First responders of the airwaves

Every Saturday morning, at around 9 a.m., a group of older men gather at A&W to drink coffee. But these aren't just seniors shooting the breeze or reminiscing about their childhoods.

Every Saturday morning, at around 9 a.m., a group of older men gather at A&W to drink coffee. But these aren’t just seniors shooting the breeze or reminiscing about their childhoods.

They’re members of the Yukon Amateur Radio Association. Despite the name, the men and women in this organization are professionals, said association president Terry Maher.

Each one has a licence from Industry Canada to operate their radios, he said. Maher, who is originally from Oregon and moved to Whitehorse from Alaska in 2007, also has a licence from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States.

They’re only called amateurs because they don’t get paid, he said. The organization gets money from government grants. But the approximately 50 members of this not-for-profit organization provide an invaluable service to the community.

They and their radios can be found at public events, like the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay from Haines Junction to Haines, Alaska, or the Klondike Trail of ‘98 International Road Relay. They do presentations for Boy Scouts and have a trailer set up at Canada Day celebrations.

These events allow members to hone their skills, said Maher. Permission to use the radio spectrum comes with a big responsibility: to provide communications in emergency situations, including natural disasters.

“It comes with the ticket when you take the test and get your licence,” said Maher, who is also the director of emergency services for the organization. “It’s just how it works.”

Operators have their radios on all the time, he said. They can listen in on conversations happening around the world, and join in if they want, but they always have to leave space in case there’s an emergency, he said. Some of the members have radios in their cars. If something happens, they need to be ready to respond.

There are over 20 repeaters across the territory, said Maher. They’re located along major highways, including links to Atlin, B.C. and Haines and Skagway in Alaska. By 2014, they hope to have a repeater up at Watson Lake, he said.

And they’re looking to have antennas installed at Whitehorse General Hospital, as well as the hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City, he said.

From the receiver on top of Haeckel Hill, he can connect to people around the world. Some of their receivers are at NorthwesTel’s sites. The company lets them use the sites for free.

But the amateur radio association uses different equipment. Besides the repeater on Haeckle Hill, none of the repeaters on the amateur radio system use commercial electricity, he said. These equipment differences kept hand-held radios working last September, while cellphones across the territory failed.

Hand-held radio operators stay on top of power failures, he said. “We’re all spread out throughout town, and we start calling,” said Maher. By 6:30 a.m., he had over a dozen operators ready to go wherever they were needed. Besides a number stationed throughout Whitehorse, there were operators in Dawson City and Haines Junction ready to go as well.

In an emergency situation, a hand-held radio could save someone’s life. Not many people see them or know what operators do, said Maher. But his members “provide a service nobody else can,” he said.

“When new technology goes down or breaks, or doesn’t work, we can break out old technology and make it work. Because we’re players, experimenters, it’s just, it’s what we do,” said Maher.

He’s been at it for a while now. He caught “the bug” in his 20s when a friend of his first wife’s introduced him to hand-held radios, he said. He first took the test for the licence in 1970, but the FCC lost his paperwork. He remained interested in the radios, however. In 1994, he got into it again and got his licence.

Maher, who has been a volunteer firefighter, sees this service as a way to give back to the community. His main interest has always been emergency services, but the radios can also provide communication support at sporting events and community activities.

And sometimes, they can just provide another way of socializing. This hobby of his has allowed him to talk with people from around the world, he said.

I’m a “rag-chewer,” said Maher. It’s a term for radio operators who like to talk.

He’s spoken with people from Australia, and he knows of one volunteer who had a conversation with a man in Antarctica. He’s had “all kinds of conversations,” he said. In one of them, he learned how to make maple syrup.

A good number of the organization’s members are getting older, he said. In some cases, that’s made them eligible for federal grants for seniors. But it also means Maher is going to need to work to recruit more members.

He already knows one person he’d like to see get her licence. His Canadian call sign is VY1AK. In the Yukon, people can pick their call signs. Most choose their initials, but Maher’s are the same as his wife’s. He’d like to see her get a licence one day.

The YARA meets the first Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Emergency Measures Organization building near the airport. Or, interested individuals are always welcome to pull up a chair Saturday mornings at A&W.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at