I admit it. I’m woefully unprepared. Recent events have caused me to “wake up”, much like Neo in The Matrix who takes the “red pill” and awakens to the painful reality. When you first awaken it’s overwhelming. You feel that there is so much to do and so little time. My resources are limited and I expect they will become more so over time. Rather than succumbing to the paralysis of analysis, and constant study without action, I feel it’s better to begin chipping away at getting prepared. I suggest you start today and get a toe hold on being prepared. Starting small is better than not starting at all. There are many small things you can do that will get you going in the right direction, and will give you an advantage should you find yourself in an emergency situation. You could build your first 72 hour kit bag. You could attend a free Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Academy. Or, like this article suggests, you could spend one day of your life in a “Ham Cram” class for $5 -$15 dollars and walk away with a skill that you can use the rest of your life. Getting your first Amateur Radio License allows you to use some pretty powerful equipment with capabilities beyond what you can legally use as a non licensed citizen. Ham radio is infrastructure independent, is used by those interested in emergency preparedness and has gotten a lot less expensive in the last few years.
The Back Story
Recent events got me interested in prepping for the next emergency situation. The first event was the San Diego Blackout of 2011. Unlike others I stayed at work for three hours after the power outage started. Everyone else left work immediately and jumped on the freeway right into a park lot. For some people that just lived a few miles way away from work it took hours to get home. I spent those three hours at work on a project I had put off for far too long and left work when it got dark. I had waited out the traffic, but I didn’t know what was going on until I heard the mayor give a speech on the FM radio in my car. After the event I talked to a buddy of mine who had a handheld ham radio at work and he said he knew within about 2 minutes what had happened and the extent of the blackout. He used a handheld transceiver (HT) commonly called a handi-talkie. While the cell phones had gone offline, the ham repeaters were up and working fine on backup power. After talking with him I was impressed with the amount of ‘intel’ he was able to gather over his ham radio in such a short amount of time. I would have done just about anything at the time to know what was going on and talk with my wife. If I had already owned a ham radio, I could have.
The second event was camping in Joshua Tree National Park with my kids. They were climbing on 2 and 3 story rocks like mountain goats. Our campground was 10 minutes away from cell phone coverage. I kept thinking if anything horrible happened there would be no way to contact emergency services in a reasonable amount of time. I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself if one of the kids got hurt and I wasn’t able to contact emergency assistance immediately and provide my GPS coordinates. It’s my responsibility as a parent to be prepared and protect my children, and for that trip I feel I came up short.
So with those two events fresh in my mind I signed up for a course to get my amateur radio Technician license.
Getting Your Amateur Radio License Is Easier Than You Think
Getting your amateur radio license is easier than you might think. One of the best things about ham radio is that the classes and tests are almost free. In my case, the all day class was free and the fee for taking the test was $5. In our area they have a 90% pass rate for people that take the class. Many don’t even study before taking the course and do well. My wife failed the exam on her first attempt, but was able to retake the test a second time in the same sitting and passed. I think she would agree there’s no reason not to spend one day and $5 to get your license. If you do a little up front study there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to earn your first ham license for a modest investment of your time.
At the class I attended almost half of the participants were from one CERT program or another. That ham class is how I found out about CERT. Going to a ham class is a good way to network with others that are interested in emergency preparedness (regardless of their motivation). It’s also a great place to find out about local civilian and government organizations that will be active in your area during times of emergency. If you are hooked into ham radio you’ll be in the know. The information you learn using a ham radio during a crisis situation could be invaluable.
Get Field Tested and Emergency Appropriate Equipment
Local emergency groups are also good sources of information regarding what equipment is actually used and reliable in the field. The most active CERT group in my county uses the Yaesu FT-60R. After doing quite a bit of research including reading the Yaesu FT-60R spec sheet on the product I discovered why they like that radio so much. This is the radio I purchased for my wife and myself. The radio has a very low current draw during transmit and receive, and it can transmit at a full 5 watts using AA batteries. Many modern Handi-Talkies (HTs) have become very small and use proprietary batteries that can only be used in a few models and are very expensive. You can get factory AA battery adapters for most ham handhelds, but since the battery adapters are the same size as the original battery and are limited to the number of AA cells that can fit inside the adapter. This forces manufacturers to use AA battery adapters with a limited number of AA batteries, so they have to reduce the transmit power to half a watt when running on AAs. Using the Yaesu AA battery adapter (part #: FBA-25) with the FT-60R adds quite a bit of flexibility in emergency situations as you can use six AA Alkaline batteries or the latest rechargeable battery technology and still transmit at a full 5 watts. Regardless of which radio you choose, make sure that the AA battery adapter will allow the radio to transmit at maximum power and uses a large number of AA batteries. Also, check the receive (RX) and transmit (TX) current draw on the spec sheet and compare it against other handheld radios you are considering. Make sure you are using a radio that uses power efficiently since it’s in short supply during emergency situations.
Ham Radios Give You Options
Although the FT-60R is only dual band (2M/440MHz) for transmit, it has wideband reception from 108-520 MHz and 700-999.990 MHz. This allows it to be used as a poor man’s scanner in emergency situations. While a dedicated scanner is recommended, “one is none” as they say. It’s good to have back up and some redundant functionality should your dedicated scanner get lost, run out of batteries or fail.
The FT-60R can monitor the FRS (Family Radio Service), GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) and MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) radio frequencies. MURS is adjacent to the 2M band while, FRS and GMRS are adjacent to the 440Mhz band. Many ham handhelds transmit at 5 watts, while FRS is limited to 0.5 watts and MURS is limited to 2 watts.
You’ll notice that FRS/MURS radios have short little stubby antennas called ‘rubber duckies’. Legally FRS radios cannot have their antennas modified, so they don’t make it convenient to do so. MURS radios can have external antennas, but they are limited to 2 watts of total power output (TPO). Unlike FRS and MURS radios, ham handheld transceivers have a wide array of options for antennas. This allows you to attach antennas that are longer, get better reception, and have more gain which can allow you to reduce power output needed to transmit. You can also attach a ham handheld to a wide variety of external antennas like those small magnetic ones you can put on the roof of your car. The fact that you can easily and legally modify your radios prior to an emergency situation is a quite an advantage. If you can’t get the range you want it’s easy to add a new antenna. You can even add an antenna as a way to increase the gain and increase battery life. If you need even better battery life, you can use a AA adapter and the leverage the latest battery technology without having to buy a new radio. This also allows you to standardize on a particular battery form factor. When camping I do my best to stick with equipment that uses AA batteries whenever possible. This allows me to move my usable power to the device where I need it the most if I’m low on power.
You can even modify your FT-60R to allow it to transmit (TX) on 137-177MHz and 420-470MHz. Make sure you only transmit on frequencies for which you are licensed or are prepared to face the consequences if you need to use those frequencies during a life threatening emergency.
Over the last few years competition from inexpensive Chinese radios sold under the Wouxun (pronounced Oh-Sheng, like “ocean”) and Baofeng brands have caused name brand handhelds to come down in price. It used to cost $200+ to get a decent handheld. Current competition is pushing the prices down toward $120. The Yaesu FT-60R used to be a $200 radio. You can now get them retail for $160. On eBay you can get the FT-60R in ‘like-new’ used condition with no tax for around $120. The point is that you can get a great radio and the bottom tier price levels. Personally I’d rather have for $120 radios, than two radios that cost twice as much. “One is none” and backups are critical, especially in an emergency situation where buying a replacement at short notice is impossible or impractical. Ham radio equipment holds its value reasonably well compared to other electronic devices, so if you change your mind in the future and need to sell some of your equipment to get something else or upgrade you should be able to recoup a good deal of your investment. In a grid down situation I would expect ham radio equipment to be worth its weight in gold.
It’s important to note that brand name accessories are expensive compared to the price of the radio. Each accessory for a band name radio costs an average of $30. If you do buy your radio used or on eBay it’s possible to get the radio/accessory bundle for almost half the retail price.
Ham handheld radios are often purpose build for emergency communications, so they are durable, are often waterproof or water resistant and have factory accessories for 12v support. Yaesu even sells and accessory (Part #: E-DC-6) for the FT-60R that has a DC plug for the radio on one and bare wires on the other for connecting the radio to a DC power source.
If you’re new to ham radios you may not be familiar with the concept of a repeater, and I keep throwing that word around so I’ll cover it briefly. A repeater is a radio station that receives a transmission on one frequency and outputs it on another. The purpose of a repeater is to boost the signal of the incoming transmission to increase the range and help radio signals get around terrain obstructions. Repeaters often reside on the tallest mountain tops in your area that provide good ‘line of sight’ coverage to the surrounding areas on both sides of the mountain. This way, a person on one side of the mountain can communicate with someone on the other side. It also extends the range of the radios greatly. Using a repeater you can communicate with people 20, 30, 50 sometimes even 100 miles away! Also, repeaters can be linked to create ‘networks’ that cover an entire city, county or state. A detailed discussion of repeaters is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s important to know that repeaters are one of the biggest advantages of going with a ham radio. It’s amazing to be able to talk with people over such great distances with a little 5 watt handheld. And when the cell phone system is down the ham repeaters are usually still working on backup generators or battery power.
Turn your 5 watt handheld into a 50 watt handheld
If you do get a ham handheld radio make sure it’s dual band and supports cross band repeat. Cross band repeat will allow you to use a mobile ham radio in your car or home to boost the signal of your handheld. Basically with cross band repeat you use two frequencies on two different bands to bounce communications through another mobile ham radio. This will allow you to stay mobile with the handheld but leverage the power output and larger antenna installed on the house or vehicle. A typical mobile ham radio in a car is 50 watts and can have a full size antenna. If you position your car at the top of a hill you can use it to communicate with radios where your handheld doesn’t have ‘line of sight’. Used with a radio in your house “sky’s the limit”!
While all the ‘hams’ I’ve met in local clubs so far have been kind and helpful, they really didn’t seem too concerned with battery life. For me [as a prepper on a budget] battery life and affordability were the toptwo issues. Long term I want to have many back up radios, and $120 a pop they add up. I’m really glad I took the time to get involved in ham radio because it introduced me to CERT and others involved in practical emergency preparedness. I hope this article lands you in a ham class sometime in the near future and gets you involved with your local CERT group. Knowing what is going on around you will allow you to prepare quickly and make good decisions as information during a crisis as it unfolds. The next step is to get my General license so I can access the High Frequency (HF) bands and take my ‘intel’ gathering to the national and/or global level.
1. Getting into ham radio can be inexpensive and easy.
a. Ham classes are often free, and run by volunteers.
b. Ham exams cost $5 or $15, and can be taken the same day as a class.
c. Great ‘like-new’ brand name radios can be had for as little as $120.
2. Getting involved in ham radio will provide a network of people interested in emergency preparedness (i.e. CERT).
3. Ham radios are much more powerful and configurable than retail FRS or MURS radios.
4. Ham radios can be dual band (2m/440Mhz), while MURS is just above the 2 meter band and FRS/GMRS is in the 440Mhz band.
5. Dual band ham radios can monitor FRS/GMRS and MURS bands.
6. Ham radios are 5 watts while FRS and MURS radios are half a watt to 2 watts.
7. Ham handhelds have great power options and some can provide full capability with AA batteries.
8. Battery life can be increased by getting a better antenna.
9. Repeaters can extend the range of ham handhelds to the county or even state level.
10. Cross band functionality using a mobile ham radio in your vehicle or house as a repeater can increase your operational capability.