When I was in the Marines I remember a European NGO worker (I think he was with ICRC) had a radio setup such that he could communicate around the world. That seemed interesting at the time. I don't remember if he used it to conduct NGO business or just communicate with people back home while he was in in remote parts of Africa.

Recently the local amateur radio club, Acadiana Amateur Radio Association, was generous enough to conduct free training at the Lafayette Science Museum.

I guess I should also out myself as something of a prepper. You get accidental death and dismemberment insurance because there's a remote chance something bad will happen. In the same sense you can have interests that are fun but also prepare you if there is an emergency at a local or national level. I think amateur radio is one of those interests. Knowing what I know now about amateur radio I would want a capable HAM in my fortified zombie-proof compound.

I decided to go and I brought along my son Ryder. The classes were great, a good mix of general topics to get us engaged in HAM radio and test preparation.

Getting Certified

The FCC allows citizens to use portions of the radio spectrum for personal use. To prevent the tragedy of the commons the FCC requires that citizens be licensed to use that spectrum.

There are 3 amateur radio licenses.

  • Technician lets you talk around town and possibly within the state
  • General lets you talk nationally and possibly even all over the world
  • Extra frees up more of the spectrum to do more of the same

Gordo's Books

Besides the class I read through the Gordon West books to prepare. The books are high quality, good paper, good color. He has a good approach I think, he co-locates the content with the questions and answers. The dimensions of the book make it easier to bring with you as you run errands so that if you have a spare moment you can study.

Studying and Practice Testing

hamstudy.org was another invaluable resource to prepare. The only downside is that you need Internet connectivity to study. The site seems to be smart about what it puts in front of you, as the learner your main mission is to chug through it until you're at around 85% so that you can surely pass the tests.

One thing I learned too late was that you can go into specific sections of the test that you have trouble with. This lets you focus on those questions and see them more often. I don't think it's the only way to go but perhaps it's good to mix it up like that.

My Suggestions

  • Don't peak too early, I did and I had to keep studying for a couple weeks to retain. Give yourself 2 or 3 weeks and go for it.
  • Don't focus too much on the formulas. I know the formulas and I get them but I just memorized the answers.
  • Unit conversion (like from kHz to MHz) moves 3 decimal places, exclude answers that do not fit that.
  • Except for decibels the math is always either multiplication or division, knowing the right answer fits that will get you far.
  • Always end transmissions with your call sign.
  • Always err on being safe.
  • Always err on being nice.
  • Mnemonics.

To elaborate on the mnemonics, here are a couple that get me through 6 or so of the answers. If you've been through the questions you know how it helps.

  • There's a duck in a field with a magnet in his mouth, he has a chain around his neck and it says "Henry", he flies up and from the side his lips look like an inductor schematic.
  • There's an Arab guy named Farad in a field wearing a cap with a lightning bolt on it, the top of his cap looks like a capacitor schematic.


Before their monthly meeting the local amateur radio club holds tests conducted by trained volunteers. You can take as many tests as you would like for $15 but if you fail a test and want to re-take it you have to pay another $15. I was able to take both the technician and the general tests. I did alright on the technician, for the general I was unsure but they told me I passed. They asked if I wanted to go for extra but I didn't want to waste their time. All the volunteers were awesome and helpful.

Call Sign

A week after testing I looked up my name with the FCC. I was assigned the call sign KG5KZM. Not too bad but I decided to apply for a vanity call sign right away. Just like vanity plates for your car you can try to get a call sign of your choosing as long as it's available. It also has to be the right format for your license.

You pick a dozen or so call signs you would like in priority order, wait 18 days and find out what you got. I chose a bunch of variations on X9DLN to have my initials. Not very creative but seems easy to remember.

What's Next

We have to see if my son Ryder can pass for technician. He's slowly getting there.

I have some hand-held radios that you'd use for local communication. I'd like to get into pack portable HF on battery and solar, lots to learn. If I get up to speed I might look into ARES to be helpful in emergencies.