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.
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.
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.
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.
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.