A significant number of CERT members who were not already amateur operators become so after joining CERT. Communications is a vital part of emergency and disaster operations, and the equipment and practice available to hams far exceeds that of the inexpensive FRS “Walkie Talkies” available without a license. The integration with CERT and other emergency service organizations has become a big part of amateur radio’s reason for existing.
CERT radio operations practice conducted in regular “nets” is one of the best way to stay actively involved with others in the CERT organization, as well as keeping your radio skills sharp.
Becoming a licensed amateur operator is neither particularly difficult or expensive. Many non-technical people can pass the exam with a few weeks study, or even a one-day “cram course”, although that latter path isn’t particularly recommended, but see below. The license from the FCC is free, as are renewals, required every 10 years, with no re-exam required. The license exam fee is most typically between free and $5, sometimes slightly more depending on the agency sponsoring the exam. A book / study guide is $20 – $30.
An entry-level radio, which is all the majority of CERT amateur operators ever find is necessary, costs less than $200. See below for a little more information on equipment.
There are three classes of amateur license, Technician, General, and Extra. Higher classes allow use of additional frequencies and in some cases higher transmit power, but the entry-level Technician class is all that’s needed for most CERT radio operations. The exam is multiple-choice, selected from a question pool that is widely published and available for study. Currently, the Technician exam is 35 questions drawn from a pool of about 400. Passing is 26 correct (about 75%).
There is no morse code requirement to become licensed, for any license class, even Extra class. This has been the case since 2007.
Exams are given pretty much every week somewhere in San Diego County, rotating locations. See San Diego County Amateur Radio Council (SANDARC). Before taking the exam, you must obtain a free FCC Registration Number (FRN), see the same sandarc site. This is a unique personal ID number that the FCC can use in public correspondence and documents without exposing your SSN.
Preparing for the Exam.
Buy a book. Learn the material, not just the test. Be advised that the Technician class question pool expired, and a new one replaced it, June 30 2014. The new one will be valid until June 30 2018. Be alert to that and don’t buy an obsolete book or exam study guide. A recommended and popular book is the ARRL Ham Radio License Manual 3rd Edition (also available on Amazon, both paper and as a Kindle eBook). You don’t need more than one. Just don’t buy a 2010-2014 book!
A highly recommended exam practice drill website is hamexam.org. It’s free (donations accepted) and it can provide several types of drills and practice exams.
If you learn better in a classroom environment, exam prep classes are available from time to time. One organization that seems to hold them fairly regularly is San Diego Amateur Radio Classes. See their website for more information and schedules.
Encinitas CERT amateur radio use typically involves two amateur bands, 2 meter (around 146 MHz) and 70 cm (around 446 MHz) so you will need a “multiband” radio that handles at least these. The nomenclature will be clear once you pass the license exam. If you’re not there yet, just use those terms as guidelines for any window shopping you might do if you’re curious.
Most CERT amateurs only use a dual-band 5 watt handheld transceiver (HT). Models with all the features one needs can be purchased for well under $200, although there are HTs with more features that can cost three or four times that. Mobile (car mounted) equipment, typically around 50 watt transmit power with better antennas than HTs, can cost several hundred. Base station equipment and antennas can cost thousands of dollars, but this is not common among CERT hams other than those who came to CERT after being amateur operators.
Considering the CERT mission, every CERT radio amateur should have an HT, so it makes sense to start with that as your first radio. A majority won’t find the need to go further, but you will be able to evaluate that more intelligently for yourself after some experience operating with an HT.
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