How to prepare your family to survive and thrive in todays uncertain world

Ham Radio – A Preparedness Primer

Today I bring you a fantastic article from Andrew Baze on the topic of Ham Radio. You might remember Andrew as the author of ‘The Road Home’ that I reviewed a few weeks ago.

Be sure to go check out Andrew’s blog “Emergency Communications” and read his stuff. Well worth the time!

Amateur radio is an incredibly flexible and powerful communication option, especially in an emergency, and it’s probably easier to learn about and get involved with than you think.

In this and the next two articles, I’ll walk you through the basics, and show you the simple steps you can take to add a very useful tool to your preparedness toolbox. It’s easy, interesting, and if you want to be realistically prepared to take care of yourself and your family, you’ll need this information!

I have been involved with ham radio for a few years now, and I’ve learned a lot. From the start, I took my Novice and General exams, and then a year or so after that, I took and passed my Extra exam. (For me, Novice & General weren’t difficult, but Extra was.)

I’ve been actively involved in my local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Services) team for the City of Redmond, talking to friends on the radio, experimenting with digital modes, NVIS (more on that in article #3), satellite communications, and more. It’s been enjoyable and educational.

And there’s one very interesting thing I’ve learned during this process, which will benefit you directly. Much of the learning material out there doesn’t make it easy! This case will be different, however. My goal is to make some of these concepts much easier for you to understand. I’m going to explain things not in the manner of an electrical engineer, but like a regular guy would. Here goes.

In this article, we’ll start with the basics, and give you some ideas for getting more information. In subsequent articles, we’ll talk about specific equipment, technologies, frequencies, some interesting information on what’s really allowed during an emergency, and more.

Let’s start with “What is ham radio?” It’s the term used to refer to amateur radio, a fun hobby for many. But why “ham”? Some people speculate that it’s because certain people involved in amateur radio back in the old days really loved to talk, and would “ham it up”, telling long stories to their buddies when they’d get together on the airwaves to chat.

How does ham radio work?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set aside certain frequencies for people to use for non-business-related communication. To use a radio that works on amateur radio frequencies, you need to take a simple test and get a license. The first license, called “Technician”, is not difficult to get, and there are a many books, CDs, and websites (with free sample tests) available to walk you through the questions and answers.

Once you’ve reviewed the material and feel comfortable, you can take a test and get your own license. (Subliminal suggestion: Do it. It’s easy.) Many ham radio clubs administer the tests, and will be happy to help you with the simple paperwork at the same time. Soon after, you’ll get your call sign from the FCC, and you can get on the air!

These links will provide some additional, general information about ham radio: http://www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio-1, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amateur_radio.

Why does ham radio matter?

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with a scenario where cell phones don’t work. You’ve probably been out of range of a cell tower at some point, and wanted to make a call. But imagine if there was no coverage, no matter where you went…And a phone call could mean life or death.

Aside from being fun to play with just talking with friends, amateur radio is a very effective way to communicate during an emergency. With something as simple as a small, handheld radio, an operator can do these things in addition to voice communication:

  • Transmit GPS coordinates
  • Send simple text messages
  • Send email (with the help of your computer)
  • Sent small or large amounts of data directly (without email software needed, but using a computer)
  • Transmit any of the above directly (line of sight) for several dozen miles or more (depending on antenna type and height, amplifier use, etc.)
  • Transmit using existing, publicly available repeaters to achieve long range communications with a small, low-power radio

By using a mobile radio (in a vehicle) or base station radio (usually on a desk), along with an appropriate antenna, a ham radio operator can communicate across great distances, even across continents and oceans. Here’s an interesting example: I listened to a ham radio operator as he transmitted and then moments later received his own transmission after it bounced its way through the atmosphere, all the way around the earth!

What can you do right now to get started?

Go get your FCC Technician license. It’s easy, really. The FCC publishes all of the possible questions and answers, and you can find good resources for practice tests here: http://www.arrl.org/exam-practice. It’s a simple, 35-question test and if you pass, your license is free and is good for 10 years! (Note: License exams hosted by volunteers usually charge a small fee, around $15, in the U.S.)

In the next two articles, we’ll talk about UHF & VHF radio (often used for local communications), HF radio (which can be used for local/regional as well as long-distance communications), different things you can do with your radio, antennas, and more. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more, do an Internet search for local ham clubs and ARES/RACES groups in your area, and contact them. You can probably find people in your area who would love to talk about what they do. All you have to do is ask!

More information is on the way soon.
Andrew Baze, AB8L

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3 Responses to Ham Radio – A Preparedness Primer

  1. Do you need a license just to own a ham radio for listening purposes? Is there a difference between transreceiver and transmitter? I’ve been looking at models and I have no clue. I just want to listen in to the outside world if shtf.

    • Nope, you only need a license for transmitting.

      That said, if TSHTF license enforcement probably isn’t the top priority.

      • It may not be a priority but if a person hasn’t gotten licensed before TSHTF, and more importantly used and practiced operating his radio, that radio will likely just be a rather expensive paperweight. I hear non-hams talking all the time about having radios that they’ve stored away for emergencies but have never used or gotten a license to operate. They don’t understand how to set up and tune their shiny new antenna and don’t even have the equipment to do it which means that they’ll most likely fry their finals the first time they try to transmit. They don’t understand how to operate their equipment, what frequencies are commonly used in the area they live in, how to use repeaters, how CTCSS works or any of the other little details that hams understand. Most importantly, especially if things get really ugly, they won’t be known in the local radio community.

        It’s easy to get a license but the learning curve afterwords is incredible. This is a hobby that keeps on giving, especially if one wants to keep on asking.

        If you’re thinking of getting a transceiver just for listening you’ll eventually find yourself wanting to transmit, too. Get a license and get on the air. The little bit of effort up front will pay off in a big way in the end.