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Monday, January 9, 2012

Get and Use Your Ham Radio License, by Mrs. R.L.B.

Amateur Radio RigImage by Joshua Fuller via Flickr

Original Article

Just because there is a sewing machine in my house doesn’t mean I think any of my family members can sit down and sew a dress.  The same goes with your ham radio.  If you are one of those folks who bought one for when the SHTF thinking you will be able to just set it up and use it, you might be unpleasantly surprised. Why not make sure you have a ham radio license and become proficient with your radio?  It’s probably a good idea to dust it off anyway and make sure it is still working.  Some have internal RAM chips that die after so many years (ICOM 745 and 751A) and should be upgraded internally.

There are many good reasons to get your ham radio license now for the practice and camaraderie you can enjoy now before the SHTF.  As a ham radio operator, I have had a lot to learn even after getting the license, including which equipment to acquire and radio and antennae set up.    Despite fears of losing OPSEC, there are ways to manage location issues and I think the benefits of practice now far outweigh OPSEC risks.

Getting the technician license is not “technically” difficult.  For all levels of ham licenses, the technician, general and extra, ham radio stores like HRO (ham radio outlet) have study guides with the questions and the answers in the back.  When taking the test, it will be the same questions from the same question pool.  You can Google your local ham radio clubs to find a point of contact on the exams.  Usually there is a small fee (about $5) for the exam.  After you pass, the examiner will send your application to the FCC and a few days later your license comes.  The license is good for 10 years, regardless of if you upgrade before then, and you simply get online to renew it.

The technician license allows you to use the 2 meters and higher frequencies found on repeaters everywhere.  Hook up a mobile radio in your car or truck and you are in business.  Your local store or club will most likely know someone who can do an installation if you are uncomfortable installing one in your car. The radios for use at technician level will give you some range locally, but some repeaters are linked together on a system and will give you an extended range.  For instance, in California there are groups of connected repeaters so when a net is held, you can hear people from the Los Angeles area down in San Diego.  A net, by the way, is when one person acts as a control operator and ham operators check in from all over the area and say hi, give news, and also can advertise ham equipment for sale.

The next level up is a General Ham license.  This is the level I have and recommend as a minimum to serious preppers.  Now you can broadcast worldwide and with that comes the practice of setting up some serious antennas, measuring SWR (standing wave ratio) and other important skills for being able to operate a radio.  While Morse code is no longer a required skill for attaining this level, it’s something I’ve chosen to learn and practice.  It adds a layer of privacy.  By FCC rules, we cannot not legally conceal the meaning of a message.  But having a little Morse code under your belt when no one else is required to learn it helps reduce who will understand it.  Having said that, be mindful that there are plenty of old timers out there who still know Morse code. Enough said.

Going the next step to get an Extra Ham license does give you more frequency privileges.  Trust me, studying up for this exam is tough. You may not need this level for prepping and knowing how to set up your equipment, but you can decide for yourself after you’ve attained the General level.  There are plenty of ham radio books to supplement what you might need to know, including books on basic electronics.

So let’s talk equipment: There are several sites on the internet to buy a used radio if you are on a budget.  I am hesitant to recommend buying a radio on EBay unless you carefully check seller feedback and/or are doing it for spare parts.  Some sites for used equipment are www.eham.net or http://swap.qth.com/.  Also check the web site www.qrz.com/.  Do your research.  But I think the best source of used equipment is through the contacts you make in a ham radio club or on a net.   You are more likely to get good reliable equipment or good information on equipment because after the sale you are still in contact with that other operator, and they know they will hear from you if something goes wrong.  I was able to get a wonderful ICOM set through another ham, because he knew an older ham whose health was failing and needed to sell the equipment.  I saved big bucks, and the gentleman got the money he needed.  Equipment also gets sold when a ham operator passes away (called a “silent key”) and family members don’t know what to do with the equipment.  I have seen ads for large radio towers that are free, but someone has to disassemble and move it.  As some of the towers are huge and weigh a few thousand pounds, it’s not always an easy thing to do.  Many hams have extra equipment that they’d like to sell as they upgrade to other radios, and the older equipment is still very viable   I recommend to anyone who is looking to buy used equipment to do their research and talk to other hams.  Find a mentor or an “Elmer” as we call them.  I have an Elmer and he has been superb!  He got me into a club and on a net, and I plan to branch out a little more in the future.  The club and net are an invaluable source of information.

I have also bought some new equipment through the local ham radio store.  It’s nice to go in, learn about the options and see the equipment.  I get help with my purchases if I come back with questions about set up.  I have found that Yaesu radios are a little harder than ICOM radios to “understand” their set up, and it’s not because I’m blonde.  They also sell computer software on the side for programming Yaesu’s.  Supposedly that’s easier.  Glad I am not learning how to do this in TEOWAWKI.

For an antenna, the simplest one to install is a dipole.  Simply running an elevated wire horizontal to the ground, a length depending on a wavelength ratio, with a feedline is the cheapest way to go.  But there are so many other types of antennas, there may be one that is better suited to your situation.  A Yagi, or directional antenna can assist you on tuning in to a more distant frequency.  There are a variety of portable antennas available as well, and many hams pack up and travel to distant locations for the fun of working remotely from places.  There are specialized antennas for vehicles.  ARRL has a an entire book devoted to just antennas.

You may want to consider starting with hand held radios, UHF/VHF.  If you get your General license, you can get hand held radios with upper HF range.  Remember, the lower the frequency the greater the range as a general rule.  Repeaters add to the UHF/VHF range, but are less private than using simplex frequencies.  I have a hand held that goes to 6 meters, the range is better and there are some 6 and 10 meter repeaters out there, too, just not as many.  I have used my hand held in one of my cars with a larger antenna outside the car, and when I am not in the car, I screw on a smaller antenna for walking around.  Some hand-helds as well as “desk style” ham radios transmit data as well.  There are so many applications in ham radio and so many ways to configure for your personal preferences.   If the internet goes down, you can still transmit a message!   It can get  expensive, so do your research as you go into this to be sure how you would best see yourself using a radio to get your needs met.  This is where a good Elmer can really help.

Other skills picked up from ham radio like soldering and understanding electronic theory has come in handy when repairing other household items.  Like many things in my life, the skills learned in one application have come in handy in other applications.

Encourage your family members to get their licenses as well, and make Christmas and birthday presents of ham equipment where you can.  Practice with those family members just as you would try to reach them in TEOTWAWKI.  This will help you know what frequencies work best for that distance, solar conditions, time of day, etc.  Yes, it all changes!  Isn’t this a better time to find out how to use your radio like a pro rather than when you really need it?

Being part of the recent San Diego blackout, I can tell you it was hard to get through on the cell phones, but I got on my VHF radio and could communicate. (Yes, I’m moving out of Southern California!)   On the local repeater I was able to hear why we had a blackout, how extensive it was and what was happening on the roads.   My neighbors knew none of this, as even the local radio stations went down for awhile.   I heard one gentleman with medical problems asking for help because he needed electricity for his medical device.  The emergency net was hard at work getting emergency care to him.  Wouldn’t this be a great option to have for your family?

After the blackout, one of the tasks I took to heart was identifying several repeaters that were annotated in a repeater directory as having emergency backup power.  I made a comprehensive list and passed it to family members.  Yes, emergency power may be time limited, but it’s a few extra hours of communication with family that may make all the difference in a bad situation.  A repeater directory can tell you what repeaters may be most helpful.  Again, practicing with the repeaters is important.  I have dialed in many a repeater to learn that no one else appeared to be using it, it was inoperable or that it had incorrect tone information.  Glad I know now.  Also learning which repeaters are physically accessible to your location is important, for instance, if you are in a valley or dip, you may not be able to hit it.

A bit about OPSEC:  when you put down an address on your licensing application, it is one more thing that becomes public record.  If you are worried about future uses of that personal information, (i.e. equipment confiscation) then using a different address than your retreat address may be something to consider. [JWR Adds: Consider any mention of your callsign in any public venue essentially the same as giving someone your street address, since all licensee addresses are available in a matter of a few moments, by visiting QRZ.com. And if you have an unusual surname, you can have your address found there, as well.] The address has to be [a physical] one the post office can deliver to. Also you can plan to take an exam in a different region as call signs are assigned based on regional areas.   If someone really does want to find your radio, they can do so using DF (direction finding) equipment.  You can make this more difficult for locating by limiting the time on the radio, having preset times and frequencies planned ahead for when you feel you might be at risk of this.  Knowing the distance your signal has to cover, and using appropriate bands now will better your chance at effective, concise communications when you really need them.  Another thought on OPSEC with regard to your radio, some come with features that allow another user to display location.    This feature is called APRS, for Automatic Position Reporting System.   Depending on your situation, it could be an asset or a liability.  I choose to avoid this feature.  Also consider how you buy your radio:  is there a record of the purchase?  Some stores track who the radio is sold to and of course there’s a record with a credit card purchase.  New equipment means there is a warranty registration, etc.  Here is where buying a used radio can be a real advantage.

There are many roles that ham operators can play in disaster preparedness, whether it’s just for your family or operating in a disaster scenario on a larger scale.  It’s a personal choice.  The main point I hope to drive home to you is that it is not a simple thing to just set up a radio and antennae and operate it.  Like many of the skills we practice now for survival tomorrow, it must be exercised, practiced and learned.  When you need to reach family and agree it’s time to get out of Dodge, you will want to be able to hear them answer you back.  73 to all.





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