NWS Wakefield SKYWARN
Amateur Radio Support Team
WX4AKQ Wakefield, VA
Becoming a Ham
You don't have to be an amateur radio operator ("ham") to be a part of SKYWARN, but we're sure you will find the experience much more enjoyable and rewarding when you can participate in our SKYWARN nets and other field activities. Now that the FCC has dropped the morse code proficiency requirements from all license classes, it's easier than ever to get your "ticket" and get on the air!
To get your ham radio license, you must pass a 35-question multiple-choice examination covering FCC rules, good radio operating practice, entry-level license privileges, and basic radio and electrical theory. Once your license is issued by the FCC, you're ready to go on the air and begin talking to other hams around town and around the world!
The entry-level amateur radio license is the Technician Class license, which, in general, allows transmission on frequencies above 28 MHz, including the VHF and UHF frequencies in the 144 MHz (2 meter) and 440 MHz (70 centimeter) bands used for most SKYWARN operations.
How you prepare for the Technician Class license examination is completely up to you. Most people purchase a study guide from either the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) or from Gordon West WB6NOA via the W5YI Group. There are a number of printed study guides available for purchase. May we recommend one of the following:
If you want to study online, we recommend HamTestOnline, an interactive online training system for all three of the amateur radio license classes-- Technician, General, and Extra.
You can also take a class offered by a local amateur radio club. These classes are great because they give you one-on-one interaction with experienced ham radio operators. Not all ham radio clubs offer classes. Here are some of the ones we know about. Does your club offer periodic classes? E-mail email@example.com to have it listed here!
Need help finding a class in your area? Contact your SKYWARN Area Manager for more information. We'd be glad to lend a hand!
Taking the Test
Once you've worked your way through the material, take some time to go through a few practice tests. If you're taking a licensing class through a local club, you'll probably have an opportunity to do this toward the end of your class. Online training courses such as HamTestOnline have practice tests built in. If you want to try your hand at a few tests, try this:
Earning some passing grades? Great job! Now it's time to take the real thing!
The amateur radio license tests are administered by teams called Volunteer Examiners (VE's). Each VE Team is accredited to administer exams by either the American Radio Relay League Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (ARRL-VEC) or the W5YI-VEC. There is a cost associated with taking a test, and most VE Teams will accept cash only. The cost is currently around $15, but when you register for a class your VE Team will let you know how and how much to pay.
Admittedly, you may have to do a little searching to find a VE Exam Session in your area. The good news is that you can take your exam anywhere in the United States, so if you have do so some traveling, that's completely okay! Your VE Team will appreciate that you've made the trip.
The ARRL web site has an Exam Finder that might be helpful. We've found that a lot of testing sessions somehow don't get listed on their web site, so you may want to check with a local ham or your SKYWARN Area Manager for help finding an exam. In most areas you should be able to find a session within a 30-minute drive at least once every two months. Like we said earlier, you may have to drive a bit to get to an exam when you're ready to take one.
Get on the Air
Once you pass your exam you're ready to get on the air! There are a multitude of vendors selling amateur radio equipment online and in retail stores. The closest major full-line retail vendor is Ham Radio Outlet (HRO) in Woodbridge, VA. In addition to radios and antennas, HRO sells a full assortment of reference materials and all the various odds and ends you will need to get your first station up and running. Other popular mail-order vendors include Amateur Electronics Supply (AES), Universal Radio, R&L, Gigaparts, HamCity, and Texas Towers.
NOTE: The links above are for convenience only. Wakefield SKYWARN and the National Weather Service do not endorse any specific vendor of amateur radio equipment.
Another great source of new and used radio equipment (and just about everything else under the sun) are hamfests. Two major hamfests in our CWA are the Virginia Beach Hamfest and Frostfest, which is quickly becoming the premier hamfest on the east coast. There are other major regional and national events that take place throughout the year, and the ARRL web site has a Hamfest Locator you might find useful. Most hamfests feature local and national vendors, private sellers, educational forums, and manufacturer representatives ready to show off their cool new toys. You'll probably also find VE Exam sessions and various community service organizations such as ARES/RACES and SKYWARN.
Many new hams start off with a simple 2-meter handheld transceiver (HT). This is an inexpensive way to get on the air-- two of the major manufacturers, Icom and Yaesu, both offer HT's in the under-$150 price range. However, keep in mind the limitations of low output power and small battery packs. At a minimum, an inexpensive magnet-mount antenna for your vehicle, a plug-in hand microphone, cigarette lighter power cord, and an alkaline battery shell should compliment your HT purchase if it's going to be your only radio for a while. The additional investment in a few accessories will pay off in the convenience of operating safely and efficiently from home and on the road.
For significantly greater operating distance, a mobile radio can be used in the car or at home. While HT's transmit with between 0.2 and 5 watts (some as high as 7 watts), inexpensive mobile radios can be found operating with up to 75 watts of power, which will considerably enhance your ability to get a signal out to the other station or a distant repeater.
Before investing in any new equipment, take a moment to think about your requirements. Where will you primarily use the radio? What bands do you want to be able to use (SKYWARN uses both the 2-meter and 70-centimeter bands in some areas). Do you just want FM capabilities, or would you prefer to also have single-sideband (SSB) or morse code (CW)?
When it comes to the "new vs. used" question, bear in mind that for most entry-level equipment there is usually no significant savings in buying used equipment from eBay, Craigslist, or other sources. Since there are so many things one can do to a radio to adversely affect its operating condition, do yourself a favor and make your first purchase a new radio from a reputable vendor with a warranty attached. The warranty won't cover your silly mistakes, but it will ensure you're not buying a $200 boat anchor!
You may want to stop by your local ham radio club's monthly meeting and ask for advice (you'll get plenty of it!) and many hams are more than willing to let you play with their radio, or maybe even borrow one of their old clunkers until you get a station of your own on the air!
Whatever you end up buying, have fun with it, and never stop exploring. Ham radio is a fascinating hobby and the possibilities are endless. Whatever you're interested in, there are others out there in our hobby that share the same interests and perhaps years of experience you can benefit from every time you turn on the radio.