There are many ways to get on the air and communicate. One may simply walk into any big box hardware store and walk away with walkie talkies (known in amateur radio and HT or handy talkies) that will let you communicate, depending on conditions, a half mile or 0.8 kilometers. These radios and the frequencies they are assigned by the FCC are designated as Family Radio Service (1) or FRS. The radios are limited to 2 watts transmission power. They may also be Multi-Use Radio Service (2) (MURS) and again assigned specific operational frequencies and are limited to 2 watts. CB or Citizen Band Radio Service (3) many people are familiar with. It is limited to 4 watts. GMRS or General Mobile Radio Service (4) has the advantage of being limited to 50 watts, but the station’s antenna may not be higher that 20 feet above the earth. GMRS also requires a license. The license does not require an examination. Only registration with the FCC and payment of a $70 fee for 10 years. The others are free, no license required.
Why all the palaver? These services are all local, line of site. The Reston CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) group conducted a survey of the area with FRS and MURS radios and found that in some cases they could not communicate more than 50 feet, 15.25 meters, due to the surrounding buildings, trees, and hills absorbing or blocking the signals. CB radios are not much better. GMRS has the advantage of having specific frequencies set aside to allow them to operate on GMRS repeaters. A repeater listens to a specific frequency and retransmits on a different frequency The GMRS HT’s are programed to transmit on that repeater’s listening frequency and receive on its transmitting frequency.
Except for CB radio, all these methods of communication are in the UHF/VHF (ultra/Very high frequency) and Amateur Radio operates there as well on 6 meters into the microwave range. These higher frequencies allow communications with satellites and even with the International Space Station! There are Hams that use meteors and the moon to communicate with other Hams on the other side of the globe. These other radio services can even make it out of the atmosphere because of power limitations and FCC restrictions.
So why is Amateur Radio (5) so special? Simply put it is the frequency allotment with in the Low and High Frequency spectrum. Citizen Band operators are notorious for operating “skip.” CB operates on 11 Meters (26.965 MHz to 27.405 MHz) and cannot penetrate the Ionosphere. In fact, it is reflected back to earth where other CBers can receive a signal, sometimes 500 to 1,000 miles or 800 to 1600 kilometers away. But there is a dead zone between the local receiving radius and the long-distance radius. But what about further than that?
Fairfax County is host of the Urban Search and Rescue Virginia Task Force One (6). This group has been invited to assist in disaster recovery efforts all over the US and around the world. In 2011 they were deployed to Japan after the tsunami cause by the Tohoku earthquake (7). They also went to Nepal in 2015 and in 2018 went to support recovery efforts in Florida in 2018 after Hurricane Michael. In all these cases power and telephone service was limited. But in Fairfax County Emergency Operation Center (EOC), ARES Hams were called in to operate long range communications with Task Force One. These ARES members are trained in the communication protocols that seamlessly allowed the deployed team to communicate with the Incident Commander in the EOC.
I am a member of CERT, class 141, and last year was vetted and made an official member of Fairfax County ARES. I participate with the 2 Meter ARES radio net that uses the Northern Virginia FM Association’s (8) (NVFMA) Tyson’s Corner Repeater. NVFMA is open to all amateur radio operators use. This repeater would be used to coordinate emergency communications within Fairfax County.
So, how does one become a Ham radio operator? First one goes to the FCC’s web site and obtains an FCC ID number known as an FRN (9). It is used in place of a social security number to Identify a license holder.
Then there are the Exams. There is no longer an Element One which was a test of one’s ability to send and receive Morse Code, sometimes referred to as CW or continuous wave mode of transmission. Element Two is the Technician Class, which is only 35 questions and requires a 75% score. It covers FCC rules, some math, some electronic symbol recognition, some knowledge of propagation and some basic electrical safety. It will give privileges for voice communications on the UHF/VHF bands and CW on HF. The cost is $15 dollars and the exams are administered by Volunteer Examiners from some of the local amateur radio clubs. There are some licensed Ham who are only 8 years old. Generally, if one passes the Technician exam, the VEs will offer the General Element Three exam for free. If Element Three is passes Element Four, Amateur Extra, will again be offered for free. There are some very young amateur extra operators, one I know is only 11 years old (10). All the girls in this video are Extra Class license holders. The youngest is 11.
Why become a Ham? I did it to serve my community. I did it to be able to talk to people all over the world. I did it because I wanted to talk to the International Space Station. And I have done that.
You can find me on QRZ.com. Just enter my amateur radio call sign. KN4QIC.
73 <- Goodbye in Ham speak