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The benefits of ham radio

Fans of disaster movies or actor Jeff Goldblum may recall the iconic 1996 alien invasion film "Independence Day," which featured a pivotal scene where protagonist David Levinson, a cable company technician with a M.I.T. education, portrayed by Goldblum, utilizes an amateur, or ham radio, to contact his father with critical information about the invasion. Together they use ham radio to relay the information on an open broadcast to any who may be listening.

While disaster films and zombie shows often incorporate ham or ham-like radios in varying degrees of importance in their stories, the uses of ham radio extend far beyond a Hollywood plot device. Unlike cell phone and Internet services, ham radio doesn't rely on complex communication infrastructures, meaning when the Internet is down and cell service is overloaded, people can still use ham radio to communicate as long as they have a powered radio. These shows and movies reflect the real-world crucial role of ham radio in emergency communication.

Certain radio frequencies are assigned for ham radio use by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which works with the International Telecommunications Union. Anyone with a radio can access ham frequencies for free, making it one of the most accessible forms of communication. Federal law, however, dictates that hams study to pass a certification test before being able to talk on air. Like driver's licenses, the FCC offers several types of certification depending on the person's operating skills and procedural knowledge. Anyone of any age can become a licensed ham operator, provided they're not a representative of a foreign government.

Some licensed hams go on to be Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members. CERT is a program under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that trains volunteers in disaster response protocols to become part of a local team that serves as a liaison for their community during disasters. They can provide immediate relief and support larger disaster relief efforts. Tehachapi Valley CERT, which is partnered with the Kern County Fire Department, is one of several local teams. Special teams such as the Tehachapi Valley Emergency Radio Team are trained and equipped to use ham radio to support communications between their local CERT, policemen, fire stations and other aid efforts.

But aside from its handiness in disaster mitigation, ham radio is also used by over 3 million hobbyists worldwide who enjoy building their own equipment, socializing and competing. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is a national organization devoted to promoting interest in ham radio and advocating for the more than 750,000 licensed hams in the U.S. They host and support many different competitions for hams to test their aptitude at things such as making as many connections as possible or communicating at the largest distance within a limited time frame.

The entry level license class, Technician, allows use of VHF and UHF frequencies. At these frequencies, radio communication generally depends on a clear line of sight between antennas, so things like buildings, mountains and even clouds can present significant obstacles to long distance communications. However, a combination of dedicated ham radio satellites and hobbyist-made and placed signal repeaters across the lands allow hams to communicate over obstacles and much farther away. When the ISS (International Space Station) flies overhead, hams are able to use the amateur radio station on-board to relay their signals across the world and even occasionally talk to the astronauts on board. In addition, hams, with appropriate license, can use other frequencies (known as HF) that allow direct communications well beyond line-of-sight. At these frequencies hams can use voice, as well as send text and picture at incredible distances if conditions are right.

The Tehachapi Amateur Radio Association (TARA) is a local, nonprofit ham radio club with members throughout Kern County, from the Greater Tehachapi area to Bakersfield and Rosamond. Officially affiliated with the ARRL, TARA is full of ham radio enthusiasts who volunteer their time, equipment and expertise to support their club and local community. Monthly meetings are held on-air for hams to socialize and learn about upcoming meetings and the many in-person events happen throughout the year.

Most importantly, the members of TARA are more than happy to share their hobby with others. Anyone interested in ham radio, whether or not they own equipment or know anything about the hobby, are encouraged to reach out to TARA at AC6EE.org or by their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/TARAtehachapiamateurradio/.

There are many experienced TARA club members eager to become mentors, or Elmers as they are called among hams. They will help anyone interested in learning about ham radio to own and operate equipment, get on the air and become licensed operators. A basic handheld radio, which is still capable of incredible long-distance communications using their repeater networks, costs as little as $20 and any person of any age can join TARA and become a licensed operator.