SMETHPORT, PA. – Sometimes, an amateur can do a lot.

Ham radio operators, for instance, can do a variety of community-service tasks, noted Carole McNall, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University and a holder of the general license for amateur radio users.

McNall, who lives in Olean, recalled a recent radio network conversation between operators. “They were going to help coordinate traffic at the Santa Claus arrival in Jamestown,” she said. “They have coordinated traffic at races and things, and I suspect the same would happen about the time we get a slightly more organized group around here.”

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That “slightly more organized group” was scheduled to meet for the first time the week before Christmas at the McKean County Emergency Management Agency, 17175 Route 6.

And, starting Jan. 21, the agency’s EMCOMM Team will offer a five-Saturday course to help interested people obtain an Amateur Radio Technician license. Classes will meet through Feb. 25, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., followed by a review and test March 4, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The class will be free, but $20 fee will be charged for the textbook. Interested parties must register for the class by Dec. 28 by contacting Bruce A. Manning at bmanning@zitomedia.net. Because of limited spots in the class and the need to order textbooks, RSVPs are required. 

McNall explained that the technician license is the lowest of three amateur radio grades: “There is technician, there is general, and there is amateur extra. The license you have indicates how much of the amateur radio band you can play on.”

Manning said obtaining the technician license is not difficult.

 “There are several publications available and online practice test to see if you are ready for the real test,” he explained. “You don't need to be a electronic engineer, just a desire to learn. By having the class taught by seasoned amateurs we can give a lot of one-on-one help to the students.”

Steve McNall, who is married to Carole McNall, completed the Amateur Radio Technician course early this year. Because "the weather held out," he said he did not find the commute between Olean and Smethport to be at all difficult. He described the course itself as "available and at a convenient time and not a long distance from most anyplace in general area."

He added, "One gets chance to actually learn about ham radio rather than learning questions and answers to questions. And the price is right."

The book  provided "fairly good reference," said McNall, adding that his wife, who did not take the course, used the book to before taking her licensing exam.

Carole McNall pointed out that amateur radio interaction is different from what she does hosting her weekly show on the university's campus radio station, WSBU 88.3 The Buzz.

“The amateur radio service is not the same as broadcasting,” she said. “A couple of people know how much I love playing around The Buzz. They are like ‘oh, well…’ No, it is a different deal. In fact, explicitly by the FCC rules, you are not a broadcaster. You are not aiming to put music out there. It is maybe an older form of a cell phone, but you can also invite multiple people into your conversation.”

Carole McNall added that becoming a part of the amateur network is easier today than it had been in the past.

“It used to be that learning Morse code was required to get an amateur radio license,” McNall said. “It no longer is, which is the reason both people in my household have them.”

The benefits for getting a license and potentially starting a club go farther than just simply having fun, according to McNall.

The ultimate goal of the course and club is community outreach.

“To provide a trained group of radio amateurs to assist the served agencies, also it is a lot of fun,” Manning said. “We do all kinds of activities, including operating from home or in the field, or from your car. We do contests, lots of them in many different modes including digital, SSB (single sideband) and of course CW or Morse Code.”

Carole McNall said, “I hope to bring up the visibility of ham radio to people that maybe have not heard of it. I would love to see it eventually be [visible enough] that maybe some younger people would go ‘oh hey, that looks like fun.' ”