What is Your Emergency Communications Strategy?

By Dave Dolbee published on in camping, First Aid, Gear, General, Gizmos & Gadgets, Preparedness, Survival

A few months ago, I was chatting with my boss when, out of the blue, he asked if I ever had considered getting my amateur radio (ham) operator’s license. It never really had crossed my mind. My parents were into CB (Citizen’s Band radio) when I was a kid, and I certainly had spent time on radios in the Navy, but it really did not seem like a hobby I needed. The truth be told, I am busy enough without another hobby.

Where he was going with the conversation intrigued me, though. In my thinking, ham radio was a dead art. Sure, it had its purpose—in its time—but we have cell phones, email and text messaging today. Communications are easier than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Diamondback DB9, Baofeng radio, paracord braclet and pocket knife

What is your communications strategy in an emergency? Whether it is a SHTF scenario or natural disaster, a cheap ham radio is something you need.

During Desert Storm, we “called” home using the ship’s radio, facilitated by the Military Auxiliary Radio Station (MARS) network. Essentially, we contacted a volunteer Ham operator, who made a collect call to the our destination and connected the radio to the phone so we could talk. Radios have a push to talk, so the operator was very involved in the conversation. I am sure the operators have some crazy stories about the conversations they monitored. MARS calls did not happen often, but they were magic morale boosters when they did. Today, ships have email and communications are better, so I still did not see the need for a ham license.

That left me wondering, “Why would anyone really want to get into ham radios with today’s technology?” My question was quickly answered when asked, “How are you going to communicate when the SHTF? You know, after a tornado or other disaster brings the grid or local communications down. How will you communicate in a bug-out or bug-in situation?” I was beginning to see the light, but could I really afford another hobby, financially?

Quality and Price

It turns out anyone can afford a ham license and the equipment. I bought a new handheld radio on for $35. After a little consternation, I went with the Baofeng UV-5B. It is Chinese, which really was not my preference. However, the manufacturer is highly subsidized by the Chinese government, which is why the quality is so high for the price. Let your conscience and the size of your wallet be your guides. No, for $35 it is not perfect, but it hits the mark like a beat-up truck gun in an emergency.

The handheld I selected transmits and receives on UHF or VHF as well as FM channels. There is a lot of chatter on the Internet about the difficulties of programming the radios. There are free programs that make it easier, or you can follow my lead and join a local ham club. I stopped by the first meeting, and someone with a laptop was more than willing to walk me through the setup.

Morse Code Chart

The learning Morse code is no longer required for a basic operator’s license, making getting one easier than ever.

Getting Your License

I found several free copies of the amateur radio operator’s test and study guides on the Internet. Gone are the days of Morse code, well at least as a requirement to get your license. Best of all, the exam only cost $15. So for a grand total of $50 (radio and test) and about 10 hours of studying for a couple of weeks, I am certified and have everything I need for basic (known as technician) communications.

Uses

That is cool on many levels. First, there is the utility of emergency communications when the SHTF. And the radio allows you to pick up the National Oceanic Atmospherics Association (NOAA) stations. NOAA is a great resource for weather, storm warnings, emergency news and information. But there is more this little gem can do.

Additionally, you can pick up police and emergency response frequencies. The National Guard has a special frequency set up for local emergencies, as does FEMA. After a disaster, the ability to contact loved ones, fellow members of a prepper community or emergency services will be critical. Even if you want to stay off the grid, the ability to catch a little cross-talk or listen in on the coms of other groups could be a huge advantage.

ISS-24_Doug_Wheelock_uses_ham_radio_system

Astronauts in the ISS have ham radios. Once certified, you can contact them while they are in space.

While on a lengthy road trip over the holidays, I added the radio to my emergency cold-weather kit. I was traveling to, and through, some rural areas where cell signals dare not invade. Breaking down in one those remote locales could spell disaster without communications. Adding to my concerns was my young daughter.

I monitored the cellphone along the trip and looked for extended dead spots. Once secure that the phone would not work, I pulled over and tested the hand-held radio. By scanning the frequencies and waiting for a hit, I found an active local channel. After that, a quick radio check provided a lot of comfort, knowing that I had a new level of preparedness and security for my family and myself.

I have done a little research about ham radios and Operations Security (OPSEC). Some people prefer to stay off the grid, so I will tackle that topic in a future article about emergency communications.

Are you a ham radio operator or have an emergency communication plan? Share your experiences and opinions in the comment section.

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Dave’s writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersen’s Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersen’s Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

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Comments (7)

  • VaFarmer

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    Great Blog about hams… Our neighborhood is slowly getting one of those Baofeng radios for each family. We’ve programmed in emergency channels and have it scan those and the “walkie-talkie” frequencies as well. Comes in handy during the many power outages. We definitely are living in a dead cell zone and sometimes you just don’t want to walk a half mile in the snow or foul weather to talk to a neighbor about power being out. We haven’t gotten licenses yet, but we are assuming that we can listen and talk on the public channels that you would have on the W-T radios.

    Reply

  • Tom Usher

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    If you bought VHF-UHF handie-talkies designed for the ham bands you can listen but you cannot talk on them without a license. Get your license so you can use them often. Ham radios, even at the technician level, are complicated little beasties. It takes a fair amount of use to get to the point that you can reliably use them without carrying an instruction book with you. Join a local club and find and “elmer”. That’s a ham that can take you under his wing and help you learn. Even at the most basic levels it really helps to understand some of the theory that drives radios. It will make you a better operator. And you really need to learn a little about antennas, too. The antenna is the key to a good station.

    Also, any radio with more than 5 watts of power can be dangerous. You really need to understand how to operate these things safely. It is possible to seriously injure or even kill someone with a ham radio due to the RF output. Microwave ovens cook with RF. So can radios.

    73,
    KD0QKK

    Reply

  • Bill from Boomhower, Texas

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    I’ve been a CBer off and on since 1975, back when I had a license. Now, my house has several antennas jutting up, and I have an air conditioned warehouse full of old tube type bases, tube amplifiers, and boxes of all sorts of mobile radios, and solid state amps, meters, dummy loads, and assorted test gear. I have many FRS GMRS radios andscanners, and even an old 2m Kenwood, which I don’t key, but listen to the storm chasers on. I’ve wanted to get my Ham license, and expect to soon. Something I’ve put off way to long. I also work with local police in neighborhood crime patrol, so I have an issued police radio for the past five years. Having two way communications other than cell phone is paramount in a catastrophic event.

    Reply

  • Keith Stillwagon

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    As a fairly new but serious prepper, I want to take care of the communication neccessity as soon as possible. I wish I knew how to begin. Where in the world would a newcomer search for the help of an ‘ELMER’?
    What is the very first step an eager newcomer should take. Buy a radio, or do the research first? HELP? ~ Keith.

    Reply

  • Tom Usher

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    Keith,

    Contact me at kd0qkk@arrl.org. If everything goes right it’ll forward to my email. I’ll help you out.

    Reply

    • Patrick Malone

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      Log on to ARRL.ORG, find a club, attend a meeting, and you’ll get all the help you want and then some. Happy DXing!

      Reply

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