My First 30 Days as a HAM

Those of you who have been reading for a while (or those that know me personally) understand how compulsive I can be when I am interested in a subject. When I was about 12 years old, it allowed my brother and I to drive ourselves to learn to juggle…rather well, and all without the assistance of Google or YouTube.

These days, with free will (ok, mostly free) to do what I please, I get to throw myself full-tilt into a project, pastime, or hobby, until I’ve either given up trying (rare), or, mastered it (more often), or gotten distracted by some other shiny object (SQUIRREL!).

That last one really gets mesidetracked sometimes…

 

…but not so with my Amateur Radio (HAM) infatuation. I’ve been a licensed Ham operator since Christmas Eve, the day my call sign was published by the FCC. While I had owned a VHF/FM programmable radio, the Bao Feng UV-5R+, since mid-November, I was unable to legally transmit on any of the Ham frequencies.

 

Nets

So I waited….like a kid a week before Christmas, ironically. And the day after Christmas, I called in to my first “Net”, or community ragchew and trader on-air gathering. Two days, and I was jumping in…nervous :)

I was nervous because I didn’t want to screw up. You see, everyone on the air hearing me would know I was new, they wouldn’t recognize my call sign, something you announce at the beginning and end of each conversation, as well as at least once every ten minutes while talking.

But I did it. And enjoyed listening to all of the banter. A “Net”, to me, is simply the same as a bunch of people sitting in front of of a barber shop, telling stories to each other, and/or catching up on how their day went. Only these folks talking with each other all are physically isolated from each other… sometime by hundreds or even thousands of miles. Ham brings people closer together :)

 

On my second Net, I recognized a woman that tested with me, who was also new to Amateur Radio. Her neighbor was a licensed Ham, and had helped her get set up with practice test material, as well as helping her choose and set up her radio.  It turns out, her neighbor, John Amodeo, only lives in this area part time. He is a TV producer in California, on the show “Last Man Standing“, where Tim Allen plays a character that happens to be a Ham operator.

Here is a quote from IMDB regarding John:

John Amodeo is a licensed Extra-Class ham radio operator, call-sign NN6JA. He has broadcasted live via ham radio on occasion from the “Last Man Standing” set, which includes an actual working ham radio station.

 

EchoLink

John’s EchoLink actually logged into one of our local Nets via an internet/Ham merged technology, called EchoLink. While speaking on the Net, we found out that 29 of the cast and crew on the show have now become licensed Hams. Awesome!

I installed EchoLink for myself, I was so impressed with how well it worked. It is a rough equivalent to Voice Over IP communication, only with the end comms being Ham radios…or smartphones!

So, I installed EchoLink on my phone as well. Here is the Echolink page if you want to read more. Please note that it requires a valid call sign and identity verification before you can install it.

I have now have calendar reminders for every Net that is within range of my radios. I can also log in to several of the local Nets via my cell phone’s data connection to join in, if I am out of the area and away from my radios.

 

Radios

Speaking of my radios, I mentioned getting my Ham license on Facebook a couple months ago, and a friend contacted me, asking if I wanted the old dual channel ft-7900radio out of his sailboat, a Yaesu FT-7900R. My friend was selling the sailboat, so no longer needed a Ham radio on it. This particular radio served as their sole means of communications many times while the spent a couple years sailing.

The radio was older and well used, and needed a little work cleaning it up, but fired right up when I hooked it to a 12volt battery as a test. It is a fantastic radio, and from the reviews I’ve read, it is considered the “Toyota Corolla” of the dual band Ham radios. It offers a large selection of bells and whistles not found on my little UV-5R+. Fantastic! (THANKS Mike & Brenda!!!)

Being a “portable” radio, looking like an old CB from my childhood, the FT-7900R requires 12 volt power. I swapped for a low voltage LED power supply with the proper amperage, something that I’ve learned since starting into the hobby. I ran wires to get the control head near my desk, while the base and antenna are sitting across the room. It is NOT pretty, but it is functional. (I know my wife will read this – Babe, I PROMISE to make it a more permanent setup that doesn’t look like it is thrown together, or acts like a trip hazard like it is now.)

 

Emergency Services

Last week, I participated in a dry run for a Federal Nuclear Disaster Emergency Drill. All I did was check in, give a location report, and recheck at any point that I moved around. I believe I will be getting more involved with these types of things. I like to contribute to my community. I also like to have as much advance warning for anything bad that might be heading my way. Being part of the emergency communications in my area gives me an inside track to disaster information…this might be the one thing that saves my family from bad things. As Billy Idol said in Cyberpunk, “Information is power and currency“. In an emergency, this statement is absolutely true. (If you listen to the clip, he also goes on to say “mistrust authority”… also mighty accurate :P)

 

Amateur Radio Clubs

Over the last 30 days, I’ve met several dozen folks, and without exception, each and every one of them has offered to help me in some way, all I had to do was ask. Several have, with no strings attached, offered to lend me radios that are bigger/badder/stronger/better than what I currently use. I’ve had multiple offers to have a crew come over and “Tweak” my setup, if I needed it. I’ve declined all offers for help so far, wanting to gather information, as well as learn how to use what I already have. When the time comes, I’ll be happy to have all of these nice folks available to help.

 

Lesson in OpSec

One person in particular turned out to have a similar interest in Ham as I do, the “Prepper” angle. He was sitting across from me while we were listening to a speaker tell about his setup that included automatic generators, water purification, and ice machines all put together as a secondary emergency shelter and operation center for a county government ( the speaker owned multiple radio stations, an is a big player in the radio industry, both broadcast stations as well as Amateur Radio).

I muttered something about having almost as much water purification capabilities as this county setup included. Upon hearing me, my new found friend shushed me, and later told me not to talk too much about that kind of thing, else some of the other might label me as “One Of Them”.

I told him that I WAS one of “them”, but agreed to not rock the boat.

Sometimes I forget that I’m one of the few that considers 90 days of food a good investment, but home, health, and car insurance no more than government-enforced gambling. I did end up finding that many of the members of two clubs I am now am a part of are also “gun toting nut jobs” as one of them put it.

Good to know :)

 

Volunteering Yields Education

Tower Climb
I “assisted” with a tower climb.
That is NOT me at the top…

Last Saturday, I “assisted” in a tower climb for an antennae installation. Being the youngest member of the club (as far as I am aware, that is) at 44, I felt I was obligated to help. Plus I’m the new guy, I was fairly certain I needed to show both my enthusiasm, as well as be available for any hazing I might be required to be a part of (there was no hazing, thankfully). I learned a 5 gallon bucket full of things about radio, antenna construction, the local county Emergency Operations Center, and oddly enough, rare dog breeds (ever hear of a dog breed called “Canary Dogs?”)

I also got to spend time with my new acquaintance with the similar interests, learning more about Amateur Radio. My new friend spent several hours talking with me about options, methodology, tricks, techniques, personalities,  education, and other Ham-related information, to the point that my eyes started to glaze over. I also helped clear out some old equipment, and was given one of the offset antennas that was being replaced.

 

Personal Accomplishments

I’ve learned more about what my equipment can and cannot accomplish. I have had great success with reaching all areas that I normally work, having spoken with Hams as far as 45 miles (straight line) away via a repeater.

I have sorted out several car mount issues I’ve had with my UV-5R+ handie- talkie. I now have a serviceable setup that goes with me whenever I leave my house. And I’ve found that talking to other Hams while driving is a great way to pass the time. With the forced polite nature of waiting for the other party to stop talking before you speak, it makes the communication far less distracting than a phone.

 

Moving Forward

To sum it all up, I’ve really enjoyed participating in my local Ham community.

Yes, Amateur Radio is still new and shiny to me. Will the polish wear off eventually? Possibly. However, my license is good for ten years. Using the equipment in a live environment has shown me that “knowing” how to use it and actually USING it are far different.

For those that believe that they can buy one and put it away to be used in an emergency, you should know it simply won’t happen. The learning curve isn’t steep, but it IS there. Get the license, then practice, practice, practice. Then, when you NEED it, you have it, and KNOW how to use it.

 

Three more Things

  1. The test is NOT difficult.
  2. There is a fantastic support group for both getting licensed as well as improving your skills and understanding.
  3. Owning equipment is not the same as knowing how to use it. Being able to use gear is important when you are under pressure. Practice is the key. The only way to legally use Ham equipment is to get the license.

 

I’m actually a little annoyed that I didn’t do it sooner.

Peace,
db

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17 comments:

  1. Thanks for the posting.I have no experience with HAM radios but would like to get involved and become licensed. Any suggestions on first steps or a good beginner/intermediate set-up? Thanks. Harry Gilder

    1. The first step is to go here:
      http://www.arrl.org/getting-licensed

      Read through it, then at the bottom, look for “Find a Class”, “Take Practice Exams”, and “Question Pools”. Choose the path that works best for you, classroom instruction, practice tests, or reading the information. (I only took practice tests until I was ready…having a tech background made it a breeze)
      You should also get a copy of either The Ham Radio License Manual by the ARRL or Technician Class by Gordon West

      Both are mighty handy in getting you through your Technician test.

      The UV-5R+ I list in the article above costs around $40.00. It is not a fantastic radio overall, but it IS a fantastic radio for the price. I use mine daily, and have no problems. It makes a GREAT starter radio.
      My Yaesu FT-7900R is MUCH nicer, but also almost 10 times the price of the UV-5R+, and is a “portable” rather than a handy talkie. For a car mountm or a home station, the Yaesu FT-7900R is MUCH nicer….unless you are carrying it in a pack…

      You could always have both 😛 For whatever reason, it seems that Ham radios hold their value VERY well should you ever decide to upgrade.

      And I would highly suggest finding a local club…they are a fantastic resource, and will probably be more than happy to help.

  2. Sounds like a lot of fun and it could very well prove very useful – even a life saver. If only I didn’t have so many other irons in the fire right now…..so – I’m counting on you to provide any early warnings about you know what.

  3. DB, inspiring post! Thanks for sharing your journey. Ham is one of my skills for 2014. I’ve piddled with the idea long enough. Totally green on this subject so I may be contacting you. The resources in your comments will help.
    Thanks, man!

    1. I am FAR from an expert, but enjoy the hobby, and am more than willing to offer any assistance I can.

      And really, it IS a rather simple thing to get licensed. I was listening to a Ham podcast, and the speaker said that all the license does is allow you to start your lifelong journey in learning about Ham. That’s pretty accurate.

  4. I definitely understand having too many irons in the fire. There is a point where adding one more will result in getting burned.

    It sounds like you have rapidly surpassed my limited knowledge and definitely experience by getting involved with your local club. It seems like the regulars in my area are more interested in the technology than the preparedness side of things.

    1. So pull one of the others out :)

      Like KA8YPY said in his comment, EMCOMM is after all the primary purpose for amateur radio, there ARE folks in your area that have a mindset similar to yours…you just need to find them :) Try looking for ARES or RACES clubs, both are emergency-oriented.

      ARES info:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amateur_Radio_Emergency_Service
      and
      http://www.arrl.org/ares

      RACES info:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Amateur_Civil_Emergency_Service
      and
      http://www.qsl.net/races/links.html

      They ARE out there….

  5. Congrats on earning your tech ticket Darrell. The FT-7900R is a fine radio, and while I agree it’s impossible to beat the Baofeng on price – a Wouxun or HYT would be my suggestion for a more reliable HT.

    I wouldn’t worry about OPSEC with the ham community, I think you’ll find most hams are very preparedness minded – EMCOMM is after all the primary purpose for amateur radio.

    1. Thanks for the congrats! One thing though, your statement regarding the BaoFeng has ruffled my feathers a bit though, you insinuate that it is not reliable. How so? It is a $40 radio. I changed the stock antenna to one tuned for 2m/70cm, and I can reach repeaters that are 30+ miles away. I really cannot expect more performance for my money. From what I’ve seen (mind you only in a month of looking around), all I get by spending more money on a Wouxun of HYT would be bells and whistles – things that are definitely NICE, but not needed. I don’t see how either radio you mentioned can be called “more reliable”. Nicer? Better options? Sure, but not better functionality.

      And I’ll be treading lightly as I go regarding my OPSEC. But let’s face it – I write about my life all the time, people KNOW who I am and what I do. But you are correct, the main reason is for emergencies, the majority should be “on my side” so to speak.

      Either way, I’m already screwed as far as the number of folks that will be showing up in a real SHTF scenario. *shrug* That’s part of the reason I write, to let those that will listen be better prepared themselves.

      Thanks for stopping by, and I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE your article on “The Last Word on the Ham License Debate
      Short, sweet, and to the point.
      http://sparks31.wordpress.com/the-last-word-on-the-ham-license-debate/

      This line is GOLD!
      “If you can’t make the effort to get your ticket so you can get on the air and practice, then how should I expect your performance to change when TSHTF?”

      db

  6. We need to find a way to test out some long range communications between you, in Florida, and me in Maryland.

    I’m thinking cheap, so VHF off of satellites. Should work with the gear you have and the gear I have.

  7. All the local clubs here in southern New England are full of gun guys and preppers….congrats!

    KB1 something something

  8. You can listen to two meter on a scanner and you can listen on any ham radio you buy without a license just don’t key it up. It’s fun to listen to everybody checking in on the weekends. Myself, Owner of a 2970 & 2950. “Skip” is fun during sunspots. Italy is the farthest I have heard.
    Ham radio is a fun hobby. Good post db.

  9. Do you have plans to get on HF? As a fellow displaced West Virginian I keep up with my
    WV buddies on 80 meters every day. As a “younger”
    You might want to check out K4CDN’s POD cast
    Amateurradio15.com. Lots of good information for
    Hams wanting information on all types of Ham
    Radio modes and projects so the new never
    Wears off. I am new to your blog having found it
    While searching on Rabbit raising info. I wanted
    Comment on a few things you make reference to
    In prior postings.
    Yes if you are from WV you will chase down
    Someone with a WV sticker on their car as well
    As stop someone with a WV shirt, hat etc.
    All West Virginians have a built in homing device
    That causes them to always think about how can I Get
    Home and stay there. Trips home for a WV fix last
    No longer than three months. Trying to explain
    The WV syndrome to a non resident is a waste
    Of time because they will never understand. Yes
    The opening day of Deer season is a State holiday.
    When I was growing up there would be no one
    In school, wild cat strikes in the mines and plants
    More talk about what happen for weeks after season than
    Superbowl chatter. How do you like your ramps is
    Common topic. Enough for now and keep up the good
    Work.

    1. Gary, I can sum up everything you wrote in three simple words – You get me.

      I am a General now, and do a bit of HF stuff, but none of the folks I know “back home” are hams. I should look around a bit, as ANY news from home is worth hearing…

      Peace,
      db

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