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Amateur radio: The world’s first internet

HAMBURG — When speaking to someone who is involved in amateur radio, it may sound like a foreign language. A mashup of letters, numbers and technical lingo about electronics and physics. However, amateur radio was the beginning stage for many modern day technological advancements, such as Wifi internet connection, GPS and cellphones. Amateur radio still exists today, not just as a hobby, but also as a means of widespread and more accessible communication.

The clubhouse for the South Towns Amateur Radio Society, otherwise known as STARS, can be found on the Nike Missile Base, now known as the Hamburg Town Arena. Just past the BMX park, it’s a small blue building with a radio tower that reaches high above the ground.

Operators of amateur radio, known as ‘hams,’ must pass an exam and be licensed. Three levels, or classes, that can be achieved: technician, general and extra. The club itself has a license hanging on the interior wall of the building, and each member has their own personal license. Currently, there are approximately 60-70 participating members. At one point, there were 250 members.

The location on the Nike Base was given to the town under the condition that it would be used for recreational purposes. The amateur radio collective was offered a clubhouse spot on the property.

“Originally, we were called the Hamburg Radio Club, which was part of the old civil defense,” said HAM operator John Leitten. The group used to meet at the town hall, he added.

“This place was deplorable,” he said, gesturing to the clubhouse. “This is what we have today after many man-hours.”

The shack is currently undergoing it’s third remodeling. The group’s biggest issue, he said, is organization.

Regardless, he said it is a great spot, “Plus it has the real estate to put up a 160-meter antenna.”

At the clubhouse, the members either participate in radio use in case of civil emergencies were communication may be limited but necessary. However, many are involved just for the hobby.

Similar to the way in which a walkie-talkie is used, amateur radio can be used to talk to people from Antarctica, to the International Space Station to Japan.

“The farthest we can go is 12,000 miles,” Leitten said, and paused. “That’s the circumference of the earth.”

“Part of what you have to understand is what frequencies you can use, what type of radio and antenna systems, so that you can bounce your signal around the world,” said club President Ken Pokigo. Different frequencies have different characteristics, and there are facets to the physics of the world that be used to the human advantage to communicate.

“The hobby is interesting from the technical side,” Pokigo said. “Things that we can do to push the limits of the current technology and utilize them in the amateur radio world.”

Members of STARS have spoken with people such as Joe Walsh from the Eagles, kings, princes, Walter Cronkite, former governor of New York state George Pataki, or just other operators in foreign places.

“We got into it because of the enjoyment, the hobby, the excitement,” said STARS operator Scott Barto.

With a list of Q-signals — which are just an assortment of letters — the language barrier is tampered with and there is a whole new door of communication.

On a more serious note, amateur radio can be used in states of emergency, whether it be local, national or otherwise. Amateur radio was used to assist situations such as Hurricane Katrina; the 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks; Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the San Diego Blackout of 2011 and more.

"I would say within the last couple years, we've been trying to bolster our capabilities here in communication,” Pokigo said. “We have an agreement with the town of Hamburg to support them in disaster communications relief when necessary,” in addition to public service events, such as the Ride for Roswell.

"Anything where you would need communications set up where you can't afford to or want to hire a professional, permanent or expensive communication systems, you can tap into the amateur radio society," he added.

“We call ourselves ‘the learning club.’ We aren’t focused on just one aspect of amateur radio,” Leitten said.

“Amateur radio operators felt that we always had the responsibility to learn as much about this stuff, and get as good at it as we could. Every time there’s a national emergency, civic emergency ... as soon as one of these places gets hit by a tornado or hurricane, communications shut down,” said member Ed Patton. “Even the emergency operators lose their ability because their towers and antenna are down. They’re bound into a certain set of frequencies. Amateur radio operators operate on a wide range of them under different conditions. That’s a great privilege to have, but it’s also a great responsibility.

“The amateur radio operators were instrumental in developing the system that brought cellphones into existence. We proved that it could work ... we were able to communicate civic emergencies or just ordinary conversation on the telephone. As long as its not commercial and as long as we don’t do it for pay. None of what we do can be done for pay," he continued. The condition that amateur radio is done entirely for non-profit is a discerning difference between that and commercial radio.

In honor of “Amateur Radio Week,” the Southtowns society participated in Field Day, which lasted from 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 28 until 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 29. This event was, as Leitten said, not really a contest but more along the lines of a drill.

The clubhouse was running a generator “to divorce ourselves from the grid and to show that we could still communicate.”

The clubhouse was open for residents to view it and learn how to become a part of the club. To learn more about amateur radio, visit www.emergency-radio.org.

STARS will hold a meeting on Thursday, July 10 at the Nike Base Radio Clubhouse on Lakeview Road. The meeting is open to the public.

More information about STARS can be found at stars.thefruths.com/default.aspx.

This article is part one of a two-part series about the Southtowns Amateur Radio Society. Learn about the faces and many personalities of local “hams” in next week’s issue of The Sun.
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