This article first appeared in On The Air magazine.


by Brad Rodriguez, VE3RHJ

Want some more fun with ham radio? Here's a ham activity which gets you outdoors with a bunch of friends, promotes ham radio, helps your neighbors, makes you feel good about yourself....and can't be done with a cellular phone or the Internet. Too good to be true? Read on...

Many civic groups need volunteer communicators for special events. These groups don't have the equipment, much less the training, to handle their communications needs. This is where you and your buddies step in. Volunteer to be their radio operators! It's easy, it's fun, and they'll be very, very grateful. All you need are some 2m handhelds and a few hours of spare weekend time.

Here's how it worked for my club, the Georgian Bay Amateur Radio Club. Each year we provide communications for the Terry Fox Run, and the Santa Claus Parade, in Owen Sound, Ontario. We begin by meeting with the event organizers, well in advance, to tell them who we are and what we can do. (Actually, we've been doing both of these events for several years now, so they know what we can do. But let's assume you're starting fresh.) We stress the fact that we are communicators, not traffic wardens or security guards. This keeps our job focused on what we do best, and keeps us from being drafted for all sorts of drudgery. Then we ask them what their communications needs are, and where they would like some radio operators stationed. Sometimes they'll ask our advice on this.

For the 1997 Terry Fox Run, we stationed five operators at crucial turning points around the 5 km course. We also had an operator at the course starting-and-ending point, and an operator standing by with the ambulance. We had three tasks:

1. Make sure the runners see the turns in the course. (Okay, it's not radio, but we were communicating important information to the runners.)

2. Report the progress of the runners to the starting/ending point. (Operators around the course announced the progress of 'tail-end Charlie' as he passed their positions. That's how we knew when to head for home.)

3. Watch the course and report any emergency situations (like a fallen runner). This is why we stationed an operator with the ambulance. Fortunately, this precaution was uncalled for this year...but when it's needed, it's our most important function!

The Santa Claus Parade is run by the local Kiwanis club, and they know how to work efficiently with us. We placed several operators along the parade route, each teamed with a Kiwanis member who handled crowd control. We also put two operators in the parade assembly area (where all the floats are getting lined up), and one operator with the parade organizer at the start of the route. Finally, we stationed an operator with the TV crew covering the parade. Their jobs were:

1. Help get the floats lined up in order. Our "assembly" operators inform the parade organizer as the floats are getting lined up. She then tells us if there are any missing or out-of-sequence floats... it's her decision what to do. We report when missing floats turn up. (Sometimes they're waiting elsewhere along the route; sometimes they joined in the wrong place.)

2. Relay changes from the parade organizer to the TV crew. The TV camera is stationed near the end of the route, and as each float comes into view, the announcer reads its name from a list. We help them keep the list "up to date" so that last-minute changes don't mess them up.

3. Report progress to the parade organizer (who can't see very much of the route from the starting point). We can tell the "downstream" people when the parade has actually started, and the "upstream" people when the last float has passed.

4. Relay requests for parade control. Sometimes the parade bunches up, and sometimes big gaps form. We pass messages "upstream" to tell them to slow down or speed up the floats. Sometimes we have to tell them to stop the floats, as we did one year to let an ambulance in.

What makes the system work is that all the operators are on the same frequency, and can hear everything that's going on. For me, that's half of the fun. (It reminds me of my college days when I worked part-time at a TV wouldn't believe some of the repartee that passes back and forth among the TV crew's headsets.) But it's also great to be out there showing off the hobby, and to get smiles and "thank you's" from the participants and bystanders. It gives a warm feeling to watch the kids smile, and to know you've helped with a worthy cause.


1. Start small. Our neighboring club, the Blue Mountain ARC, is big and enthusiastic enough to man a two-day event. But our limit seems to be six to ten operators, for three hours. No worries -- there are plenty of small events!

2. Plan ahead. Don't just have everyone show up the morning of the event. Meet with the event organizers to find out their needs. Try to get all your operators to commit beforehand, and have some plan for where they will be stationed. Choose a frequency and make sure everyone can reach it. (Don't laugh -- I still need to read the manual to program my wife's handheld. And my handheld doesn't have the CTCSS tone required to activate some repeaters.)

3. Repeater or simplex? We've done it both ways. The repeater can give you wider coverage, but you're going to monopolize it for three hours. If you're going to use a repeater, DON'T use a busy one, and make sure you have the permission of the repeater owner. Simplex won't tie up the repeater, but sometimes the far ends of the route can't hear each other. If you're going to use simplex, DON'T use the calling frequency 146.520, put your stronger radios (mobiles in cars) at the extreme positions, and put your net controller in the center.

4. Have a net controller. If more than two hams share a frequency, no one knows whose turn it is to talk! This is the job of the net controller: everyone calls him when they need to talk, and he indicates who goes next. Most messages can be addressed to him, for everyone to hear:

me: "VE3RHJ."
control: "Go ahead VE3RHJ."
me: "The last runner has just passed me."
control: "Okay...thanks."

If you need to talk to someone else, ask the net controller for permission, keep it brief, and make sure to tell the net controller when you're done:

me: "VE3RHJ."
control: "Go ahead VE3RHJ."
me: "Is VE3XXX on frequency?"
control: "VE3XXX, are you there?"

At this point either the net controller can hand control to me, or I can take control directly. It all depends on how you decide to run things. VE3XXX and I converse, and when we're done, one of us will return the frequency to the net controller with something like:

me: "VE3RHJ, back to net control."

This can be more or less formal, depending on your needs. The net controller also checks everyone's radio signal -- whether it's repeater or simplex, make sure that you can be heard!

5. Stay disciplined. When times are slack, you can pass trivia and news along to the others, but when things get busy, keep your transmissions short and to the point! During busy times it's especially important to always work through the net controller. Otherwise two stations will try to talk at once, and NO communications will occur.

6. Have relief operators. "When ya gotta go, ya gotta go." If your plan won't allow operators to leave their posts to answer the call of nature, designate one person to fill in as needed. Remember that the net controller may need relief too...make sure the relief operator knows what's happening on frequency.

7. Use a speaker/mic, or an earpiece. On my first parade, my arm got tired holding my handheld to my ear for three hours, and its dinky little speaker couldn't compete with crowd noise! At the very least, get some cheap "Walkman" style headphones and plug them into the earphone jack. You'll probably only hear one side with stereo headphones, but that's ok. You only need to grab the rig when you need to talk. Better still is a speaker/mic that clips to your collar (all the dealers sell them). My favorite is a Radio Shack headset with boom microphone and PTT switch. Don't use the VOX; crowd noise will set it off.

8. Charge your batteries. I've been guilty of going to an event with nearly-dead batteries; it can happen to you. Remember to give them a full charge. Take a spare battery pack if you have one. Take a spare rig if you have one!


One reason we enjoy our hobby, and our generous frequency allotment, is that ham radio has a long and honorable tradition of public service. Most hams think this means "emergency communications," but helping with civic events counts too. I've been a ham for decades and haven't faced an emergency yet. My neighbors may never know that I'm ready to provide communications if a tornado tears through town. But a lot of them do know me as that nice guy who helped with the parade, and this makes them think well of ham radio. Some even ask how to become hams themselves.

But, truthfully, I don't think of this when I'm out on the parade route. I work special events because they're fun!