PEI

Islanders' interest in amateur radio surges because of COVID-19 and Fiona 

There is more chatter on the airwaves these days as the P.E.I. amateur radio community expands. There are 300 licensed operators on the Island, eight of them with brand new licences, and of those, more than half are women.

'The sky's the limit. There's just so many different things that you can learn'

Brent Taylor holds the microphone in front of his mouth to speak as he sits in front of several computer screens and radios.
Brent Taylor has his radios set up in his basement in Stratford, P.E.I., and reaches out to other operators around the world. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

The amateur radio community on P.E.I. is growing, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and post-tropical storm Fiona.

Stratford resident Brent Taylor has been a ham radio operator for 38 years, in New Brunswick and P.E.I. He goes by the call sign VY2HF.

"It's been absolutely fantastic. We have been so thrilled with the number of people that have come forward, and now that we're getting them on the air," Taylor said.

"Probably because of COVID, and maybe because of Fiona, there's been a more of an interest, I think, in people wanting to be able to maintain their connections with each other, even from their own homes."

A hand reaches out to touch a knob on a radio.
Taylor says there are radio operators around the world who try to talk to as many islands as possible, making P.E.I. a popular place to be broadcasting from. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

Taylor said a dozen people started the 12-week training program in the fall, and eight passed their exams and are now licensed operators. 

"The most diverse I've ever seen. And I've been teaching off and on this course for 35-plus years. To see the number of women in the course, for one thing, is just tremendous," Taylor said.

"Also, cultural diversity and a wide range of ages from as young as 12 years old."

New voices

Taylor said it's encouraging to hear the new voices over the airwaves. 

"The licence is good for life. So they only expire when you do. But there's enough new blood coming in, I think, to maintain our overall numbers," Taylor said.

A circular-shaped antennae installed in the back yard of a yellow house.
Taylor has a number of antennae of different shapes and sizes in his backyard. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

"But the amount of activity we were seeing, the people actually being on the radio, because that's the big part of this, not just to have the licence but to actually use it. I think that was going down, but it's certainly not going down now," Taylor said.

"Locally, we have a much more engaged population, and even we found some of the old timers, people that have been on the radio for decades, they're more active now because there's more interesting people to talk to." 

A radio operator holds up an antennae he has created, with a tent and SUV in the background.
Amateur radio operators on P.E.I. hold a field day every year to share stories and attract new members. (Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club )

Taylor said he enjoys making contact with people around the world, and even in space.

"I've talked to several astronauts in space, on space stations and shuttles, as well as using satellites to talk to other people on the ground by using the satellite as a relay," Taylor said.

"P.E.I. is quite attractive as a destination for other people's communications because we qualify as an island. We're called North America 029, that's our island designation."

There are people around the world who try to talk to as many islands as possible. So when they hear an island like P.E.I., they definitely want to jump on.—Brent Taylor, Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club 

"There are people around the world who try to talk to as many islands as possible," Taylor said.

"So when they hear an island like P.E.I., they definitely want to jump on, and see if they can get a confirmed contact with one of us."

Storm communications

The president of the Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club, Bill McMaster, said the group has seen an increase in interest since post-tropical storm Fiona. 

McMaster said P.E.I. operators participated in the CANWARN Network that was activated a couple of days before Fiona.

"We had a number of our club members who would check into that net on an hourly basis, and provide weather updates, status reports," McMaster said.

A man with a white beard and glasses holds a hand held radio in a field.
Bill McMaster is president of the Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club, and goes by the call sign VY2WM. (Kirk Pennell/CBC )

"Then once Fiona hit, our club had our own local nets where we would get together on the radio and talk about the status of each of our members — who had power, who didn't have power, who had antenna problems and tried to reach out, make sure everyone was safe."

I think there's a lot of opportunity to leverage the capability of the amateur radio community.—Bill McMaster, Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club 

McMaster said he thinks he and his members could do more in future storms.

"I think there's a lot of opportunity to leverage the capability of the amateur radio community," McMaster said.

"We're in discussions with the provincial EMO on a regular basis, and trying to give them a better idea of what we could do."

'The sky's the limit'

Tracey Allen is one of the newest radio operators on the Island, passing the exam in November. 

"I told one of my friends that I was taking this amateur radio course and she said, 'Are you the only one in the class?' And I said, 'No, actually half the class is women.' It was like, 'Wow,'" Allen said.

"Everybody did it for a different reason. One of the ladies was saying that her father, who'd passed away a number of years ago, he was a ham radio operator and so she wanted to honour his memory."

A woman stands with a field behind her.
Tracey Allen is one of the newest members of the Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"One of them is a 12-year-old girl and she is amazing. She's homeschooled and her dad has a radio setup so that probably encouraged her. So all different reasons really."

Allen has her radio system on order, and is currently using one borrowed from another member.

"Wednesday nights with the new eight of us, we do a newbie net, and so that's where we get to practise," Allen said.

Hand in a blue glove holding a radio with numbers on it.
Tracey Allen is currently using a borrowed radio that is installed in her car while she waits for her own radio to arrive. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"Because there is a protocol of what you do on your own radio. That gets us used to talking on radio and how to use it," Allen said.

"As Brent would say, the sky's the limit. There's just so many different things that you can learn about it. It's quite exciting from a technology point of view."

Organizers said there are plans for another amateur radio training program on P.E.I. in the spring of 2023.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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