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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Become a HAM Radio Operator in 10 Easy Steps

I wish we could get more young people interested in HAM (amateur) radios. When I was a kid, HAM radios, shortwave radios, and CBs were THE cool communications tools that kids were interested in. With text messaging and computers, the hobby radio industry has become almost obsolete which is unfortunate because it only takes one good disaster to reinforce how important being able to communicate via radio is. Here's ten easy steps that will both introduce you to an interesting potential hobby and make you extremely useful during a disaster:
  1. Study the exam materials and take your Amateur Radio Technician Level license exam. You can study alone or take a class in order to prepare for this test which will give you an entry level license so that you can officially use a HAM radio. Check this link for more info.
  2. Once you have your license (and call sign) you will want to connect with local HAM radio operators to get more information on radios, HAMNets, local amateur radio clubs and organizations in your area, etc. Find a club here.
  3. After you have connected with local HAM radio operators and picked their brains about what kind of radio you may want to buy, buy a radio. Hamcity is one place to buy online, you may have local radio stores in your city, and of course you can Google for additional places to buy your first radio.
  4. Learn how to properly use your HAM radio. Taking the Technician's licensing course gives you an overview of HAM radio use, laws, etc. What it doesn't do it teach you how to use your new radio. Local HAM clubs (see #2) are usually full of radio aficionados who would be more than happy to teach you the basics about using your radio.
  5. Get more involved with the HAM radio community. "Hamfests" are very popular events which draw all kinds of HAM radio enthusiasts; they also feature sales of radios and HAM related items, HAM radio competitions, etc. Click here to find local events.
  6. Use your skills to help the community. ARES and RACES are two services that use volunteer HAM radio operators to help with communications during a disaster. These local groups meet on a regular basis and participate in drills and exercises by offering radio communications at places such as fire departments, hospitals, and other critical services that will need radio operators during a disaster.
  7. Experiment with your radio. Subsets of the HAM radio community do all kinds of fun and interesting things with their radios--from integrating their radios with computers to "contesting", to seeing how far away they can contact people, to building antennas that could signal Mars--there's all sorts of challenging (and educational) things you can do with your radio. Check here for ideas.
  8. Advance your capabilities and privileges. You do this by seeking higher level general class and amateur extra class licensure.
  9. Mentor others. Once you have the knowledge and skills to become proficient at using your amateur radio, share your knowledge. You can do this by becoming a volunteer examiner, teaching courses through your local club, helping your local Boy Scout troop earn their radio badge, etc.
  10. Do other things to support amateur radio. You can donate to organizations that support amateur radio (like ARRL), donate radios to organizations that could really use them but can't afford them (rural volunteer fire departments), become a leader in your local HAM organization, etc.
Learning how to use an amateur radio is still a viable, and valuable, skill. When the power goes out and all other communications systems go down--as we've seen in the Haiti earthquake, and during Hurricane Katrina--HAM radio is going to be the ONLY way to communicate. Why not learn this valuable skill now before you need it?