FOR YEARS, AS a coordinator for the West Seattle Grand Parade, Jim Edwards had to rely on eyesight, hollering and hope. “I’d just be looking down the street and saying, ‘I hope everything’s OK down there,’ ” he recalls. When the West Seattle Amateur Radio Club had an entry in the parade, they asked whether he could use their help.
By the next year, he’d gotten a radio operator’s license, and, “It’s just gone along since then,” he says. He hooks his radios and a laptop to his motorcycle, which he now uses as a mobile base.
For ham radio operators, connecting from separate locales always has been part of the fun. With in-person socializing temporarily absent during the pandemic, it’s even more important.
On top of its regular events, the West Seattle club added a daily noon check-in last year to give everyone an extra chance to say hello and to let others know whether they needed anything.
“If we haven’t heard from someone in a while, it might end up with someone going and knocking on their door and asking, ‘Is everything all right?’ ” Edwards says. “We keep tabs on each other.”
The West Seattle club is one of a few in the Puget Sound area, which, I learned, is packed with an extensive network of radio infrastructure. (To find a club, go to the American Radio Relay League website.)
In some ways, amateur radio is the perfect pandemic activity. It has always been about reaching through space to connect to people who aren’t physically nearby.
“I think it does a really good job of creating community on every scale,” says Curt Black, the West Seattle club’s current president. People of different ages, backgrounds and physical abilities can use it to connect.
The club typically has a couple of meetings a month (meetings are online these days). Sometimes, members will arrive early and stay late to help each other with technical problems or answer questions.
When I think of ham radio, I think of sending a message across radio waves, around the world, to eventually connect with some random person on the other side of the Earth. And people from as far away as Australia have used Seattle repeaters to connect.
But much of what ham radio folks do is more local. Some are trained to help out in an emergency or disaster; Black says local radio operators helped coordinate rescue efforts after the Oso landslide, for example.
They also teach those new to radio, and help them prepare for the tests required to get various FCC licenses. (I was a bit sad to learn that Morse code is no longer a requirement. But if you like acronyms, you’re very much in luck.)
Online resources like hamstudy.org make it easy to get started, but fellow radio fans are always eager to answer questions and help newbies figure out how to apply their knowledge in the real world. “It’s what I would describe as a lifelong learning thing, which is what I love about it the most,” Black says.
It’s also not as old-fashioned a hobby as I would have thought: While you can use old-school equipment if you want to, computers and Wi-Fi networks are part of the modern radio equipment arsenal. “When people get into it and find out what the capabilities are, it blows them away,” Edwards says. “That’s what’s fun — finding out what they can do with it.”