Radio Stuff

By which I meanĀ Amateur Radio, aka Ham Radio.

Although the proliferation of cellphones and internet have made amateur radio seem less important, even today there are times when modern communications are cut off and the only thing that still works is a good old-fashioned radio, run by a trained operator.

Not to mention, Amateur Radio itself is such a widely varied and diverse hobby that it covers so many different levels of interest and involvement, there’s bound to be something for everyone.

I am an amateur radio enthusiast. Amateur radio, or ‘ham’ radio, has been around as long as radio itself. The hobby has dozens of different facets, from simple chit-chatting on the air, to DX (long distance), to Foxhunting (direction finding), to ARES (emergency service), to Sattelites, to Microwaves, to SSTV (slow scan television), to experimentation.

There are so many different aspects to the hobby that it’d take a lifetime to be involved in all of them. In Canada, amateur radio is regulated by Industry Canada, who issue the licenses. My station license (call-sign) is VA3UXB. I also have VA3GRR, which is my automatic radio beacon.

I have been a ‘ham’ since the autumn of 1996, when I joined the Peel Amateur Radio Club. Through PARC, I have gotten my Basic and Advanced qualifications, and my 12 words per minute Morse Code endorsement. I have been a member since I became a ham, and have also served two years on the club’s board of directors.

My interests in amateur radio have included three distinct areas: Community Service through the ARES group; technical aspects such as homebrewing and kit-building; and Foxhunting.

Foxhunting (aka Radio Direction Finding)

Another passion of mine was Foxhunting! The technical term is Radio Direction Finding… Typically what we did, is one person would hide somewhere in our city with their radio. They will transmit every now and then, like every 5 or 10 minutes. Everyone else has to try and find them, by homing in on the transmissions.

Think of it like a giant game of hide-and-seek, except only one person hides and everyone else tries to find them. Oh and the boundaries tend to be “City Limits”…

Foxhunting can get complicated, using various kinds of antennas, attenuators, radios, GPS and mapping software, and even a computer. Or it can be as simple as one person, one radio, one directional antenna, some ‘eyeballing’ and guesswork. Perhaps surprisingly, I find the second method is a lot more effective. The more gear you have and the more complicated it gets, it seems the more likely it is that something’s going to be off kilter or misaligned.

I had my best success with a 3 element Yagi-Uda antenna that was built to go up a mast and not especially for foxhunting, and a handheld (or mobile) radio with a good front end and a big easy-to-read S-Meter.

My old pickup truck with the foxhunting antenna deployed.

My old pickup truck with the foxhunting antenna deployed. No, I didn’t drive like this!


Canwarn LogoCanwarn is a ‘joining of forces’ between amateur radio enthusiasts and Environment Canada.

In Ontario, we average about 20 tornados every year. The ‘tornado season’ usually runs from April until September. Many people may think that with the advent of ‘dopler radar’ and other new technologies, that there will be lots of warning before a tornado forms. In fact, the resolution of a radar image is measured in kilometers, while the average tornado is only 50 meters across. Radar can tell a professional forecaster that a storm is capable of spawning a tornado, and forecasters use their judgement to determine if a tornado is likely. However, only a trained pair of eyes looking at the sky can tell if a tornado is in the process of forming.

Anyone can identify a tornado that is on the ground. By that time, it may be too late for the community it may have touched down in. This is why it is so vital to have trained weather spotters out there, and a way to instantly get the message of what they see back to the professionals. A trained observer reporting that they see a tail cloud, or a wall cloud in the process of forming, may allow the Severe Weather Office to issue Tornado Warnings with enough time for people to get to safety. Canwarn spotters are the eyes for the Severe Weather Office.

This is the job that over 1500 volunteers across Ontario are doing. Contributing their time, expertise and equipment, these Canwarn-trained radio amateurs provide an important service to the communities of Ontario. When severe weather threatens, volunteers in the affected areas tune their radios to their local ‘Net’ frequencies, and check in to the communications Net. In charge of the Net is a Controller (usually operating from a ‘radio room’ in Environment Canada’s Toronto offices) who takes weather reports from the radio amateurs, and passes these reports directly to the Severe Weather forecaster.

From the radio-room at Environment Canada, a Net Controller can communicate with Canwarn spotters across the province, or even across the country, should there be a need for national emergency communications.

ARES — Amateur Radio Emergency Service

Peel Amateur Radio Emergency ServiceI used to be an active member of our local Amateur Radio Emergency Service. ARES exists to provide experienced communications services in times of emergency. They hold regular meetings and training excercises, in order to keep as prepared as possible. They have several activities throughout the year, and have been called on to assist with various emergency situations:

  • Hamex: On the 4th Saturday of March, they hold their annual Hamfest. This event is located at the Brampton Fair grounds. It is a flea market for radio and computer related items, but they also have several information booths, and several seminars on a variety of radio related subjects. Industry Canada certified examiners are also on site to provide testing for those wishing to get their license or upgrade it.
  • Field Day: The last full weekend every June is Field Day. As a training excercise, a temporary station is set up and runs on emergency power, and operated continuously for 24 hours. The event is organized in the form of a contest to encourage club participation across North America and around the World.
  • Goblin Patrol: Every Hallowe’en, the Peel ARES group works with the Peel Regional Police, on their Goblin Patrol, to help keep the streets safe for kids. On average, there are over 20 radio-equipped vehicles patrolling the residential areas of Brampton and Milton. Volunteers are linked directly with a Police officer through their radios, and
  • S.E.T.: Every 12 to 18 months, a Simulated Emergency Test is organized by the City or Region. This event is designed to test the ability to react and respond to emergencies which may occur in our area. The Region of Peel contains Toronto’s international airport, and the City of Brampton has several major rail lines which pass through, and of course, our share of industrial areas. The potential for a crisis exists, and it is our goal to be ready for the worst, although we hope our services will never be called upon. In the test, several local official organizations participate in the excercise. Among them are: The City of Brampton, Region of Peel, Peel Regional Police, Brampton Fire Department, Brampton Hydro, Red Cross, St. John’s Ambulance, and others.Past S.E.T.’s have included mock train derailments, chemical spills, even airline disasters. Sometimes an S.E.T. is organized by one or two official organizations, and can be completed after an hour or two. Other times, they are Region-wide events that take an entire day and involve setting up actual shelters for volunteer ‘victims’, and managing communications between the local Emergency Operations Centre and the various official agencies and shelters.
  • Y2K: With all the concerns over the year two thousand, and how that could affect various computers which could in turn affect such things as electricity and traffic lights etc., we were asked by the City of Brampton and Region of Peel if we would be available for New Year’s eve and day, to be called upon in the (unlikely) event that trouble should occur. We had over a dozen volunteers standing by for the strike of midnight, some standing by at City Hall and the Police stations, others standing by their equipment at home, incase we were needed.
  • Missing Persons: While I was active with the club, the ARES group had been called out on several missing persons searches. Some have been organized by the police, in which our members have coordinated with the police and been assigned zones to search. In other instances we have been approached directly by members of the community to help find missing loved ones.
  • Ice Storm 98: When the infamous Ice Storm struck eastern Ontario and Quebec, whole cities and numerous communities were cut off from the rest of the province. After numerous failed attempts at establishing communications through several ‘professional’ organizations, the authorities turned to the amateur radio community. Several volunteers from the Peel Amateur Radio Club answered the call, setting up a communications network that linked the offices of the EMO in downtown Toronto, all the way out across Ontario through other Hams in the affected areas. This communications network ran non-stop for over 5 days, passing messages between authorities in the affected areas and the EMO in Toronto.I am proud to say, I was asked to assist in the second 12-hour shift down at the EMO, and it was very impressive to see and be a part of the efforts to manage such a large-scale emergency.