The best thing to do is find a local Amateur Radio Club. They should have a website and they should have a list of monthly meetings on their website. Go to a meeting and say you’re interested and they will hook you up with an “elmer” – that’s what hams call the “old timers” who know everything.
Books are great but practical experience is best. So definitely spend time at their club or at an elmer’s shack. If not possible, there are a ton of great YouTube videos. Two other great resources are Ham Nation http://twit.tv/hn and Amateur Logic TV http://www.amateurlogic.tv/blog/
The license tests are exactly the same as the study guides, except the answers (A,B,C,D) may be in different order. I used aa9pw.com to study for my General and Extra exams in 2011. I imagine the Technician test exams are just as good. Its’ free and you can take practice exams, track your progress. You need to score a 70% to pass, the real learning will be after you pass.
The Technician license is great training for first responders because it gets on the VHF/UHF bands which are great for local communications. If you want to do DXing (aka long distance communication around the world) you will have to upgrade to at least the General license. Extra is the highest license and grants you all frequencies and power levels available to hams. The other great thing is that the handheld radios that work on Technician license frequencies are getting cheaper and cheaper. On eBay you can find a handheld radio from Wouxon for anywhere from $50-$150 depending on the extras. I do not own one but I’ve seen them and they are decent quality (Chinese company but then again very few of radios aren’t manufactured overseas anymore) Depending how serious you are, you can buy the radio before you get your license and at least listen in. If it is something you thing you’d get serious about, then you’d have a radio once you pass. If not, you can turn it around on eBay and make most of you money back.
The big boys tend to be ICOM, Kenwood, Yaesu, and Elecraft and you will pay a premium but there build quality is going to be a bit better than Wouxun…but they all will do the same thing.
I have done two posts previously (here and here) on the hardware you should consider when you are ready to start getting into HF. The reality is you only need a radio, antenna, power supply, and interconnecting cables. However, depending on your personality you may want to seriously consider some of the “extras” to help you get started. For me personally, I know that when I am first starting out I get can frustrated if things don’t work early on. So for me, investing in an extra like a antenna analyzer, though not really needed, helps get you on the air with less frustration; therefore I am more likely to stick with the hobby. Others may appreciate the challenge of getting things to work and therefore can save some money by just acquiring the absolute essentials. To each their own.