Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Volunteer Examiner System

Prior to 1982, examinations for amateur radio licenses were conducted by the FCC directly; candidates had to travel to an FCC office (which might not be that close) at times set by the FCC (which might not be that convenient) and take the test in front of an FCC examiner in a government office.  (In some cases it was possible to obtain an introductory license through a field examination, but such licenses were probationary, typically nonrenewable, and in some cases not upgradeable, meaning the licensee would have to retake the same test when they sought to upgrade.)  With the election of Ronald Reagan came cost-cutting measures throughout the entire federal government; one of these consequences was that the FCC was forced to  consider eliminating the amateur radio program because it could no longer afford to foot the bill for conducting examinations of amateur radio licensees.

Enter Senator Barry Goldwater.  Senator Goldwater (formerly K7UGA) had been an avid ham for years at this time, and was also a very influentual member of Congress.  He authored and pushed through the law that established the Volunteer Examination (VE) system for amateur radio licensing, in so doing sparing amateur radio from what would otherwise been almost certain death at the hands of Reagan's "pay-as-you-go" funding approach for federal agencies.  From the FCC's standpoint, the VE system took nearly all the expense of the testing system away from the FCC.  Exams would be conducted by volunteer teams organized and supervised by FCC-approved Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs).  The examinations to be used would also be developed by the coordinators, subject to approval by the FCC.  The FCC's expense was reduced to the very minimal effort of supervising the VECs.  The Goldwater bill also extended the normal license term to ten years and made all licenses renewable (prior to that time, most licenses were for five year terms, and Novice licenses were nonrenewable), which also reduced FCC expense (the longer the term, the less paperwork the FCC has to process).  As an extra bonus, the testing process got a lot easier for most hams; now exams would be held at times and places that were convenient for the VE teams and the examinees, not at times that were consistent with govenrment business hours.  Our team holds ten regular sessions a year, on the first Friday of each month (except July and January) at 7:30pm, one additional session at the end of our annual training classes, and special sessions as the need arises.

Each volunteer examiner team consists of at least three Volunteer Examiners (VEs) each accredited by a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC).  To be a volunteer examiner, an individual must be a currently licensed amateur radio operator at least 18 years of age whose license has never been suspended or revoked.  An individual may be accredited by more than one VEC (many VEs are accredited by multiple VECs, although personally I'm only accredited with the ARRL/VEC), but all VEs at a given session must be accredited by the coordinator that is sponsoring that session.  There is no requirement that VEs be citizens, but non-citizen amateurs do have to hold a US-granted license; it's not enough to be permitted to operate as an alien amateur radio operator under a reciprocity agreement.

The VEs administering an exam must be of a license class greater than the license that the exam being administered would qualify the candidate for, except that an Extra VE may administer any element (since there is no license class greater than Extra).   In specific, the three examiners giving an exam for Element 2, the test which qualifies one for the Technician license, must all be of General class or higher.   Under the current system there is no class below Technician for which a new license can be earned, and so there is no point in having Technician VEs.  Before the elimination of the Novice license, it was possible to get the Novice license, and only the Novice license, at a VE session attended by only two Technician-class or higher VEs, but those days are behind us now.  Some (but not all) VECs will only accredit Extras; in any case, most VEs are Extras.

One of the really nice features of the VE system is that a VE team can hold a testing session at literally any place or time as long as there are three VEs available to be in the same place at the same time, all accredited by the same VEC (and not a "close relative" of the examinee, and, yes, the FCC has a precise definition of "close relative").  This means, for example, that we can administer a test in the home of someone who is unable to travel due to disability; this goes a long way toward making the hobby accessible to people with disabilities.  It also means that a session can be held at a convention or other event where interest is discovered, even on relatively short notice. 

While the questions and answers used on the exams are provided by the NCVEC, the final determination of the correctness of any examinee's answer rests with the VEs.  There was a question on the old Extra pool (removed in the 2008 revision) that had the same answer for both answers A and C in the question bank, with only A being considered correct, although obviously C is as well.  The VE team would be within its discretion to consider C correct as well.  In the event this discretion is abused (or for any other reason that the FCC finds reasonable), the FCC may order any licensee to be retested either by the FCC itself or by such VEs as the FCC may direct; failure to comply with such an order will result in the cancellation of the license. (This power has not often been used.)

The test to become a VE (at least as managed by the ARRL/VEC) is not very difficult, and it's not uncommon for Extras to decide to take this "next step" in the service to the hobby.  The club I'm a member of (the DuPage Amateur Radio Club) has a great supply of VEs, and we routinely have more VEs at our sessions than we do examinees.  However, I've heard that in other parts of the land, VEs can be hard to find.  For those of you who have reached the "pinnacle" of Extra, why not take the time to fill out a relatively simple form, answer a few questions, and earn your very own VE badge?  (You don't have to be a ARRL member, and the rules regulating VECs prohibit the fees collected by the ARRL/VEC from flowing back to the ARRL general fund, so if you should happen to not support the ARRL, understand that you aren't funding them by participating in the ARRL/VEC or by taking an ARRL/VEC coordinated exam.)

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A04, T1A06, T1D06, G1D07, G1D10, G1D11, G1D12, G1D13, E1E04, E1E05, E1E06, E1E07, E1E12, E1E17, and E1E20.