As the pandemic picks up speed once again and people are advised to limit their in-person social interactions, a small group of people are reaching out across the airwaves from Barrie to connect with others in a much different way.
The Barrie Amateur Radio Club has been one of the few activities that has thrived during the now two-year COVID crisis.
Formed in the 1960s, its current band of roughly 60 like-minded members are armed with dependable radio technology that has been in use for over a hundred years. And they use the equipment not just for the social aspect, but also to fulfil a need if called upon in our city when disaster strikes.
Part of the club’s mission statement is to “maintain radio systems suitable for providing communications for the benefit of the community and, when requested, to assist civil authorities.”
An example of this assistance would be to provide emergency services in the city as a way to communicate in an event where existing critical communications and infrastructure fails.
Prior to the pandemic, the club held monthly meetings with police and fire services to discuss training scenarios and what the club’s role could be in helping during an emergency.
But for most days, the main activity of the group is to just have fun.
Ed Murray, the club's public information officer, enjoyed listening to shortwave radio as a kid and waited until he retired in 2019 to learn how to become an amateur radio operator.
When asked about what his favourite part of being a member is, he says, “helping the community and the camaraderie with the 60 different members that have a wide range of talents and experiences to share.”
Technical milestones are thrilling as well, he said.
“I also managed to bounce a signal off the International Space Station and receive their repeater message. It calls out the frequency, its call letters, and gives out the time in Universal Time," Murray tells BarrieToday.
To help demystify some radio jargon, a repeater is an electronic device that can receive a weaker radio signal, or a signal from a portable radio user, and re-transmit it over a much wider area so that other users can receive the signal.
“During the early days of the pandemic during isolation, in 2020, I spent a lot of time down here in my radio shack, talking. We had a wellness check where people would get on their radios at 1:30 every afternoon and we would all take our turns to say what is going on and how we were doing," Murray says.
"Clubs would reach out to other clubs as well. We’ve been able to take a situation and turn it around and put it into a positive light," he adds.
With most of the members in their 50s and 60s, the current challenge for the group is finding interest among younger folks.
“This time of year, many clubs will set up a radio net with various members so that kids can talk with Santa at the North Pole," Murray says.
There is also an event called Jamboree on the Air where scouts and guides gather at the Tiffin Centre for Conservation, located just west of Barrie, to learn about amateur radio sets and communicate with other scout groups throughout North America.
“Cellphones and the internet have been a stumbling block for explaining our hobby because a lot of people say, ‘just pick up a cellphone and call France’," Murray says. "The challenge here is that I will construct myself an antenna made out of wire, string it up in my backyard, hook it up to my radio, and make the effort to reach out to someone over the air. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing something you’ve built actually work.
“When we were showing the scouts our radios and they started hearing other kids and they were able to talk to them by clicking the mic, the cellphones went into the pocket pretty quick," Murray adds with a chuckle.
It doesn’t take much to get started in the hobby. Fifty bucks can get you a beginner radio. Every year, the club offers a course from Industry Canada which helps you prepare for an exam, as certification is required to be an operator in Canada.
Club meetings are currently being held online.
“Anyone is invited to attend and see what we are about and try using a radio with a licensed member," says Murray.
More information, including membership details, can be found at the Barrie Amateur Radio Club website by clicking here.