–What is the quickest way for a beginner to learn the basics and how much does it cost?
There are License classes given by many Ham Radio Clubs, by CERT or Red Cross groups and some local government preparedness programs. These classes are usually done over several short sessions or two or three weekend sessions. Classes usually run from 10 to 20 hours and are often scheduled to end with an exam session where the students take the actual FCC exams for their Technician Class Amateur Radio License. The Test is $15 (+/-) and includes the FCC processing and license fees. Classes may be offered for free or there may be a small charge. The purchase of a book ($15 to $28) may be required but you keep that as a reference book for the future.
–What equipment would you recommend for people that don’t have a lot of space and have no room for large antennas and such? What is the ideal location within the home?
The Technician Class license gives you some operating privileges on most of the ham radio frequency bands and full privileges on the 2 meter (VHF) and 70cm (UHF) bands where most of the emergency communication for a local area will take place. The radios for these bands are mobiles mounted in your vehicle with a small (18 inch or so ) antenna on your vehicle as well as base mounted units for your desk with a small 3 to 6 foot fiberglass antenna outside a window. While these base units may not fit well in an apartment community many city bound hams primarily use a handheld walkie-talkie radio for these local channels. The radios range in cost from $100 to several hundred dollars depending on the list of features and accessories you desire.
How do these small radios cover any distance?
While ham radio can support emergency communications without infrastructure and we pride ourselves on that ability, it does not mean that we do not have infrastructure. Most areas have ham radio “Repeaters” which are installed by individual hams or clubs on building tops or towers in the community. Similar to a cell tower, these repeaters on high places receive the signal from your hand held radio and retransmit them from the high tower to other hams that you may want to talk to and then their signal is relayed back to you when they talk..
Ham radio also has a large presence in the “Short Wave” bands where we can talk to other hams around the world by bouncing a signal off of the upper layers of our atmosphere and back to earth thousands of miles away. The technician License includes a very small allocation for this world wide communication but it is there. If talking to other countries is what excites you then an upgrade to the General Class ham license would be the next step. It involves more radio theory but can usually be mastered in classes similar to those we have described.
How does someone find a school?
The best source for Amateur (Ham) Radio training and information is the local Radio Club. Search for Ham Radio in your city, call your emergency management office for CERT and Red Cross related groups, some Radio stores may have info on Ham Clubs in the area or check with www.arrl.org for an ARRL affiliated club in your town.
Our thanks for Mike Fletcher for answering the questions above.
Before you Buy Equipment
Before even considering equipment, the first step to get started is to join your local ham radio club. They would have equipment that you can get familiar and practice on, under the supervision of a licensed operator.
If you find that you like to get more involved with ham radio, you will also be more likely to find contacts for used ham radio equipment and help you set up your own.
A few more resources:
World Radio TV Handbook 2012
Ham Radio for Dummies
Equipment Reviews from eHam.net
I used to think ham radio would be too complicated and out of reach for apartment preppers. After learning more about it, I now think it is very doable. And, if you try out equipment with experienced operators before you buy, there is no risk of wasted time and money if you find out it’s not for you. On the upside, if you find it interesting, you will have an additional mode of communication in the event phones and cell phones don’t work during a disaster.