Brigantine has long been the home base to the Shore Points Amateur Radio Club, or SPARC, a group of what are commonly called ham radio operators, who communicate with others around the world via radio, and are sometimes asked to assist first responders in emergency situations.
SPARC's roots date back to 1974 when its home base was in Pleasantville and the club was initially called RAM, or Radio Amateurs Menagerie. Its membership has fluctuated in size over the decades, at one time approaching roughly 200 South Jersey hams, who are required to secure Federal Communications Commission licensing through a series of tests and levels of proficiency. With each progressive level, ranging from novice through amateur extra, more radio frequencies become available for use to the licensed operators.
Members meet monthly at the Brigantine Community Center, and two or three times per week there are networking sessions, called “ham nets,” in which several operators participate in de facto practice sessions for potential emergency situations.
“We meet there on certain frequencies, have fun and talk about the weather and things, but that's not the real purpose for the sessions,” said SPARC member Gary Paul, who was first licensed as a ham operator in 1983.
“The real reason is, if the you-know-what hits the fan, there's someone who's running what they call traffic to help with potential emergencies, like getting an ambulance to a scene, assisting the Brigantine police or fire departments if they're overloaded, that sort of thing,” he said.
SPARC operators played a key role in backup communications during severe weather conditions such as Superstorm Sandy and the derecho that took down power lines, disabled cellphone towers and crippled many conventional modes of communication. Ham operators transmit and receive signals on a designated spectra of UHF and VHF frequencies that use, or are backed up by, battery power.
Typically a radio signal is transmitted to a repeater — an electronic device ideally placed on a high structure that strengthens the signal and can link it to other repeaters — or other means of signal relay to create a network with incredibly far-reaching capabilities.
“There's something magical about your piece of equipment working with someone in California's piece of equipment with no Internet or phone relays — just pure thin air between my station and that station,” said SPARC member Rick Hitchen. “And the further that contact is, the more fascinating it is.”
Art Holmes first got licensed as a ham radio operator more than 50 years ago.
“It's a lot different today than when I first got into the hobby,” Holmes said. “Back in the day you had to do at least five words per minute of Morse code just to get a novice ham radio license, and that's not a requirement anymore. But I still feel as though there's something in amateur radio that would interest almost anybody.”
Paul called the hobby the original Facebook or Instagram.
“Every time I get on I talk to someone who knows something I didn't know, and you might call it my thirst for knowledge that keeps me involved,” said Holmes' son David, who is the group's secretary. “If you're into learning new things, particularly about electronics or mathematics, it's a field where there's always going to be something new to learn.”
Bob McFadden is another member whose interest goes back decades.
“I got away from it for a while, then when my wife passed away I got back into it,” he said. “I love the fact that you can make friends all over the world. There are people you can talk to on the other side of the ocean every night if you want to.”
Occasionally there are major conventions that allow global operators to meet face to face.
“I've spoken with people from Australia on certain radio frequencies, and then got to meet them at conventions,” Paul said. “It's cool getting to meet in person the people you'd been talking to on the other side of the world.
“I just enjoy putting stuff out there — putting up repeaters and sitting back and watching and listening to it being used,” he added. “That's what I love most about ham radio.”
Art Masker is a SPARC member and president of the Southern Counties Amateur Radio Association, whose origins date back even further than SPARC. He is also the assistant emergency coordinator for the Atlantic County branch of Auxiliary Emergency Communications, or AUXCOMM, whose members are required to gain Federal Emergency Management Agency certification.
AUXCOMM is frequently called on to provide communication support to events like the Bike MS: City to Shore, a fundraiser that involves more than 7,000 bicyclists traveling across South Jersey each September.
“It's learning, it's talking to people, it's helping people during disasters and assisting in special events — that's what I love most about this,” Masker said.
For information see sparc985.com or search SPARC 985 on Facebook.