In my last article I talked about basic heat safety tips and mentioned my suggestion regarding having a ham radio in your vehicle for road trips, etc. Before I get too deep into this article (and incur the wrath of the flaming emails from the many licensed ham radio operators out there), I want to go on record as saying, you need a license to operate a ham radio in a non-emergency situation.
Broadcasting on amateur radio frequencies without a license, in anything less than a true emergency, can easily cost you up to $25,000 in fines even if it is your first offense. While the law says you can use a ham radio in a true emergency, there is no provision that allows you to use to practice and learn how to use it unless you are licensed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you won’t get caught. Licensed amateur radio operators (hams) are very quick to report violations and usually have the technology to locate you in a matter of mere moments, should you broadcast in the licensed spectrum without a license, in anything less than a life and death emergency. Just don’t do it!
Becoming a licensed ham radio operator really isn’t that difficult for the most basic of licenses. There are currently three different classifications of FCC licenses available. The most basic level is called “Technician”. The next level is called “General” and the highest level of license is called “Amateur Extra”. With a Technician license, the operator can use what is known as the 2 meter (VHF) band along with a few other bands. With a General license, the authorized frequencies becomes much more open to the licensee including privileges on all HF (high frequency) bands and the very real ability to communicate world wide. Finally the Amateur Extra license gives the most privileges to the licensee. In addition to the frequency ranges available to General licensees, the Amateur Extra licensee has additional frequencies that are only available to them.
Currently, in the United States, the number of licensed amateur radio operators is at an all time high. As of March 4, 2015, there were approximately 730,000 licensed hams (not including those with expired licenses waiting to renew). Of these, about 48% are Technician class license holders; 23% are General class and 18% are Amateur Extra. The remaining 11% are older type licensees that have been grandfathered in (Novice and Advanced). The state with the most licensed operators is California with over 102,000 and a distant second is Texas with 52,000.
Testing is required for all classes of the FCC Amateur License. To obtain your Technician class license, you must pass a test (usually administered by your local radio club) which consists of 35 multiple choice questions. There are currently 426 possible questions in that testing pool, but only 35 of those on the actual test. You must get 26 correct in order to obtain your license. It gets more difficult with each class of license. The General question test pool has 462 additional questions. That test is also 35 questions and 26 correct are required to pass. The Amateur Extra is even more difficult at 702 addition possible test questions, 50 of which will be on the exam and you must answer 37 of those correct in order to pass.
My wife (callsign: KR5SIX) is a General class operator and I (callsign: KV5SIX) am an Amateur Extra class operator. I will admit, I think she only took her tests to make me happy. I’m the nerd in this family, but it is nice to have the ability to communicate world wide with nothing more than a radio, an antenna and a car battery. She and I have used the radio, numerous times, when cell phones are not working. Most notably when I am traveling through cell phone “dead zones”.
One time, my son and I were near the Rio Grande head waters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. We were driving along a gravel roadway high in the mountains. The road quickly, and without visible signs, became nothing but mud and our truck sank to above its axles. He and I spent the next several hours trying to free the truck. We eventually made it out (obviously), but it was not a very pleasant day. We were about 20 miles away from cell phones being able to work and Ranae (my wife) was located back at our cabin several miles beyond that. We had no way to reach her or call anyone for help. I vowed right then and there to always keep a ham radio in my truck. I could have easily used the ham radio to call for help. A simple tow truck would have saved the day and my son’s and my backs.
Obtaining your license is pretty simple for the Technician class license. Classes are often taught by local radio clubs. I have taught many and am happy to help mentor anyone wanting to obtain their license. If you are interested in obtaining your license, feel free to send me an email or leave a comment on this week’s article on http://AccordingToVern.com. It’s worth noting, there is no longer a requirement to learn Morse Code to obtain a ham radio license. At the Technician level, the test is mostly about safely operating your radio and very very basic electronic theory.
Here in the rural part of Texas where I live, it is not uncommon to completely lose cell phone coverage. It happens everywhere out here or so it seems. With ham radio, I am able to stay in touch and talk to my wife (and others) whenever I am on the road. I thoroughly believe in the necessity of everyone having a backup plan to “modern” communication systems like cell phones, etc.
When the people of Moore Oklahoma had the terrible tornado, the entire community lost the ability to use cell phones immediately. The local emergency management officials requested help from licensed radio amateurs. I, and hundreds of other licensed hams, participated in that call-up and passed several messages on behalf of Moore residents wanting to get word to their families in other parts of the country. This is just one example of the saying “When everything else fails, ham radio still works.” We gave those families a peace about their loved ones’ safety. It was a great feeling to say the least.
Ham radio is also used quite extensively during less severe storms. Storm spotters, working on behalf of the National Weather Service and their local communities, almost always use ham radio to report what is happening in their area to the National Weather Service. This is because it is the fastest and most reliable way to do so.
In summary, I think you should get a ham radio for your vehicle if for no other reason than if you are ever in an emergency situation. I highly recommend you go to your local radio club and begin the process of becoming licensed. If you need help, just send me an email. I am quite happy to assist anyone wanting to obtain their license. And please remember, the time to learn how to use a ham radio is not the first time you truly need it.
Note: on my column’s website (http://AccordingToVern.com) there is a great video featuring the director of FEMA and his comments regarding the importance of ham radio. It’s only 3 minutes long but it is ABSOLUTE GOLD!
Vern Six is a freelance computer programmer and entrepreneur. He is a United States Army certified survival expert and former Christian missionary. Vern has been a hobby blogger for nearly five years and now has his “According to Vern” blog published in numerous newspapers around the world. You can learn more about Vern by visiting his website at http://AccordingToVern.com