Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Handiham World for 12 August 2009

Welcome to Handiham World!

To understand the equipment program, you need to look back a few years into its history. In the days of discrete electronic components like vacuum tubes and even individual transistors, ham radio equipment was much simpler. That meant that it could be repaired by our staff of shop volunteers. Equipment could be donated to the Handiham program, fixed up or modified for use by members with disabilities, and loaned indefinitely to get them on the air. Usually it was possible to get several helpers to install the equipment and make sure that it stayed on the air, and that included putting up and maintaining antennas.

Today the situation is very different. The ham radio equipment of today is better and more reliable than ever, but it is complicated, jam-packed with surface-mount components, and cannot be repaired outside a well-equipped commercial shop, often one specializing in a particular brand. It was in the late 1990’s that the Handiham shop had to reluctantly stop taking member rigs in for repair. Donations of used equipment were – and still are – accepted, but repairs are generally confined to the most basic fixes. Modifications are usually out of the question, and the equipment is either set aside for members if it is appropriate and in working condition, or sold to bring in money to support the entire Handiham program.

Several years ago, Gary Gordon, K6KV, had a great idea: Provide new radios to our new Technician licensees who passed their exams at radio camp, and they would be off to a good start in ham radio. Gary began the program with funding to buy radios for those first campers, and we were able to send new hams home from radio camp with their radios – all they had to do was wait for their licenses to be processed by the FCC, and they could get on the air!

That part of the equipment program had some rough spots, too. We found that training unlicensed Technician candidates on using the new handheld radios was difficult and time-consuming in the radio camp setting, especially since each of them required a control operator and they were already busy studying for their licenses and had little time to spare during the busy camp week. Nonetheless, this part of the equipment program is easy to administer, because now we simply order new radios after the camp is finished, and have them sent directly to the new licensees. It is one part of the equipment program that we can keep, even with Avery leaving the staff.

The used equipment program is another story. Getting back to what has been happening in the recent past, the development of personal computers and the Internet have impacted the way ham radio operators buy and sell equipment. As anyone who has tried to run a hamfest will tell you, Internet sites like eBay have taken a great deal of the used equipment trade out of the local hamfest arena. This, of course, is simply change resulting from new technologies. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has really diminished gift-in-kind donations of good, working ham gear to our equipment program. Now we have much less donated gear coming in, fewer volunteers who understand how to work on it, and fewer staff hours to acknowledge the donations, record and track them, and pair them with members who need the equipment. Furthermore, storage space for equipment is limited. The logistics of dealing with it are challenging, too. Well-meaning donors have left us sitting with old computer equipment or electronic equipment that presents a disposal problem and can actually cost us money. Others have offered us towers and beam antennas – all we have to do is to take them down, which, of course we don’t have the staff to do. Members have sold borrowed equipment and then asked for more. Others want equipment to be shipped to them but have no money to pay for shipping, no way to install the equipment themselves, and no antenna system. Some try to “order” specific gear, as if they are ordering from a retailer with a huge stock of radios. They get upset when they find out that we don’t have exactly what they want – for free! A small number of members call day after day, asking about equipment, keeping Avery on the phone answering their same questions over and over. You can appreciate the patience Avery has to have to deal with all of this every day.

So you can see our dilemma. We have loaned equipment out there, and want to continue this service. On the plus side, if you already have loaned gear, you can still keep it out on loan. Let me summarize what we will do for now:

1. The equipment currently on loan will stay on loan.

2. The new radio for new Technician licensees at Radio Camp part of the program will continue.

3. The Remote Base program will be continued and strengthened, allowing our members access to the TS-480 as a way to get on HF. We hope to add a second, higher-power TS-480 sometime in the coming year to help make up for the lack of loaner equipment.

4. We will continue to accept donations of used ham gear, but we are still trying to figure out how to handle this, including the storage and assessment.

5. While we restructure the program, we will not make any new loans of used gear.

6. Since we do not have the staff to maintain cataloging, packing, and shipping of used equipment, nor will we have time to answer phone questions about loaned equipment, we will instead provide the used equipment to our campers at Radio Camp if it is available.

7. We will not have the facilities to repair any equipment. If you have loaned gear and it breaks, you can send it to a commercial repair service at your own expense or else contact us for instructions on how to dispose of it.

8. Updates to this information will be on the Handiham website.

Thankfully, Avery will continue with us as a volunteer and will be able to help with the changes to the equipment program and with other activities like helping our members work with the FCC on renewals and address changes. The equipment loan program can live on in a changed form, as described above, but times have changed and we must change, too.

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager