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Thursday, 05 May 2011 09:53

Local ham radio operators recruited to report extreme weather

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By Susan Quinlan
Southern Alberta
Self-proclaimed computer geek Gary Wheeler is putting all his technology skills to good use these days, serving as the emergency co-ordinator for a group of amateur ham radio operators recently trained to report extreme weather conditions to Environment Canada.

“You can’t live here and not be captivated by the weather. You can put on seven layers of clothing and by the time you’re ready to leave, you’re down to a

T-shirt,” said Wheeler, 54.

Having grown up on an acreage east of Lethbridge, Wheeler recalled some of the mammoth storms of his youth including the notorious blast of 1967, when it took his dad 12 hours to go a mile and a quarter operating a grader.

“It was insane. All these weather phenomena … how can anyone be raised here and not be fascinated by the weather. It gets your attention, one way or another,” and in general, said Wheeler, ham operators have a keen interest in changing weather conditions as well.

Wheeler said ham operators, as a rule, are a group  willing to get involved, when weather conditions get out of hand. They provide communities with support in the form of communication.

“Ham operators can load up their gear and report back from wherever,” said Wheeler, whose own interest in ham radio operation started in high school with a work experience program.

While in that program, Wheeler was introduced to scanners and began listening in on various frequencies, so his interest naturally expanded to ham radio operation. As well at that time, he developed an interest in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, where ham radio operators volunteer to assist public safety agencies in the event of a disaster, filling the communication void created by downed phone lines and power outages.

Given his interest in ham radio operation, which he fears may become a dying art, and his ongoing interest in the weather, Wheeler decided to explore an opportunity to get involved in CANWARN, a volunteer organization of ham radio operators which reports severe weather conditions to Environment Canada.

Wheeler said after expressing his interest to Environment Canada and to ham operators throughout the region, Bill McMurtry, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, came to Lethbridge and trained the group of 47 operators from various towns throughout the south, in everything from storm spotting to extreme weather reporting.

“Now if we see something going on, we phone Environment Canada and it goes both ways.”

Environment Canada will call members of the group, asking about current weather conditions.

Among members now reporting to Environment Canada is Lethbridge Senior Citizen Amateur Radio Club President, Joe Vander Beek.

Involved in ham radio operation since 1972, Vander Beek said a neighbour’s involvement is what sparked his own interest and he’s enjoyed the hobby ever since. As well, like Wheeler and most operators, he has an interest in the weather.

“An interest in the weather goes together with amateur radio quite a bit ... I didn’t hesitate to join the new group.”

He also has prompted other seniors to join.

“It keeps the mind sharp,” said Vander Beek, who said one member in the seniors’ club is in his 80s and has kept up the skills he initially acquired as a radio operator during the Second World War.

The point, said Vander Beek, is operators are not actually amateurs; they have to know a lot about the equipment, and are counted on to provide communication service during severe weather and in other emergencies.

Should a natural disaster occur in the south, there’s no cause for alarm in regards to concern for not hearing about it in time, said Vander Beek.

The group has broadcast systems set up at the Lethbridge hospital, the old court house and the local Red Cross, complete with generators to ensure communication lines remain open.

For others who share an interest in the weather, check out Wheeler’s weather website where readers can find detailed daily analyses, five-day forecasts, a live-view of AMA webcams, and various other information all regarding the conditions outside (

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