Until recently I thought of ham radio much like a boat or swimming pool. Having known amateur radio operators most of my life, I saw it as something that was better to have a friend with one than expend the time and expense myself. One of the first things I did after purchasing my retreat land was obtain the addresses of licensees in my area from the FCC database and plot them on a map just in case I need to seek their assistance later. Having acreage in a secluded community deep in the wooded mountains of Appalachia means cell phone service is not available. In the interest of OPSEC, I personally dragged all the materials over the mountain and through the woods to single-handedly build our retreat. When I was assembling and setting the rafters for the cathedral ceiling and installing the plywood sheeting and metal roof, my wife became concerned I might fall and become injured (despite a safety rope and harness). Unable to self-rescue by hiking or crawling out, if I were seriously injured on Friday, my wife not expecting me back to civilization until Sunday evening would not know to send the neighbors looking for me. It finally occurred to me that even without a license, a 2 meter handhold radio would allow me to call for help because of the emergency operation provision.
I remembered reading in a discussion group that I could purchase a dual-band Baofeng UV5RA Ham Two Way Radio for a paltry $39.98 including shipping. Despite what I read in discussion groups, it took about two minutes per channel to manually program the radio using the instructions I found here. A quick search of an online repeater directory netted a number of nearby repeaters with backup power and/or auto-patch. Like a fire extinguisher one hopes to never need, what I had previously considered a potentially expensive hobby became an inexpensive and practical solution to a real and existing threat.
If I wanted to use the repeater for anything other than a true emergency (specifically thinking about the autopatch), I would need to be licensed. A few more Internet searches netted a local exam and a free pdf study guide. I had a couple speaking engagements that week so penciled in the two weeks immediately proceeding the exam to prepare. I get up earlier than my family and my wife likes me to be there when she watches television in the evenings so I have a laptop on a side table to surf the web during those times. Those were my best (and only) opportunities to study.
Early on day one I pulled up the study guide and started reading. One thing six years of college taught me was that when preparing for a specific goal (in this case passing a test) one is well advised to get the best mental picture of that goal. I did this by taking a practice exam. I soon discovered that what I learned in the study guide did not always match any test answer. The study guide, for example, taught me to repeat “EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMEGENCY” three times followed by my call sign if I needed to break into a conversation in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, that was not one of the multiple-choice answers. I was pleasantly surprised how well I had done on the practice test with very little study. I previously worked in public safety, had a great high school science teacher, and am no stranger to a soldering iron so maybe that helped, but by the end of day one I was consistently passing the Technician practice tests. What was I to do with the remaining thirteen days of study time? I thought perhaps the site I chose did not contain questions similar to all those on the test so before heading off to bed I did some additional Internet research. I was surprised to find the FCC publishes the question pool in advance and that virtually every test site has the entire test pool. While I currently have no interest in doing anything other than using the handheld from my retreat, not knowing what the future holds or even if there could be an event that might make it difficult to advance to a higher license later, I decided to use the remaining thirteen days of study time to start preparing for the General license exam.
I clicked on the link to generate a General license practice test to find both bad news and good. As I expected, there was a lot less crossover knowledge on the General license practice test than at the Technician level. The good news was that several of the questions (or at least concepts) appeared on both exams meaning I did not have to learn as much new information as I expected. Having made a study plan, executed that plan, and measured the results it was time to make improvements. My goal during this two week period was to prepare for the exam. It was not to become proficient in ham radio. There is more to be learned attending club meetings, Hamfests and through an Elmer (mentor) than by reading a book. I spent the first half of day two studying online flash cards at www.HamExam.org. At first I did not try to answer any questions. I only hit the <Submit> button to bring up the correct answer which I then associated with the question by memorizing the answer, learning the underlying concept, or differentiating it mnemonically from the other answers. It appears because I was not answering questions they were being reintroduced along with those randomly selected from the test pool. Once I started recognizing questions I could answer I switched to answering the flash card questions I remembered and focusing on the answers to the questions I got wrong. That evening I started taking the General license practice tests and continually passing them on the same web site. Be warned, however, that once you sign up for an account the site reintroduces questions on which you do poorly to improve your knowledge. This makes test scores drop and no longer an indicator of your expectation of passing. Take a few free tests at paid sites like www.HamRadioLicenseExam.com. I considered preparing for the Extra exam next and took a look at the question pool, but with only twelve days of constantly interrupted time left, I decided to prepare for the Extra exam after I passed the Technician and General exams.
I left early for the half hour drive on test day, but was still a few minutes late for the exam because the directions I had were very poor. I arrived apologetically with my driver’s license and passport which they didn’t want to see and after filling out a license application exchanged $15 for the Technician question booklet and answer sheet. I read the questions carefully, but only skimmed the answers until I found the one I remembered from the practice exams. A few minutes later I handed in my exam which was quickly graded by one of the four volunteer examiners. The grading grid corresponding to my test version was placed over top and with the nod of a head I was assured that I had passed the Technician exam. There is only one sitting fee for the day so there was no extra charge for the General license exam which was noticeably harder. Unable to remember the Google Voice telephone number I was using, I had to turn my cell phone back on to retrieve the number for the General exam answer sheet which prompted one examiner to ask why I was on my phone during the exam. If you go that route (it’s free), make sure to write the number on a scrap of paper because you have to provide it several times on various forms. Another nod of approval along with a comment that I had missed four and I was off to the restroom while they finished my license application form. They invited me to take the Extra exam next, but I declined. I think they wanted to see if I could pass all three in one hour. I had not even looked at that question pool. When I got home www.HamExam.org confirmed I would have only gotten about half right. In all I was in the testing building for forty minutes which is about as long as it took to drive home since I now knew the way.
Although I will be taking the Extra exam at the local club meeting next month to see if I can pass it, I do not know that I will go any further into ham radio. Some of those radios cost more than my 1989 F250. For only $55 I have exceeded my goal. Not only do I have a portable radio that is programmed with transmit, receive, and PL codes for local 2 meter, 70 cm, and emergency responder repeaters, but because I forward the free Google Voice number to my wife’s cell phone before I leave for the retreat I can use the repeater auto-patch to make a local call right to her cell phone which would otherwise be long distance. The radio also acts a a scanner for the frequencies it covers, has a flashlight/flashing beacon, and even picks up commercial FM broadcasts so I can listen to music at night. It can be programmed for FRS, GMRS, and MURS frequencies, but does not meet the idiot proof requirements for certification under FCC Part 95 for those bands. Besides, even the low power setting is twice that allowed on FRS. Nevertheless, I am ordering a N9TAX Slim Jim antenna from 2wayelectronix.com so I can better broadcast to all my bubble pack FRS/GMRS radios in the event the FCC ceases to exist.
In closing I want to say do not be discouraged if you need to study a little longer. I had eighteen years of public education which was focused on the ability to pass tests. Learn the correct answers to the questions, get licensed, then join a local club if want to actually learn to do more than make emergency calls. – 73