,” he said. “There’s something for everybody. If you just want to sit around and talk to other hams about tractors you can. If you want to do high-tech stuff like bouncing radio signals off the moon or put on your orange vest and do emergency communication, you can do that, too. It’s a great hobby.”
Mr. Baker said the number of local ham operators has been growing steadily every year, with .2 percent of the general American public qualifying as a ham.
Anyone with $150 for a small radio can become one, Mr. Baker said, as long as they pass a multiple-choice exam proving a basic knowledge of both electricity and Federal Communication Commission regulations.
“It’s an unusual hobby because it does require a license to practice it,” said Mr. Baker, who received his license at age 12 as a member of the amateur radio club at Custer Institute in Southold. He said the license is needed because the operator is broadcasting radio waves, which need to be contained within certain frequency bands.
“You don’t want to go interfering with other people that use radio, like business or police radios,” he said.
There are three classes of license that can be applied for and those with the higher classes of license can communicate with other hams worldwide using short waves on the high frequency spectrum.
Any ham, however, is able to communicate with NASA’s international space station, should that craft be flying directly overhead.
Mr. Baker said hams use several different “modes” to communicate, including continuous wave operation (Morse code), radio teletype and microphone use.
Proper etiquette is expected of operators and often enforced by others, he said, including following FCC regulations and listening before transmitting.
“We’re assigned a certain band of frequencies that go from just above the AM broadcast panel all the way up to microwaves and there’s plenty of opportunity to talk, but if you want to set up on a frequency to have a conversation, you always have to find out if anyone’s using it already,” he said. “When I get on a frequency, the first thing I so is put on my microphone and ask if the frequency is in use.”
Amateur radio operation has a rich history that goes back more than a century. A silent key, for example, is a ham operator who has died.
“Before there were microphones and voice radio, there was the telegraphy key. When a ham has died, we say their telegraph key is silent, or no longer in use, even if they never used Morse code in order to communicate,” Mr. Baker said.
Former president Roberta Keis, N2RBU, said one silent key who has deeply influenced her is PARC founder John Reiger, K2RJR.
“He lived in Orient and owned a radio station in Garden City during the 1960s that was the first FM radio station on Long Island to play rock music,” Ms. Kreis said. According to her, Orient’s Ted Webb worked for Mr. Reiger’s station as a teenager and would throw on rock and roll music after the boss had gone home for the evening.
Ms. Kreis credited Mr. Reiger with establishing PARC’s reputation as one of the East coast’s friendliest amateur radio clubs.
“When John Reiger moved out to Orient, he had to travel all the way to Selden in order to pursue amateur radio because they had the closest club around,” she said. His experience was soured, she said, because of some of the members’ attitudes.
“He noticed that they sort of ignored him because he wasn’t from there and that there was a pecking order based on license class,” Mr. Baker added.
“He didn’t like that at all and he said, ‘Boy, I’m going to make our club all-inclusive, welcoming and fun.’ That’s how PARC was born. We don’t do politics.”
PARC has been operating since February 1993 and has approximately 60 members. Their monthly meeting is held at 6:30 p.m. on the first Friday of every month at Mattituck-Laurel Library.