Thursday, April 23, 2020

Amateur radio, a hobby for the social distancing era

During the coronavirus crisis we’ve been told to be socially distant and remain two meters apart.

Coincidentally, two meters is a very popular amateur radio frequency range which, locally, has taken on special meaning during the statewide shutdown.

Every day, at 11:00 a.m., local amateurs -- called “hams” -- get together on the Lockport Amateur Radio Association’s repeater (146.820 for all of you with police scanners) to check in, check on others, offer camaraderie, and provide help – such as shopping errands or donations of food and supplies -- to shut-ins or the ill who desperately need it.

That daily net, frequented by 20 to 30 radio operators, has served as a beacon of hope, support and love during these difficult times.   

That speaks to the value of ham radio as a two-pronged pursuit: It’s a hobby and a public service.

For hobbyists, it gives people of all ages the chance to learn about, work with, and develop radio technology that will allow them to communicate (by voice, Morse code, or computer) with fellow ham radio operators around the corner or around the world.

From a public service standpoint, amateur radio operators provide communications when storms and other natural disasters wipe out phone networks, cable, and electricity or when societal upheavals like Covid-19 turn the world upside down.

You might be familiar with amateur radio by its presence in pop culture.

The movie “Frequency” starring Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid had a plot based on a geomagnetic storm that allowed a ham radio operator to talk to his deceased father decades earlier, which then allowed them to change the course of history. Tim Allen’s character on “Last Man Standing” is an amateur radio enthusiast and his hobby has played a part in quite a few episodes of the show.

You might also recognize amateur from its presence in the community.

If you’ve taken part in events like the Ride for Roswell you’ve seen a small army of men and women with handheld and mobile radios serving as communications support and observers for the riders. Perhaps you’ve seen the folks from LARA showing off their ability to communicate worldwide at the Niagara County Fair.

Getting licensed to take part in all this is an easy task. A few years ago the Federal Communications Commission abandoned the Morse code requirements for its permits, an obstacle that had proved difficult to many (especially the young) and had prevented them from entering the hobby. Now, you just need to pass a written exam, knowing radio and electrical theory as well as the FCC’s rules and regulations. There are plenty of study guides available and many of them actually provide the hundreds of possible questions and answers that the 35-question exams pull from. With time on your hands because of the coronavirus shutdown there’s no better time to study! 

Once the State opens back up, you will be able to take the exam under the watchful eye of local hams. When that time comes, information about the exams and amateur radio in general can be found at the website of the American Radio Relay League (

Back in 2011, I got my radio license (KC2ZZW) from the federal government after decades of participating in other radio pursuits like CB radio and listening to the police scanner or shortwave radio.
In my first days on the air I talked to exotic locales like Argentina and St. Thomas with my modest low-power station. Since then, I’ve talked to more than 80 different countries and more than half of our states.  

I also use ham radio, specifically VHF frequencies like the aforementioned two meter band, as a lifeline. In many areas where I enjoy the great outdoors in New York (like Allegany County and the Adirondacks) there is no cell coverage, but my tiny walkie-talkie can reach ham radio repeater systems listened to by area hams. That offers peace in mind and preparedness for any sort of emergency you can encounter in the wilderness.

While the Internet has made the world a smaller place -- allowing us to log on to our Facebook and Zoom accounts to share messages with friends and family around the globe -- there’s still a place for the joy and service afforded by ham radio. It’s pretty exciting that you can use a small box of electronics and a wire antenna to talk to complete, but welcoming strangers, on every continent or in every neighborhood.

In this era of social distancing, is there a more perfect hobby?  

From the 27 April 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, April 17, 2020

Trust businesses to manage health and restart the economy

Amidst the various state shutdowns we keep hearing from governors and other state officials that public health and the economy need to be managed simultaneously and you can’t have one without the other.

I agree, but not enough attention has been placed upon that belief because, for the most part, economic considerations have been cast aside. In most cases the response has been “we will be convening a committee.” Will be.

Granted, the governors need to be focused on prevention and rectification of Covid-19 cases, but they shutdown almost everything without giving much concern for damaging or re-starting the economic engine despite access to the considerable number of bright minds in various economic and health functions of the states’ sometimes oversized governments and the academic and business leaders (like me) more than willing to volunteer and participate in discussions about how to gradually and safely start the economy.

Trust the resources available. And, while doing so, trust those who run American enterprises, large and small.  

You can’t help but feel that many governors have never really immersed themselves in the operations of the private sector. The dog-and-pony shows that they get at ribbon cuttings and press conferences have done little to educate them on the finer nuances of what actually happens on the shop floor or behind the scenes.

If they did have even a passing understanding they would know that businesses manage health and economic functions as a normal part of their business.

Take Confer Plastics for example.

Many readers of this column have toured the plant as members of local organizations or they went through the factory during our various anniversary open houses (a community celebration of our 50th will be coming up in just a few years). You might even have seen us on TV news reports. While doing so, you saw swimming pool and spa supplies, docks, kayaks, and more being produced by very large machines and being finished by our excellent team of coworkers.

So, you know the environment in which they work and that should give you insight into the limitless safety protocols that are necessary to ensure their safety. The mammoth machines are powered by 440 volts, have tons of hydraulic pressure, and generate considerable heat; there are moving parts and auxiliary equipment galore that require safety features and training; and my team has to understand personal protective equipment, safe lifting and much more.

As the owner of the business it is my responsibility – and a power entrusted in me by local, state, and federal governments…and my coworkers  – to make sure they are safe.

But, I don’t do it alone. Safety is a team effort.

We have an open door policy. 30 people sit on my safety committee that meets regularly to offer ideas and solutions and follow-up on them. The various managers train, observe and protect their teams. My coworkers look out for one another. Many take classes and read up on the latest safety procedures to understand how others put controls and training in place. Every year, I invite the New York State Department of Labor in to conduct an OSHA-style inspection of our various worksites, a true public/private collaboration.

We invest a lot of time, energy and money in making sure our “i”s are dotted and our “t”s are crossed when it comes to the well-being of our team.

While what we do might seem special to those who have never worked in industry, most of our brothers and sisters in the US manufacturing world do things along those lines. And, so do other workplaces in other economic sectors, based on the health and safety concerns that exist in their workplaces. No one wants anyone to get hurt and we – business owners, managers, workers, governments -- all try our darnedest to make sure they aren’t.  

It might seem foreign to governors who’ve only spent their careers in the public sector but employers do have solutions; they can manage health and be productive at the same time. They always have and they always will. If employers are provided rules and guidance about keeping their employees and customers safe from Covid-19 they will follow them. They will also make their own internal policies and procedures that will further enhance safety. We do such things every day. It’s old hat to us.

This is what we, as a society, need to capitalize on in order to get our economy safely back on track under what could be long-lasting concerns over Covid-19. This could be a cyclic or ever-heightened event that changes how we do things for the next two years or more.

Not doing anything is not the answer.

Trust is the answer.

Trust employers to make the right decisions. Never discount the abilities of those living the American Dream when it comes to innovations and adaptations in everything they do.

Managing the coronavirus outbreak is absolutely critical. But, so is getting the economy running in some fashion -- whether intermittently, gradually, or in smaller volume. Both can be accomplished quite well, by the same things that drive safety in our businesses every single day: care, controls, education, teamwork, and public-private partnerships.

From the 20 April 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and the Batavia Daily News

Friday, April 10, 2020

Celebrating dispatchers, the forgotten first responders

Sadly, it too often takes a crisis – be it 9/11 or a local catastrophe – to cause Americans to really celebrate the value that first responders bring to society.


We’ve seen that admiration in spades of late as impromptu parades, homemade yard signs, and press briefing commentaries by county, state, and federal executives have shined the spotlight on police, firefighters and ambulance crews for dealing with what the coronavirus crisis has thrown at them and our communities.


Even so, almost every one of us is guilty of, at one point – and, for some folks, always -- overlooking one subset of first responders who also deserve accolades, those who are actually the first of the responders – the dispatchers. Dispatchers are special public servants who are, in a way, the first on the scene. They may not be responding to the scene itself but they are responding directly to the people involved – those who need saving and those doing the saving.


The amount of stress placed upon dispatchers is considerable as are the skills and abilities they need to navigate their duties. Just ponder the following possible chain of events that happen once a call comes in to the 911 center.


The communicator has to calm the harried caller, be it a victim of domestic violence, a witness to an accident, or someone tending to a loved one who has taken ill.


Then, the dispatch team has to figure out the appropriate response – who, what, why, where and how. This gets tricky sometimes if the team has to use multiple forms of cellular and satellite technology to triangulate calls and ascertain location and the unique obstacles it may pose.


That team then calls out the appropriate police force and fire/EMS personnel, all while giving them the proper details and setting the table for them so they know exactly what they are heading into so they can be mentally and physically prepared and, above all, safe.


The dispatcher on the phone must often educate and help a stressed caller handle the event they are in, whether it’s leaving a danger zone, hiding from an attacker or doing critical first aid like administering CPR or the Heimlich maneuver or stopping a deadly bleed.


The individual at radio control must help coordinate and monitor all communications of the various agencies and departments on scene and determine if more help is needed and call for that accordingly.      


That’s just the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much more that needs doing. There’s a lot going on with just one call to 911.


Obviously, our multitasking dispatchers have to wear many hats – communicator, coordinator, and counselor. All of those tasks have to be handled with immediacy – every second matters with emergency calls – and with preternatural calm so the callers aren’t put into further distress and the other first responders can be directed and can direct with confidence.


It really takes a special person to be a dispatcher.


As someone who religiously listens to Niagara County dispatch I can attest to their professionalism, expertise and genuine humanity. We’re blessed to have them serving the citizens and their brothers and sisters in the public safety world.


This week, by regular practice and not because of the Covid-19 crisis, is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week during which the workers of dispatcher centers are recognized for doing what they do. Most often, a Sheriff’s Office or a Police Commissioner’s office will hold a small ceremony or post something on their social media extolling the virtues of their dispatchers.


The dispatchers deserve a tip of the hat from us, too.


If they’ve ever been there for you maybe you could drop a kindly letter in the mail explaining how they helped you through an emergency. Or, maybe the next time you find yourself calling 911, you could end the call with a simple “thank you”.


Those are two words they don’t hear enough.  


From the 13 April 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News