This is another guest post by Andrew Baze from the Emergency Communications Blog. You probably remember him from the book ‘The Road Home’ which I reviewed here a few months ago.
The most common amateur radio communication options fall into these two categories:
- UHF – Ultra-High Frequency (known as “440 MHz” or “70 cm”, which is the wavelength) amateur radios operate in a range from 420-450 MHz.
- VHF – Very High Frequency (known as “2 meter”) amateur radios operate in a range from 144-147.99 MHz.
While there are other frequencies falling into the UHF & VHF ranges (e.g. the 220 MHz/1.25 meter or the 50HMz/6 meter bands), we will focus on these two, most common ones.
While ham radio handheld radios are nowhere near as common as FRS/GMRS, radios set up in mobile (vehicle) and base station (desktop) configurations are much more common, and vastly more powerful and flexible.
Amateur Radio Advantages
Some key advantages to using amateur radio include:
- You can operate at up to 1500 watts, depending on the band (versus only 0.5 watt on FRS!). This can seriously increase your transmission range.
- You can attach any size or type of external antenna to your vehicle, home (you may need a permit for a tower), or anything else, which can dramatically improve your reception and transmission ability.
- Other people operating on these frequencies:
- Usually understand how to communicate effectively with a radio and…
- May be involved in emergency communications efforts with local or state government, the Red Cross, or others. These people are often “connected” when it comes to radio communications and may be able to help in ways you will not find with much of the traffic on FRS/GMRS frequencies.
- Getting involved with amateur radio exposes you to emergency communication learning and volunteer opportunities, which will also provide invaluable experience.
- There are many other benefits to amateur radio, which are worth exploring at www.ARRL.com, your local ham radio club.
Some of the cons for ham radio are:
- You need a license, although it is free. You’ll have to pass a simple to get the Technician license, which will allow you to operate on UHF, VHF, as well as some other amateur radio frequencies.
- Since they are more powerful and flexible, amateur radios are unsurprisingly a little more challenging to operate, and if you want to be able to operate proficiently, it will require some practice. Note the advantage listed above: if you are licensed, you will have the opportunity to volunteer (volunteer = practice!) with emergency communications teams in your area.
- Ham radio gear is typically more expensive than your typical FRS/GMRS gear, although you can currently find a new, decent quality, handheld ham radio for around $100, which is about the same price as a pair of high-end FRS/GMRS radios.
In addition to using radios to talk directly with each other (which is called “simplex” operation), they can be used with repeaters (called “duplex” operation). The quick explanation of how repeaters work is as follows: a person or group (e.g., a ham radio club) installs a large, high-quality antenna in an elevated location (the higher the better), often on a building or tower at the top of a hill or mountain. Connected to that antenna are a radio and amplifier, which receive and then immediately rebroadcast a message on a nearby frequency. When you combine the elevation, the high-quality antenna and the high power of the amplifier, as you may expect, the signal range is far greater.
As great as that sounds, you may not be able to depend on a repeater for more than a few hours or days if grid power is cut off. It will depend on the repeater’s backup power system, if it has one.
In the second half of this article I’ll talk about some specific recommendations for radios to start with. In the mean time, be sure to check out my blog at http://emergencycommunicationsblog.com/