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Blog | A Primer on Amateur (Ham) Radio

In my Survival Guide for the New Millennium, I mentioned that I feel that "independent radio communications will be very important in the future." When the predicted events happen, you won't be able to pick up a phone and dial 911 and have the paramedics show up.

For a short time after Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai, Hawaii (Sept 11, 1992), the only communications link between Kauai and Oahu was by amateur radio (ref QST Feb 1993 p 19). Kauai had been completely "cutoff" by other forms of "modern day" communications (cellular telephone, satellite links, etc). Amateur radio emergency communications also played an important role in and after Hurricane Andrew hit Southern Florida the month before (August 1992). Hams (amateur radio operators) provided emergency communications during the storm of the century (on the East Coast), the flood of the century (in the Central US), and other numerous disasters this past year.

Getting your amateur (ham) radio license has never been easier to get than it is now. The entry level into ham radio doesn't even require that you learn the Morse Code. This entry point is called the "No-Code" Technician License. To get this license involves studying and taking a written test, administrated by fellow hams. These hams are qualified as VE's (Volunteer Examiners) and are certified by the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) and conform to FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulations. The No-Code Tech license has limited privileges, but is an excellent way to get started. To advance to higher classifications of licenses with more privileges will involve learning the code, if you so choose.

If you are interested in preparing for the No-Code Tech, license there are several good books available that will help you. Probably the most accessible ones are available at Radio Shack and are "Now You're Talking" and the No-Code license manual by Gordon West. Either one is adequate for learning the questions and answers to the tests and informing you on how to contact the testing centers in your area.

When you have committed to getting your license, you may want to contact and join the local ham club. Nearly every area has some sort of ham club. As an example, in Dallas I am a member of the Dallas Amateur Radio Club (DARC). Often the clubs hold classes for getting your license. Fellow hams are willing to help a newcomer: to get started, advance, or help locate license testing sites.

When you get your license, you may want to get involved with the SKYWARN activities. This is an organized radio net(work) to watch and warn about weather related activities and other emergency activities. They are handled by either the RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) or a similar group ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service). This involves joining the group and participate in training and when qualified, participate in severe weather watches and emergency situations. It is a good way to get formally involved in and experience emergency situations.

Amateur radio equipment can be expensive or relatively inexpensive. As a no-code tech you have privileges on the amateur "band" known as 2-meters (same as the 144-Mhz frequency). One of the best buys on new equipment for 2-meters is the Radio Shack HT-202 hand-held (walkie-talkie) rig for $260. The range on this unit is fairly limited (1 to 10 miles) by itself, but when used with an existing "repeater" can cover a relatively large local area (sometimes up to 60 miles or more). Besides hand-held rigs, there are mobile rigs that are designed to install in your car and work off the car's 12 volts DC. And then there are base station rigs that are rated anywhere from 100 watts (the power of a 100 watt light bulb) up to 1500 watts. The base station rigs typically run off 120 VAC (or 12 VDC and a power supply to work with 120 VAC) and under some conditions (when atmospheric conditions permit), can talk all over the world. As an example, with my ICOM 725 transceiver running 100 watts, I have talked to England, South America, Hawaii and all over the US. My rig cost about $1000, but you can spend much more if you have the money and desire to have a really good station.

When you start looking at ham equipment, you will want to do several things. First, you will want to see if there are any ham stores in your area, and if so, visit them. You can usually find these in the yellow pages under "Radio Equipment." Also there are a number of good ham radio magazines, these include: QST, CQ Magazine and 73 Magazine. Check out the ads in these to locate mail-order equipment suppliers. Another possibility is used equipment. The ham club is the best way to locate used equipment. In some locations there are electronic or ham flea markets or at times you may see equipment listed in the classified sections of the newspaper.

If you are already a ham with General Class license or above, you may want to join us on the "STAR Net" held on 15-meters (nearly) every Tuesday morning at 21.340 MHz (depending on the band's propagation) at 1400 UTC (or 10AM EST and 9AM CST, etc)(note 1).. The net control is Ed Zane, amateur call N2JLE, in North Carolina. My call is KJ5DB and I'm located in Carrollton (Dallas)(note 1). If you don't have your license, but do own a short-wave receiver, you can listen for the net.

Finally in closing I want to recognize that there is another option, but not nearly as good as amateur radio for emergency communications, and that is CB (Citizens Band) radio. The disadvantages to CB communications is that it is usually very disorganized when trying to communicate, and is (legally) limited to 5-watts output power with which to operate. The advantages are that it doesn't require a license and equipment is more readily available and comparatively inexpensive.

I hope this little primer provides you with information that will help you get your ham license. If you do get your license, give me a call, either on the land-line (telephone) or on the air.

Sincerely Byron KJ5DB

Note 1: The net is not currently active. And I'm not longer located in the Dallas area.