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.)