Practical Survival Radio Communications – Part 1, by G.H.

Like many families, the miles between me and my brothers are many. Fortunately, we hold a conference call every Wednesday evening to stay in touch. We have been doing this for nearly a decade. Realizing how important communications are to all of us, and from my role as the Logistics Chief for our County during major emergencies, I accepted the assignment of finding communication tools that will ensure communications no matter what. It did not take long to realize that radio communication works when all others fail. I obtained my amateur radio license and have the honor of recognition by the American Radio Relay League for public service in the management of emergency communications.

Good communications are important in day-to-day routine lives and may become critical during stressful situations or extreme emergencies. During normal day-to-day situations, traditional communications methods such as telephone, texting and e-mail work flawlessly. However, minor incidents that occur in an area without cellular service or major events that knock out electricity and the internet require different tools for communications. In today’s world, there is no reason to lack the ability to communicate and a radio that can transmit and receive works when all else fails.

There are many published articles outlining the benefits and importance of amateur radio for survival purposes and this is not another one. While this article may introduce concepts that will spur unlicensed readers to obtain a radio license, it intends to provide concepts and tools any radio operator should use regularly to remain proficient in radio communications when an emergency does develop.
During Hurricane Michael, my family anxiously awaited news from my brother living directly in the path of the terrible storm and for more than four days, we did not know if he was alive or dead. Cellular services were down, texts did not go through and he was not able to get out to the highway to find an area where services worked.

As an experienced radio operator, my family will know quickly if I am alive because of my regular use of the concepts that follow.


We have all heard that there is no need to get an amateur radio license because, in an emergency, anyone can use amateur bands without a license. It is true that an unlicensed person can use a radio on any frequency if there is imminent danger to life or damage to property. However, the only way to gain the necessary experience to communicate via radio, other than on the low level Citizens Band (CB), is regular use. And regular use does require a license. Most that lack a radio license believe that radio use is as simple as pressing the mic button and talking. But it is not that simple.

There are many radio technologies available. o be prepared for radio communications in difficult situations, or flat out disasters, might consider obtaining one or more specific licenses listed below:

Amateur License – Technician

The first license many radio operators obtain is the Technician level amateur radio license. This license requires passing a technical exam and paying a processing fee that typically runs about $15. While the Technician license certainly adds capability over an unlicensed operator, it is restricted for the most part to UHF and VHF frequencies that only work in “line of sight” situations unless a repeater is used. Repeaters extend coverage beyond line of sight, but they are more difficult than simplex communications – direct radio to radio – and they require electricity and infrastructure–two things that often fail in disasters.

Amateur License – General and Extra

The General or Extra class amateur radio licenses, typically obtained after experience at the Technician level, require more complex testing but opens up the world of HF radio transmissions. HF radio wave transmissions, unlike UHF and VHF, bounce off the Earth’s ionosphere, back down to earth, and can reach remote stations without the use of a repeater.

General Mobile Radio Service

While a radio operating on the Citizens Band (CB) and the Family Radio Service (FRS) bands do send and receive radio communications, they are severely limited. Radios that use these frequencies operate only a short distance due to power and antenna restrictions and are often crowded with too many operators to make them useful.

Instead of CB, FRS, or Amateur band radios, many families and communities are turning to the use of the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). These radios may operate with up to 50 watts of power and can use superior antenna designs. To use GMRS frequencies, a $75 FCC license is required but, unlike any of the amateur radio licenses, no exam is required and up to 10 family members can communicate on one license. It is common for family members that refuse to obtain an amateur radio license to utilize a GMRS radio. Then they find that they become interested in obtaining an amateur license. For all of these reasons, many licensed at the Technician, General, or Extra level to use the amateur bands also obtain a GMRS license.

Buy a license and teach your family to use the radio regularly.


When people think of communications, particularly in an emergency, they think of “voice” communications between specific people. However, sometimes all that is necessary is for a very small amount of information to reach the intended listener any way possible. Other times, delivery of large amounts of information including spreadsheets and pictures is necessary. Operators that understand the following can do all of this with radio communications:

Make Any Contact

Many emergency radio communication plans specify the use of an elaborate calling scheme designed to connect two specific radio operators together. Plans such as the “3-3-3” plan suggest that two radio operators should turn on their radios every 3 hours, for 3 minutes, on channel 3 with hopes that communication between them will be successful. Focusing on developing skills to be able to communicate back and forth with a specific person during an emergency is worthwhile. However, radio wave propagation does not always cooperate and my brother in Florida trying to reach my station in California using a radio is like finding a needle in a haystack, even with a practiced plan.

An important concept of radio communications in a true emergency is that about any contact will get a message through. During and immediately following a disaster, when your family wants to know if you are alive, do not worry about a detailed plan designed to reach a specific person. Instead, use the radio to contact anybody that can reach your family on your behalf. Failed landlines and cellular services are often localized incidents and you just need to reach someone that does have a working phone that will call your family.

Two weeks after the Camp Fire Incident in Butte County, California, in 2018, my wife was arranging for us to buy a trailer to live in until we could determine if our house had survived. Unexpectedly, I was allowed to re-enter my neighborhood. Finding my home in fine condition, I wanted to stop the trailer acquisition. Although maybe not an emergency, land and cellular phone lines were down and the $30,000 acquisition became a problem. Experience taught me that amateur radio operators are always happy to help so I keyed up the radio in my truck and instantly found a person with cellular service that relayed information to my wife. Fortunately, I am now not the owner of an unneeded trailer.

Listen to radio traffic and learn the skills necessary to join and leave existing conversations properly and keep a log of successful contacts. Among other things, a log helps the operator understand and predict the ability to reach local and remote stations when an emergency does develop. Doing so routinely will enable a practiced methodology when it becomes necessary.

Automatic Packet Reporting System

The Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) is an amateur radio based real time communications tool that can transmit text messages and exact position, even while moving, using a Global Positioning System (GPS) device.

APRS data transmits through radio waves to reach “digipeaters” that is ingested into the APRS Internet System for display. With proper programming, a radio equipped with APRS sends a location “beacon” at desired intervals without operator action. Family members can locate disabled operators that fail to return home as scheduled. The radio transmits the beacon and the family can locate the exact GPS location of the radio without operator intervention.

Less expensive handheld APRS radios only encode APRS signals for transmissions that eventually make it to the Internet. Other, more expensive radios also decode APRS beacon signals encoded by other radios in the area. This can be very useful in tracking down lost operators when the responders are in the field and the internet is not available.

Some APRS equipped radios also allow for easy texting to other devices, including cellular phones, even from an area that lacks cellular services. This allows an operator to inform family members of a delay and any other necessary information even if the radio operator is not in cellular range and the family does not have a radio. The text message, embedded into the transmitted beacon, reaches as far as the radio will allow to a node connected to the internet, which in turn, transmits the text message to the desired cellular phone.

When using APRS on the move, there are two important considerations. First, when using APRS in a vehicle, allow the radio to connect to a GPS satellite before driving the vehicle. For some radios, this can take as long as five minutes. Second, consider using a second roof-mounted antenna for APRS dedicated transmission that will work better than the smaller antenna attached to the radio itself.

E-mail Via Radio

In some larger scale incidents that take out the Internet, the need may exist to contact a specific person or to send large quantities of data accurately. One of the most popular methods of sending emails, without the internet, is using Winlink. The system does require an amateur radio license and one-time fee of $25 to establish the e-mail account. The graphic on the right depicts how the Winlink network functions:

Winlink uses a radio on UHF, VHF and HF frequencies as a modem. The system does require a computer for use of the keyboard and for activating a sound card such as the Signalink by Tigertronics. A typical  configuration is shown below:



Survival is not limited to the mountains and valleys. Many sea captains with the proper licensing use Winlink to send and receive emails when out at sea. It is common to be able to connect consistently with many remote message systems well over 1,000 miles away.

For Winlink use, consider trying a Cross Band or Dual Band radio with a data port such as the Kenwood V71. In this configuration, the system can be constantly at the ready by allowing one side of the radio for voice and the other side for e-mails. With data flowing through the data port instead of the microphone port, the microphone remains connected and both the voice and e-mail set ups remain functional.

When ordering the Signalink, order the correct cable and the correct “jumper” for your radio. I’ve found that the folks at Tigertronics are excellent at answering questions and ensuring you receive the correct product.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. Having a Ham-Radio allows people to stay in contact with people, even if the local electrical system collapses or is damaged. Some untypical people use Ham Radio, even when there is a more convenient, and less expensive methods still available.

    Nellie Ohr [one of the people involved in the Russian Collusion-Delusion, and the active nullification of the democratic process in America] has a Ham-Radio license.

    Nellie Ohr did NOT engage in the typical chatter with other Ham-Radio operators, keeping records of the contacts. … [Contact with different ‘call signs’ becomes a ‘trophy record’ for many Ham-Radio operators] New Ham Radio operators typical explore the capabilities of their equipment.

    From TheConservativeTreehouse.

    “Sometimes Conspiracy Theories are not theory.
    Nellie Ohr, is the wife of DOJ Deputy Bruce Ohr and she is an employee with Fusion GPS. … Why would she apply for a Ham Radio License a month after Fusion GPS contracted with MI6 agent Christopher Steele?

    Nellie Ohr applied for (her) HAM radio license in May 2016. … The Clinton Campaign hired Fusion GPS in April 2016. … Fusion GPS then sub-contracted retired British Intel MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Fusion GPS employee Nellie Ohr gets HAM radio license in May 2016

    So we are to believe it’s *COINCIDENTAL* ? All of a sudden a 60(ish)-year-old woman decides to use a HAM radio the month after contracting with Christopher Steele for a russian dossier on Donald Trump? … Nonsense on the coincidence. More plausible Steele and Ohr knew any communication with foreign sources/actors could be easily >monitored. … One way to ensure communications with parties external to the U.S. can be secure would be the use of HAM radio operations.”

    Nellie Ohr testified, she didn’t contact Russia. [It’s actually a Collusion-Delusion with Russia ~ The Russian Hoax.]
    …….. Her small signal covered much of the Washington DC area. >Other Ham-Radio operators more powerful equipment could have relayed her messages around the USA and around the world, if need be.
    [It’s all conjecture to some of the conspiracy. … The Professional’Spies’ and their cronies know how to create deniability.]

    What’s the point? = Ham Radio can have a useful purpose for everyone else. The Radio System of amateurs can keep their net going, even when the entire electric system is down. … The operators of Ham Radios help other people in distress when there is no other means of communication.
    Consider a Ham Radio as an emergency form of communication. Survivalblog has numerous articles about Ham Radios. [The train has left the station for the >inexpensive model recommended on Survivalblog. Read the articles to understand.]

    Plus, many Ham-Radio just enjoy their hobby.

  2. Excellent overview. It tracks my own family’s experience (FRS->GMRS (licensed)->amateur radio license). My family is now working on a comms plan and your 3-3-3 is simple and genius. I look forward to the next installment.

  3. There are also Nets setup that can deliver Radiograms (Lookup on ARRL) across the country and are practiced by folks several times per day for if/when an emergency might occur.

  4. Comment from ham radio operator of 50 years…For the most part county and state governments no longer want any assistance with communications. People have some idea that they can help, but getting certified with ARRL is a long expensive process that requires much expense to buy the equipment they want. Don’t think you will show up after a disaster with a radio and be welcomed. At best you will be sent home – at worse arrested for interference with “official” activities.
    The real problem is people spend $600 on a “shack in a box” and think that is it. It isn’t. It takes a long time to get and keep up skills. The other point — I would say 98% of people don’t know how to repair/have equipment they can’t repair. Basically, that stuff after a disaster is just a plastic brick.
    Ham radio is a great hobby. I love doing it. But people need to be realistic about its capabilities.

    1. From a ham of 40 years, it takes a serious effort to convince county officials how useful amateur radio can be for emergency service. I belonged to a club that was an official county RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) organization. The county provided the funding for an incredible repeater system and allocated an annual budget for our equipment. In turn, we received training for radiological monitoring in the event of an accident at the nuclear power plant in the next county over. We operated mobile field monitoring stations and relayed our readings to the Emergency Operations Center which radioed our next instructions. We also provided radio operators for school evacuations and liaisons to Sheriff deputies, police and fire department units. They provided us with state disaster commission ID cards the allowed passage through police and military control points.

      It took time and effort to work with county officials to get that level of acceptance. We proved our worth over time, and you can do it too. You need to have a group that speak and act like professionals.

    2. In my County, the officials did not need any help until it hit the fan. Then, they remembered that for 4 years I have been telling them they need to wake up. I was asked to write the first Auxiliary Communications Service Plan and it is now being implemented. I have also helped different people multiple times in, from their point of view, was an emergency and there was no cell service. I don’t find it to be a hobby, but something I feel is important – it has saved me a few times – and is more than a hobby. That is just my opinion.

  5. After watching many live streams and videos of the rally at Richmond Virginia, it seems that participants did not have enough radio gear to be effective. I saw one FRS radio, and one Boafeng. Of course not all the radios would be visible on their gear, yet that is a low count. Folks are just too reliant on smart phones. There was one coordinated attempt to use 2 meter. To monitor, it was advised to download an app for your phone to hear 145.560 Mhz.

  6. Another comment from Ham Radio (first licensed in 1987): The number of Elmers is circling down the toilet drain. The county I am in now has over 500 licensed operators, and only 3 or 4 actual Elmers. I’ve been reaching out and there just is extremely little willing help. Sadly, in this county club they bitch about hav int to license people who aren’t jumping in as full fledged HF contesting people, etc, etc. This county club is badly unique in that aspect.

    In my old club, two counties away from here, they had many Elmers willing to help and even give you equipment: exactly the opposite of these guys.

    I do suggest that preppers get stocked up on those little bits and lengthy pieces. Get multiple spare antenna connectors, extra antenna material, etc. My first antenna for 80M was a loop, made of Army surplus WD1 telephone wire. If you can still find a 1/4 mile spool, or even better a 1 or 5 mile full reel of the wire, get it and you will be the supplier for others. It is the older version of field commo wire, consisting of 2 steel wires, each individually sealed with waterproof coating, loosely wrapped around eachother.

    I got the WD1, while the subsequent issued wire is called WD1A. The WD1A field telephone wire is made differently, consisting of two steel wires each sealed separately but then the waterproof coatings are factory joined-made so the wires are in a paired configuration. Great for any paired wire commo use, but the WD1 can be easily separated to single wires for making antennas. And that’s how my first Elmer got me on air.

    These steel wires are not as effective as copper wires for antennas, but I was able to CW from WY to the great lakes and southwards on 80M with a Swan 350 radio using a cheap straight key. Steel wire works and it is dirt cheap compared to copper.

    Note the WD1, WD1A, and WD1TT are each different from eachother.


    1. WD-1 wire has two conductors, but each conductor has four tinned copper strands and three steel strands. The steel gives it the strength to string it from trees, etc. The tinned copper strands are the current carrying components. Once you strip the insulation off each conductor, bend all of the strands with your finger. The steel strands snap right back, but the copper ones stay bent. Snip the steel strands and make your electrical connections with the copper strands.

      Ask me how I know.

    2. Thanks, and you clearly “get it”. I am not one of the most knowledgeable out there, but I met a young guy today for 2 hours and helped him understand a bunch of stuff. Don’t let it die!! 73,

  7. Ham radio offers many useful benefits to operators. Just keep it in balance, and understand that it is no substitute for food, water, energy, shelter, especially in a grid-down world. The operator in New Hampshire cannot help you in Wilcox, AZ if there is no aid to send or transportation system to send it on…nor intact phone system to employ to notify family outside the affected zone. North America may well constitute the affected zone.
    I know so many operators who own many tens of thousands of dollars in gear who can’t feed themselves for two weeks. The cost of a cheap radio could buy a one year supply of food for an adult.
    No doubt, this audience has a robust understanding of priorities. Ham radio has proven very useful in lessor emergencies.

  8. Winlink requests that you pay to use the system, but it is not required. Please support it if you can. And be advised that the messages sent via email on Winlink must meet the standards of any other amateur radio message re: secret codes, pecuniary interests, etc.

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