“Almost any ham will tell you of their fascination with being able to put a piece of steel in the air, connect it to a radio and be able to talk to someone on the other side of the world,” he said.
Retzer, a resident of Sloan, is an eight-year member of the Lancaster Amateur Radio Club, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this past month.
So, what is ham radio? Aside from being described as a “friendly, high-tech hobby,” the answer is a form of emergency response communication that federal and local governments can use when their systems are down.
“One of the things I point out to people when I’m trying to explain the hobby is that after Hurricane Katrina, ham radio operators were the first ones to have a reliable communication system going in and out of the area,” said Calianno, who is a florist. “We are totally self-sufficient.”
Calianno added that the club helped residents send more than 60 “health and welfare radiograms” to loved ones who were taking refuge in shelters after the hurricane hit. It also aided town officials during the October Storm in 2006 when all other communication systems were inoperable.
The radio club’s public service component also reaches out to larger public events, working behind the scenes to ensure that the health and safety of community members are the highest priority.
Steve Piotrowski, vice president of the LARC, said that each year, approximately 75 ham radio operators support events such as the “Ride for Roswell,” where they work behind the scenes with Roswell volunteers to monitor, control and dispatch safety communications for more than 7,400 bicyclists who break their bikes or may be too tired to finish the race.
Piotrowski, a resident of Clarence Center, retired from the Amherst Police Department in 2011 and now works as a consultant for Erie County in emergency communications.
He said that before the Internet and the affordability of long-distance telephone calls, when someone was overseas or stationed in the military, ham radio was one of the ways people could get messages back to their families.
Piotrowski added that anyone interested in joining the club must take an entry-level exam to obtain the initial license, as the radio operation follows the rules and regulations of the Federal Communications Commission. People don’t have to be engineers but should have a basic understanding of technology and electronics and how the two work, he said.
There are three classes of licensing: Technical, General and Extra. Extra Class licenses are authorized to operate on all frequencies allocated to the amateur service.
“As you get a higher license, you are able to use more radio channels and frequencies and get into the shortwave bands,” Piotrowski said. “That’s what allows you to use long-distance communications that travel overseas.”
And with each license issued, so is a call sign. Retzer, a retired police K-9 instructor, is known as K9KVN on the radio waves. He added that call signs are one aspect of ham radio that has evolved during the last quarter century. It’s typical for a ham in the Western New York area to include the number 2.
“The number in the call sign generally told you what part of the country the ham was from,” Retzer said. “Now that has changed because society has become so mobile. People are moving to Florida and Texas, and they obviously take their call sign along, too.”
Exams are offered bimonthly at the LARC’s clubhouse on Pavement Road in Lancaster. As a benefit, the first year’s membership is free to individuals who choose to take the test at that location.
Various accounts detail the origin of the word “ham” to describe amateur radio operators, but according to the LARC website, it refers to a name used early on by frustrated commercial operators when competing with the amateurs for time and signal supremacy.
The club, which has 94 members from throughout Western New York, comprises men and women of various occupations, including truck drivers, ministers, engineers, physicians and funeral directors, all drawn together by the common hobby.
“It’s given me a whole new group of friends with all different interests,” said Karl Hutchinson, W2KTH, an Amherst resident and flight test consultant. “It has broadened my horizons, and it’s a case of not always associating with people who do exactly the same thing you do.”
Joseph Gearhart — WV2NY — the club’s president, agreed. Gearhart, a Sloan resident, is no stranger to delivering correspondence. The Postal Service worker said giving back to the community and the country is very satisfying.
“You enjoy doing what little part you can,” he said. “I never imagined a radio club could do anything like that. When everything else fails, at least you can pass messages that can give people peace of mind. That’s always a good feeling.”