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Why We Need HamCrams

After my most recent piece in the ARRL ARES e-Letter mentioned HamCrams as one of 10 “sure-fire” ways to grow a local ARES group, I received an e-mail that included a link to this admitted “rant” against HamCrams. It is fairly typical of those who don’t like them, mostly because they don’t understand and, for the most part, don’t seem to want to.

I sent several emails in response to his post, but have yet to receive an e-mail back. So, I will insert my responses into K5WLF’s original text below and share them with you.

A Rant About “HamCram” Sessions…

I received a forwarded email this evening. The original was from the Emergency Coordinator (EC) of a county in California. The subject matter was about how to grow your local ARES membership. Generally, it was a collection of good ideas. However, I took exception to one of the points the author made. Below is the paragraph (in bold type) of the forwarded post to which I took exception and following is my response to it.

Just for the record — my response is my opinion and there’s not a damn thing you can say to change my mind, so any dissenting responses are simply wasted. If you disagree, don’t even bother responding. No offense, it’s just that you don’t stand a chance of changing my mind.

This paragraph explains his objection as much as anything that follows — it’s not how he got into Amateur Radio and he is uncomfortable with the changes that have taken place in Amateur Radio.

For the record, I don’t especially like HamCrams, but I believe they are one of our best tools for keeping Amateur Radio relevant in the 21st century. It is the only way I see to provide the numbers of operators we need. In my county, the total number of active non-HamCram hams is not nearly enough to staff even a small emergency that runs more than a few hours.

The electronics hobby that led so many into ham radio as late as the 1970’s is gone. The Internet is, if anything, a replacement for Amateur Radio in the lives of young people and the technologically-literate.

Today’s typical ham is in his mid 60’s and isn’t as active as he used to be, especially when it comes to responding to emergencies or participating in strenuous training. Many are not as willing or able to help new hams as they were in years past, and some, obviously, want to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

That isn’t going to happen.

Amateur Radio has changed, the demographic we used to draw from has mostly dried up. We need to new way to get new hams licensed and trained and interested in upgrading. If there is a better way to do this than our one-day HamCram events, please notify me immediately.


*HamCrams* – Creating new, emergency-minded hams may be the best way to
grow your group and goes hand-in-hand with the next item. One-day
licensing classes don’t teach someone how to be a ham, but the license
makes someone trainable and worth investing in.

=== === ===

Those are some interesting ideas, and many of them are workable and, in fact, laudable. However, I take extreme exception to the author’s recommendation of “HamCrams”.

In my opinion, HamCrams or “Teaching for the Test” are one of the most damaging incursions into the heart of amateur radio in many years. Many of us grumble about the license tests being “dumbed down”; yet some of our ham community persist in recommending that we swell our numbers by creating “one day wonders”, and then foolishly expect them to contribute positively when confronted with an emergency.

For many years, the ARRL License Manual amounted to little more than “teaching the test.” You can make the point that today’s license manuals do little more than explain the test. The question pools for Technician and General are actually engineered in ways that make HamCrams, in one form or another, inevitable. You can also take endless practice exams online and then go test when you’re ready.

An open question pool is good for growing Amateur Radio, but by its very nature requires less study and understanding that a closed pool would. I support the open pools and the current numbers of questions that comprise them.

Further, it’s not just the tests that have been “dumbed-down,” its the radios and technology themselves that have become easy-to-use communications appliances. If that’s the case, why shouldn’t the test reflect the reality of the technology hams are using today?sz

Today, the issue is not radio knowledge that keeps hams from contributing positively during an emergency, it’s the complex nature of the emergencies themselves. As ham radio has been dumbed-down, emergencies have become more complex. Mastering the Incident Command System is far more complex than learning to operate VHF/UHF ham gear properly.

Training someone to successfully use Amateur Radio in an emergency is one of the easier tasks compared to the other things they need to learn if they are to do more than simple message-passing. Last Saturday, we did an all-day workshop focused entirely on how to find lost children and at-risk adults. And that is just one of the things an emergency communicator/volunteer needs to be able to do in the 21st century.

Radio operation and regulation are among the easier things our volunteers are asked to learn.

I had the privilege and pleasure a couple years ago, of being one of the instructors of a 6-day (six Sunday afternoons) Technician licensing class. Of the eleven students who took the class, ten of them passed the Tech test on the first try and are now active hams. The eleventh student was a ten year old boy whose dad forced him to take the class. He didn’t want to be there and I felt sorry for him having to attend.

Several of the students from that class have tested for and passed their General class exams and one will be testing for Amateur Extra next month. I consider this to be the kind of results we should be seeking in our licensing classes.

Great, 10 new hams every couple of years. Maybe 30 percent of whom later upgrade. In the past six months, my VE team has licensed more than 70 new hams, with about 10 percent already upgraded. The team, meanwhile, are mostly HamCram hams who have gone on to earn their Extras.

The real issue, of course, is what level of training is necessary for someone to be useful operating a radio during an emergency and how many such people do we need? I’d say, not great and a great many.

A HamCram, followed by specific radio training and emergency operations training, fulfills the need and requires more total hours than the six Sunday afternoons described above. As an emergency manager, I don’t need people to know as much about operating a radio appliance as about how to communicate during an emergency and make a constructive contribution to its resolution. Knowing how to construct a dipole doesn’t help in this regard. 

In the class I helped to teach, we took special care to ensure that our students learned how to be competent amateur radio operators before they learned how to pass the test. In other words. they passed the test from their broad knowledge of the total subject matter, not because of being force-fed with the answers to the questions on the test.

I participated recently in the grading process of a “HamCram” session. I did not know when I agreed to participate in the event that it was a “HamCram” session. Had I known, I would have declined. The majority of the tests that I graded which passed had barely passing scores. This does not bode well for the future of these licensees, or of their participation in the amateur radio community.

I met one of the licensees from that session the other day when he attended a TAARC meeting. To his credit, he admitted that he’d learned essentially nothing at his licensing session and expressed his desire to learn “how to be a ham”.

A HamCram does not teach someone “how to be a ham” and mere book-learning doesn’t do that, either. If you want to be a CERT member who can use ham radio, however, you don’t really need to know “how to be a ham” just how to legally and effectively use Amateur Radio during an emergency. Some of these people, as in this example, will want to become “real” hams and we should help them accomplish that.

Unfortunately, this type of person is in the minority. The majority of those who are licensed as a result of “HamCram” sessions will never even touch a radio until there is a real emergency. Then they will jump on the air — doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

In spite of their good intentions, they will be entirely worthless to the emergency effort and will actually be a hindrance because of their complete lack of experience.

As I will say in the May, 2011 issue of QST, the best-trained and best-qualified volunteer emergency responders and communicators in my county are CERT members that we HamCram-ed and followed up with specific radio training. These people have already proven their commitment and value in an emergency and giving them Amateur Radio as a tool and hobby helps fulfill our commitment to the American people per section 97.1 of the FCC’s rules.

Amateur Radio emergency communications is no longer just about passing messages.

There is no substitute for on-the-air experience and we do no favors to either the new licensee or to the amateur radio community by providing these much vaunted “HamCram” sessions to make new hams.

You’re right, so we do drills and get the HamCram hams on-the-air as much as we can. Is this perfect? No. But, we do pretty well.

Those of us in the amateur radio community who have made the commitment to emergency communications have spent many hours in bicycle races, emergency drills, simulated emergency tests and other forms of practice for the events we hope will never come. But those events do come — witness Cross Plains 2005 — and remember the ham response at that time. It was immediate and it was effective.

I was one of the hams who responded to that event and I say from experience that the main reason our ham response was so effective is that our responders had practiced. We had a team of experienced communicators at all the stations on the circuit twenty-four hours a day. Without that experience, there would have been total chaos instead of the precision communications that we provided.

What, HamCram people can’t train just like “real” hams? There is nothing wrong with any means we use to license new hams — what matters is what happens after they get a license. That is when the real learning begins.

I am going to let the rant unwind now as the ranter presumes that only people who are taught in the manner he was taught and/or supports can possibly contribute to Amateur Radio. In the process, he is — with the best of intentions — doing more to bring down Amateur Radio than the people he accuses of cheapening our public service work.

I totally support all legitimate efforts to garner new licensees, but I do not — can not — condone the utilization of “HamCram” sessions to make new hams. Unless our new licensees are trained to be competent amateur radio operators as a part of their license training, they will not get on the air voluntarily for either recreational or training purposes.

Only when there is a declared emergency will they key up, and then, because of their total lack of experience, they will be a detriment, rather than a benefit, to the emergency effort. And it will not be their fault.

It will be the fault of those who have conducted the “HamCram” sessions, administered the tests, and created this new class of amateur radio licensees — the class of those with a license and no practical on-air experience. These well-meaning and sincere folks will not understand when their efforts to communicate are either rejected or ignored because they do not know how to conform to the accepted communications format — and they disrupt the ongoing emergency comms. And their so-called instructor will be to blame.

We must remember that to “remain calm under fire” takes practice. That practice is gained by participation in the weekly nets of our local ham clubs, by working bicycle races, being a part of SETs and participating in every drill that’s offered. Without having the initial confidence to get on the air imparted to them in the license class, most new licensees will not even get on the air until there is a declared emergency. Without having had the practical experience beforehand, they will not be able to make a positive contribution to the effort.

We agree, so we provide lots of training. I have nine events on the calendar from March to May, plus weekly nets and monthly meetings.

I urge you — I beg you — my fellow VEs, do not succumb to the pressure to hold a “HamCram” session. Instead, provide a series of classes for potential Technician class licensees that will prepare them to be competent amateur radio operators. Ensure that part of the class includes on-air experience and know that when they pass the test they know more than they need to know to be Technician class licensees. For that is the only way that they will desire to progress in their ham radio career.

It is only by imbuing our students with the knowledge and history of our avocation and also with the excitement that accompanies it, that we can hope to retain them as amateur radio operators. We are members of the greatest hobby in the world — let us make sure that we pass the excitement and the commitment to community service on to all those whom we teach and test.


?K5WLF clearly loves Amateur Radio. He’s entitled to his opinion, however uninformed it may be. But, lots of people share it and I agree with many of the issues he raises. He just assumes there is no way to address them, which is obviously wrong.

Bottom line: There aren’t enough hams to go around and HamCrams give us a tool that allows us create effective emergency responder/hams as easily and quickly as possible.

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Reader Comments (6)

Sorry but I have to agree with K5WLF. HamCram may work for you and your EC followers but what about those that take your class and do not want to be involved in emergency communications. You just created a LID. Your method works for you and your job but for ham radio as a whole. I truely hope you can see that. Your heart is in the right place and those you work with will be good operators but those you turn loose to find for themself are already lost.
73 Ray

Mar 27, 2011 at 9:52PM | Unregistered CommenterRay Harkins

I didn't take a hamcram session to get my license, but I hamcramed on my own to pass my technician test. I guess I must be an exception to the rule because I have been active in amateur radio now for over 15 years. I have also upgraded from Technician to General and I am scheduled to take my Extra Test tomorrow. Also, my wife is a ham and I have two sons studying to get their ticket.

I really don't like hearing that I am a second class ham because I didn't take a 9 or 10 week class every Sunday before taking my test. I guess the fact that I work very long hours in a highly technical field and I want to spend the day on Sunday in church with my family instead of every week for two and a half months robbing them of their father for a couple of hours each Sunday, makes me a second class ham who has nothing to contribute to the amateur radio community.

What many people fail to understand is that people learn differently. For me, it made more sense to spend time in the evening after my kids have gone to bed studying, instead of trading my family time to go to a series of classes. This doesn't make me any less of a ham.

Quite frankly, I am tired of hearing from older hams who complain that they don't like the direction amateur radio is going. In the 17 years I have been a ham I have heard far more complain about this than be willing to elmer or mentor young hams. I can count on one hand, with fingers left over, the number or truly mature hams who have been willing to come alongside newer hams and bring them along to maturity. Instead, many people would rather complain about the loss of a morse code requirement, or about the prevalence of appliance radios. In my opinion, this is FAR more of a stain on Amateur radio than hamcram sessions.

After cramming for my test, does my Emergency communication and volunteerism have no worth? I suppose the years of Skywarn work, Races training and activations, Ares, NTS, charity bike ride and parade communications and many other activities have had no impact on the amateur radio community, or more importantly my community, you know, all of those citizens we volunteer to serve.


Apr 1, 2011 at 8:08AM | Unregistered CommenterCam

Hamcrams are controversial especially with the older hams who have been around forever. However the world is changing and like or not it may not be going in the direction they want. In any case time will take care of the problem.
To be clear, I am a CERT volunteer and the Ojai Valley Volunteer CERT Coordinator. I'm a ham as well. I'm also an outreach instructor for CalEMA and have been for morethan fifteen years.
Ojai Valley CERT started threejust over years ago. Another ham and myself decided we needed an organization with a communication arm that we could work with. Who else but hams? As members of the local club five or six of us would meet onec a month eat donuts and drink coffee. and talk. My buddy and I decided to enroll the group and with some kicking and screaming from a coupleof the older guys we started working out a plan. Getting more hams was the key. We heard about crammers and started putting on test sessions. Then we started actively recruiting or CERT graduates and soon we had a vialble group.
We have licensed more than a hundred in our valley and a great many wor in other areas.
The result has been remarkable. We have changed the attitude of the old timers who are an active support group for our newbies and the repeater system. We have also become a model for CERT Ham radio cooperation. Our communication system works well and we use it in all our exercises. We have opertional stations in our PD, the local hospital and a private none profit center, all manned by hams.
We operate using the NIMS incident Command System for everything related to our operations. Oyr level of professionalism is excellent and we operate within our training skills and capabilities.
Sean Kellythorne

Apr 18, 2011 at 3:20PM | Unregistered CommenterSean Kellythorne

The real bottom line, no matter how you got your license, is that the local hams have to step up and Elmer the new licensees. New hams have to be guided and coached into being good operators. Today's radios with ICs and surface mount technology is not repairable by most of us older hams with deteriorating eyesight, shaky hands and old fashioned soldering irons. We are becoming appliance operators. But, that doesn't mean we cannot be good appliance operators when the time comes. If you need to have hamcram sessions to get new hams in your community, so be it. Just be sure to follow up the cram session with real training ham to ham.

Apr 20, 2011 at 5:31PM | Unregistered CommenterThom N9LNN

To start off, I guess I'm a hybrid ham-cram. I started off studying the ARRL Tech class manual, but soon discovered the questions/answers in the back. I self crammed the rest and passed the test. I originally got my license to work with our local horse evac group, but my wife got us involved in CERT as well. I joined the local ARES group and radio club shortly there after. I've been getting more deeply involved as time goes on.

In our radio club, one of the members related her experience. She promised her husband, an avid ham, that she would get her tech license shortly after they got married. About 15 years later she did get her license via ham-cram as an anniversary present. Then she discovered radio physics and hasn't stopped since. She now has her extra license and is a code fanatic. She wishes that she had started sooner.

I guess the point I want to make is that ham-cram isn't necessarily a bad thing. It gets someone in the door and from there the real training begins. Technology is changing the amateur landscape. I don't know of anyone who actually builds their own rig today, thought there are some very clever projects you can do. As stated before, if you are primarily interested in EC, then that is where you should stress your training. Police, fire, EMT, etc. folks don't get into the physics of radio to use their communications equipment. They are trained how to operate it and how to perform correct radio procedures. There is still a place for the "old time" ham expertise, and I hope that there are still folks out there that will keep that alive.

Jeff (KJ6ETR)

Apr 21, 2011 at 8:30AM | Unregistered CommenterJeff KJ6ETR
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