We all take our glorious electronic communicators for granted today. Got a problem? Search the web. Driving to work and realize you forgot to mail an important bill? Call home and ask your family to drop it off at the post office for you. Need directions? Just ask your phone.
What if you suddenly lost the use of these wondrous conveniences? Who hasn’t experienced this at some point? Poor signal strength, cell towers under maintenance, power outages, and more can take your connectivity offline. The more we rely on these amazing conveniences daily, the more annoyed we are when they don’t work.
Every part of the USA has its own type of natural disaster. I happen to live where earthquakes are an accepted part of life– northern California. When a strong quake happens, everyone instinctually reaches for their cell phone to call family and friends, but when they do they usually can’t get a connection. There are several possible reasons, including power outage at the cell tower, physical damage to land lines that connect the towers to the phone system, or simply cell system overload due to the massive demand put on the cell towers by so many people trying to make calls all at the same time.
However, there is yet another reason why your cellphone may not function during a natural disaster: the government may limit your access to insure that emergency workers and first responders can successfully use the system. You may have assumed that if you pay your bill you should be able to use the system, but in an emergency federal law says otherwise. If the government decides that other uses of the cellular system are more important than yours, you lose. This article, from Police Chiefs magazine, discusses several of the priority mechanisms that are available to local and regional emergency responders that could result in you not being able to access the cellular system or at least result in you having your use limited.
Now, imagine for a moment that the government wished to prevent people from communicating with each other, for purposes other than responding to a natural disaster: counter terrorism, marshall law, and so on. How would you communicate with family and friends? Shutting off the Internet is already a known tool available to the federal government under Executive Order 12472, so email or chat or any Internet communications are also not things you can count upon. Is this possibility far-fetched? Disabling civilian communications is a commonly used tool in many places in the world today, such as China.
The one communications method that can typically get through when all else fails is two-way radio. There are many different kinds of radios available, some of which are designed for non-licensed consumers. One of these operates on what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calls The Family Radio Service, or FRS. Despite any advertising claims for “high power”, all legal FRS radios are limited to 1/2 watt of transmission power. You might get many miles of range with a 1/2 Watt FRS radio if you happen to be on a mountain top and are transmitting to someone below you in a valley with no visible obstructions, but in an urban or suburban environment, where buildings and trees are common, practical range is severely limited to less than a mile. Even if you are able to do so, who will you contact using an FRS radio in a communications blackout? Given its usable range, that’s not too many people and perhaps none.
Another unlicensed radio service available to consumers, but more powerful than FRS walkie talkies, is Citizen’s Band or CB radio. At full legal transmission power of 4 watts, CB radios have an effective range of approximately four miles. This considerably expands the number of people you can reach compared to FRS walkie talkies. CB radio remains somewhat popular with truckers and others.
Perhaps the most effective radio service to consider is the Amateur Radio Service, or Ham radio. First, legal radios with 50+ watts of transmit power are commonly available, making 20 to 30 mile line-of-sight transmission entirely possible. Also, amateur radio has established publicly accessible repeaters in places that help low power hand-held radios communicate much longer distances. Many amateur radio repeaters are solar powered these days, enabling them to operate even if the power grid is down. I live in a dense urban/suburban area and can easily reach a repeater located over 15 miles away using my 5 watt, 2 meter hand-held. That repeater allows me to reach at least another 50 miles, vastly expanding the number of people I can reach.
Another thing to consider is who you are going to reach. If you are talking about FRS or CB radio, you have no idea of the experience of the person you are going to reach or what resources they may be able to connect you with if you need help. Amateur radio operators, on the other hand, have a long history of assisting with communications during disasters and other emergency situations. One of the oldest Ham radio organizations– the American Radio Relay League (ARRL)– was established to help relay messages over long distances during times of communications outages. So who you reach is arguably even more important than what radio technology you use to reach them. But without some kind of radio technology, you aren’t going to reach anybody!
When communications between people are cut off, the only information you are going to get is the “information” the authorities want you to receive. Should you evacuate? Maybe you would if you knew all the facts of a disaster or other situation. Perhaps the best course of action is to stay put, but if all you know is what others wish you to know, you can’t really make an informed decision. You might be able to pick up some critically useful information on FRS or CB, but Ham operators are going to have information from the widest area, simply because they are able to communicate over much longer distances.
A very important thing to consider about selecting a radio is its reliability. If you want to depend on this gear when everything is chaos, you don’t want a cheaply made radio. FRS walkie talkies are good for caravan driving or communicating over short distances while camping or hiking, but they typically are not built to emergency preparedness standards. CB radios are typically built as “mobile radios”, intended to be installed in and run off a car’s 12-volt battery system. In the world of electronics design, this means the designers don’t have to care very much about power consumption, and so they don’t. While there are some handheld CB radios, the established high quality radio makers of amateur and commercial radios do not make them. They make Ham radios instead. So your choices for a high quality hand-held radio capable of reaching any considerable distance and reaching others who are familiar with radio communications, perhaps even in emergency situations, are pretty much limited to Ham radios of some kind, and the most commonly used hand-held Ham radios are 2 meter radios.
There is quite a lot to choose from in selecting a 2 meter hand-held transceiver these days. Some very excellent radios can be had for $150 or less. Higher functioning radios can cost several times that amount, but a $150 2 meter hand-held radio is all you need to be able to connect when the SHTF. As a hand held, it can travel with you in a bug out bag or in your car, if you are able to use that. Most hand-held radios today come equipped with NiMH or even Lion batteries, enabling very long monitoring times. Some have useful, optional battery packs that can accept standard AA battery cells. If rechargeable, these do not require special chargers and can typically be charged off of portable solar-powered chargers. There are even some sub $50 radios made in China that you might consider, though I personally own one, I prefer the build quality of established amateur radio makers.
If you are convinced that having the power to communicate in spite of natural or man-made impediments is definitely for you, why get an amateur radio license? If government has disintegrated into tyranny or chaos, who cares if you have a license? This is a fair question. One good answer is that in order to learn and gain experience with Ham equipment and its operation before any such disruption of communications should occur, you will want to do it with a license. Getting a license and operating your radio helps put you in touch with the radio community in your area, familiarizes you with available repeaters, and will help introduce you to people you can count on when things get weird.
How hard is it to get a Ham license? The answer is that it depends quite a lot on how much operating privilege you wish to have, but relax and know that the entry level Technician’s License is all that you need to get on the air with a 2 meter radio. For many Hams, this is all they’ll ever need or want. Others will wish to learn and do more, like bouncing radio signals off the moon. Really! Since February of 2007, the FCC eliminated the requirement of learning Morse Code in order to obtain a license, so something that used to be a considerable barrier to getting a license has been removed.
There are many resources on the Internet, such as eham.net, that let you take practice exams for free. You can take them over and over until you learn everything you need to know to pass the written FCC exam. Of course, there are many books available for purchase and from your local library to help you prepare for the exam. Written exams are given locally by Ham volunteers and typically cost $15 to take. If you pass, the FCC will mail your license to you in about two weeks. If you study with online exams until you can consistently pass them, there’s no reason to believe you won’t pass your written exam the first time.
Once you do a little study and pass your exam, what can you do with amateur radio?
- Practice communicating; learn how to properly participate in multi-way radio conversations, how to make contacts, how to participate in message relays.
- Participate in ERT at your job; many businesses organize Emergency Response Teams (ERT) who use radio as a way to communicate during emergencies, such as fires.
- Participate in ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service); amateur radio operators volunteer to assist with communications during natural or other emergencies. ARES is an organization specifically for this purpose in which you can volunteer if you are a licensed Ham.
- Get to know people in community who can help in an emergency; if you are on the air, communicating with other Hams and possibly volunteering in an ERT or in ARES, you will get to know other radio operators who are well connected with the emergency response resources in your community.
- Help others; amateur radio cannot be used for any commercial purpose, but it is instrumental in being able to reach help when other means are not possible, such as reporting vehicle accidents in remote locations; you can help others to understand the value of wireless communication for just the types of reasons discussed in this article.
- Be prepared; ultimately, having command of communications when the endearing smart phones do not work is why you want to make radio communications an important tool in your preparedness kit. There simply is no replacement for it today.
The only fairly certain mode of communicating during disasters, whether natural or man-made, is radio. You can’t count on cell phones, land lines, or the Internet, any of which can become disabled or even intentionally turned off. To be prepared, you need to obtain and learn how to properly operate a 2-way radio.
There are many online resources for amateur radio because Hams were some of the early adopters of the Internet. Hams have launched satellites (OSCAR), established repeater phone patches in the 1970’s allowing radio to phone system calling, foretelling cellular phones, and adapted radio to the Internet, letting any registered Ham make use of remote repeaters world-wide through the Internet and software (Echolink). Online Ham resources would be too numerous to list here, but the following two web sites are great starting points: