HALIFAX, N.S. —
With the sound of Saturday’s noon gun from atop Citadel Hill, John Bignell was off and running.
Or at least his handheld radio set was as the Halifax Amateur Radio Club’s Get on the Air winter event got underway. Dozens of radio operators around the city switched on their home transmitters or took to the snow-covered streets with portable units to make as many contacts as possible before the 4 p.m. deadline.
With Saturday’s stormy conditions in full effect, Bignell picked the high ground of Citadel Hill as an ideal spot to get the clearest signal, and within seconds he was trading his VE1 JMB call sign with one radio operator in Hammonds Plains, and another who turned out to be transmitting from a car in a parking lot at the base of the hill.
“VA1 CCC, this is Victor Echo One Juliett Mike Bravo,” he responds to one user, using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. “It’s John on Citadel Hill.”
“Good afternoon, John, this is Brian,” the voice answers, adding another point to his log for the day. “The location is Bedford and we are a fixed station running 50 watts.”
Contests like Get on the Air have been taking place among amateur radio enthusiasts, known to most as ham radio operators, since the 1920s, and have been a regular activity for the H.A.R.C. since it was founded in 1933. Bignell, also the club’s director-at-large, expects around 50 members will be involved, either from a fixed station at home or using a mobile radio from their vehicle to contact other stations from various vantage points.
“This is a really great opportunity to test our community, and test their ability to communicate, and their resilience; the ability to get out there and figure out what works and what doesn’t work,” he says, adding that the inclement weather provides the kind of challenge that operators like to get a grip on.
“It’s not the nicest days when we have disasters, it’s the days when conditions aren’t good. That’s what makes these skills unique, having the ability to communicate with each other across the harbour or across the city. I think that’s important, and understanding how to communicate becomes even more important when it comes to a disaster or an emergency.”
Tradition dating back to Marconi
Amateur radio operators in Nova Scotia are part of an East Coast heritage of wireless communication that stretches back to Guglielmo Marconi’s historic trans-Atlantic transmissions from Signal Hill and Glace Bay 120 years ago.
In 2021 with cell phones and wi-fi — and the ability to visually communicate with someone halfway around the world on Zoom or FaceTime using a device that fits in your pocket — you might question the need for short wave radio as a method of communication. But Bignell feels amateur radio enthusiasts aren’t motivated simply by nostalgia for technology that was born in a bygone era.
“Technology is great; so long as it’s working, it’s fantastic. In today’s society, we’ve become very much reliant on technology, and I think it works for the most part. But when it doesn’t work, we really fall apart,” says Bignell, who points out that the simplicity and reliability of radio transmission, especially in remote locations, makes it ideal for emergency situations.
“You just have to look at when Bell lost its communication network (on Aug. 6), and we lost the ability to communicate within emergency services, and that was a challenge. Amateur radio isn’t the first or most effective form of communication, but when there’s nothing else, it is the most effective.”
Technology makes radio more accessible
Technology has helped change the world of amateur radio transmission as well, with developments in microscopic circuits leading to inexpensive handheld sets that are an entry-level alternative to large home transmitters and towering backyard antennas.
Bignell became a licensed radio operator after becoming intrigued by a friend’s CB radio set years ago and enjoys being part of a worldwide community that’s still going strong with the help of events like this weekend’s Get on the Air competition.
“The contest is about having fun, and for me, being a ham is about having fun and chatting with other radio operators. It’s a really strong community internationally, and you can go into any community and find a ham there,” says Bignell, who’s also heard radio communications reach astronauts on orbiting space stations.
“The fact you can talk to someone who’s in space over an antenna, that’s pretty cool. From a youth perspective, I have two small boys, and for them to be able to build something they can then use to talk to people who are in space is pretty amazing.”