Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies- Part 3, by R. in NC

We just took a look at non-FCC License Dependent Communications, including use expectations and purchase considerations. Today, we begin examining FCC license dependent communications devices.

FCC License Dependent Communications


GMRS radios operate on the same frequencies as FRS along with a number of additional channels. They can use up to 50 watts, and the FCC allows for better antennas and repeaters. GMRS will require a license. No test is needed, and the FCC license covers all residents of a household. On last check, the license cost $85 dollars. Pros and cons, along with distance, are similar to FRS, with the exception of additional power, use of repeaters, and better antennas. (See FRS radios for details.)

Amateur Radio – Ham Radio

Ham Radio Overview

Ham radio covers frequencies ranging from 135 kHz to above 275 GHz (as of March 28, 2017). The range of frequencies is immense and covers a wide range of possible communications distances. In addition to the features of each band of frequencies, Ham radio operators have access to satellite-based communications and EME (Earth Moon Earth) bouncing. EME is a technique where signals are bounded off of the moon to a distant location. As long as both antennas can point to the moon at the same time, this can greatly extend range (though it requires significant amounts of power and special antennas). Satellite access is typically setup as a repeater and/or APRS. (See below for information on APRS.) It is even possible to chat with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) when they are overhead and on their Ham radio.

Various Ham Radio Methods of Communicating

Methods of communicating over frequencies vary too. They can include Analog AM/FM, Digital Voice, packets, TCP/IP, texting, email, file transfer, and CW (Morse Code), to list just a few. There are even Internet integration technologies, such as D-Star and Echolink, that will allow you to use software on your computer or radio to connect over the Internet to repeaters across the world. Ham radios can be combined with GPS and Internet gateways to send text messages to cellphones and email accounts from a handheld two-way radio. Winlink and other programs can send out email from your computer without Internet access, by using radio waves to carry the email to a remote email server or radio to radio.

As for encryption, there are several opinions of the law around this. Some say you can’t use encryption, and some point to sections of the FCC laws that describe the need to document your method of encryption but not your decryption keys. Since I’m not a lawyer, I won’t advise either way. I will note that a popular method of emailing via radio called Winlink does uses encryption. Winlink is used for both emergency and normal Ham radio communications.

Different Ham Radio Classes of License

Different classes of license have different levels of access to these methods on specific bands. Some bands are better for distance at different times of the day or night. Almost all are impacted by the solar cycle and sunspots.

Day/night Communications

Day vs night communications are all about bouncing radio waves off of the ionosphere. There is some impact with ground waves; however, it mostly concerns what layer of the ionosphere absorbs and reflects what frequency. Since the layers change between day and night, the absorption and reflection will change for each frequency.

  • Higher is the larger number in meters, not MHz (i.e. 30, 40, 60, 80 meters are higher than 20 meters).
  • 10.1 MHz (30 Meter band) and higher are better for night time.
  • 14 MHz (20 Meter band and below – to 12 meters) are better in the daytime.
  • 28 MHz (10 Meter band and lower to 6 Meters) are better in the daytime, and they are very close to line of site propagation. Sky wave propagation has an impact but usually not during a solar minimum (or the 2017 current solar maximum).
  • 144 MHz (2 Meters and lower) are line of sight and not really impacted by day/night differences.
Groundwave Distances and Frequency

Groundwave is what it sounds like. The radio wave spreads out along the ground, from the source antenna. This happens in parallel to sky wave propagation. The difference between groundwave and line of sight is that when a radio wave is about 6 meters or longer, it starts to follow the curve of the earth. For 6 meters, this curve past the horizon is minimal. For 160 meter waves, it can be out to distances near 100 miles. The following distances are very rough guidelines. Also note that these distances do not include sky wave distances. These are literally ground wave only approximations under good conditions.

  • 1.8 MHz (160 Meters) 90 miles
  • 3.5 MHz (80 Meters) 70 miles
  • 7 MHz (40 Meters) & 10 MHz (30 Meters) 40 miles
  • 14 MHz (20 Meters) 30 miles
  • 21 MHz (15 Meters) 30 miles
  • 28 MHz (10 Meters) 20 miles
Dead Zones

When radio waves bounce off the ionosphere, they do so in an inverted “V” pattern, over and over again. At the point where the wave is in contact with the ionosphere, it is not in contact with the earth. Think of it as a ball bouncing. Where the ball hits the ground, you can communicate; when it is in the air you cannot. The exception of this bounce is when you are within the range of groundwave. This bounce distance varies, because of a few things: angle of takeoff (based on type and height of the antenna), day/night ionospheric absorption of the radio wave, and the shape of the ionospheric layer itself. Do not think of the ionosphere as a smooth line in the sky; think of it as bouncing radio waves off of a rolling sea.

Because of dead zones, ionospheric absorption, terrain, and distance, developing a communications plan for a survival situation is not so much a matter of just saying what radio we will use or what frequency/wavelength those radios will operate on, as it is about having layers of backup plans. What frequency and wavelength will you attempt communication over first, and at what time will that occur? If unsuccessful, what frequency/time will be attempted next?

Note: I live in central North Carolina, and I have a horrible (I mean stealth) antenna setup. Using 80 meters at night, I can communicate with the “VA fone net” (one of the oldest Ham radio “nets” in the country, and located in Virginia). This is with a G5RV antenna setup in my basement (NVIS with overhead obstacles) and wrapped around at odd angles. We are generally talking about a 200-300 mile distance before my signal gets too weak. I can hear people in Canada, New England, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. I’ve even seen packets come in from Cuba, Argentina, and Poland, but I cannot usually hear people 100 miles away.

Flexibility is the key to success here. Different distances vary based on what band/wavelength I am operating on and environmental conditions.

Radio Equipment

There’s more to sending and receiving data and voice over the airwaves than just an antenna and a radio. Before making any HF purchases, I recommend that you read the book Your First Amateur Radio HF Station from ARRL, ISBN: 978-1-62595-007-9. This book will give an excellent overview of what is needed and why and how to set it up.

Programming Software

Programming software allows you to store different configurations for your radios, and it gives you a way to clone this to other radios. For my VHF/UHF radios, I have presets saved for local repeaters and different presets for different areas when I travel. For example, when I have to drive up to my in-laws, I have a number of repeaters pre-saved in a file that covers repeaters along the travel route along with the repeaters that are local to my in-laws location. When I’m about to drive there, I apply that preset to my radio. When I return, I apply the local preset. This saves many hours of manual updating of radios. This also allows me to keep comments and channel numbers in sync between different types of radios, such as my ID-5100 and Baofeng Handhelds.

CHIRP is a free software program that works with many inexpensive radios. RT Systems cost money; however, it may cover a specific radio that CHIRP will not. Remember that programming software is not enough, and you will also have to get a programming cable. These cables are vendor specific and should not be confused with data cables.

HF Radios

When looking for a Ham radio to help in SHTF, keep in mind that the greatest range of frequencies gives you the most options. Many HF radios are listed as “general coverage”, and some include 50MHz (6 meters). General coverage means that the radio can usually receive all the way down into the AM radio range. It does not mean that it will send (TX) on AM radio frequencies. Some radios include HF/50MHz/VHF/UHF like the Kenwood TS2000, or IC-7100. Price can range from $500+ to $14,000 new, depending on what you want and your budget.

There are several single band radios for HF (usually 6 or 10 meter radios). I do not recommend them for anything other than a backup or fun. The frequencies are very limited. If you chose to get one, pay attention to the modulation it supports, because many of these radios are FM only.

SHTF HF Radio Features To Look For

Personally, for SHTF, I recommend the following features in a HF radio:

  • Simple to use,
  • As water resistant as possible,
  • General coverage, and
  • 100 watt HF/50MHz.
  • Also, it should support CW/DATA/SSB/AM.

FM is not really used much on HF radios, except for 6 and 10 meter repeaters. Some radios include an onboard sound card that will let you plug it into your laptop for sending data. This keeps you from having to buy special HF modems. Models like the ***IC-7200*** even have optional metal carry handles, fit in an Alice Pack, and can be ordered in OD green (looking almost like a PRC77).

Note About QRP

QRP radios are usually inexpensivem single frequency, single band or dial, and hope radios. Many are CW/Morse Code only, and power can be in the less than 1 watt or up to 10 watts. Some of these QRP are high end and will allow for integration of amplifiers, but you will pay for that at checkout. Some you can build yourself for under $10. Although these radios can work well when conditions are prefect, your setup matches, you got that antenna at the perfect height, and no one else is stepping on your signal, in general you will spend more time trying to talk than talking. I don’t recommend these for anything more than learning.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with another FCC license dependent communications option and also look at components used to enhance performance of the devices we’ve discussed.

See Also:

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    1. This DOD interoperability test is a great way to develop a view into how our government communicates during major emergencies.

      There’s a whole set of FEMA documentation on the subject. Their structure is called NIMS.

      NIMS overview

      You can take online free certifications on NIMS here, and if you want to participate in your local CERT it will be required.

      All FEMA jokes aside, knowing how they actually operate and coordinated between agencies can be very useful. The structure can be easily adapted to coordinating community or neighborhood emergencies.

      If your group already has an operational comms plan, you might want to consider using this DOD / MARS / Amateur Radio exercise as a background for your own training. An example would be: how does your group respond and communicate based on the information gathered during the DOD broadcast and the following message traffic communications event?

  1. I’m working on it. Finally upgraded to General Class. Now to make systems out of all the older radios et al that I’ve been collecting through the years. Including a stack of older single band radios (RCI-5054, Radio Shack 10 meter) and one QRP HF radio (SGC SG-2020).

  2. Again, R. in NC, excellent article. I would encourage everyone who preps to get a radio and get licensed. Find a club nearby and get their help. An “Elmer” is what we call an expericened ham who helps the newbie. I was helped and have been an Elmer to to others. Most Hams are pretty good people who love to help. Plus in a local event you are likely to know and trust the other voice on the radio. Go on Amazon and either get the ARRL technician class manual, or the Gordon West manual. Both good. Go over the questions with your Elmer get tested and get on the air.

    As to your first radio get a handheld VHF or VHF/UHF dual band. Think of Kenwood, Yaesu, and Icom as the Ford, Chevy, and Honda of radios. Different major brands but all good solid radios. Steet price for their enty level VHF radios are around $100. I know a lot of folks like Baofeng and other Chinese radios, IMHO for a new ham they are just a little more difficult to use. The programming software (like Chirp) is great, but if you had to put in frequencies without a computer it’s not easy. The majors all have well written manuals and years of experiece designing radios for Hams. A great DIY project for a new ham with a handheld is a role up J pole. If you are in a fixe position this cheap and easy antenna solution with give you better range.

    Like R. in NC I can’t put up outside antennas in my neighborhood. That pushed me into doing portable and mobile HF. Used IC-7000 (HF & VHF/UHF) in my truck with MFJ ham sticks. The secret to successful mobile HF is to make sure your radio and antenna are grounded to your vehicle’s steel body. Scrape off paint, use a braided strap. Ground it! That ground screw on the back of your radio is there for a reason. For portable I have a Yaesu FT-991A (HF & VHF/UHF built in tuner) in a Gator Box. Youtube has great ideas for rugged transportation of radios. Youtube search: “ares races go box”.

    My Elmer taught me “good HF communication is 10% radio, 90% antenna”. The author mentioned using a G5RV. If you have no restrictions you can string up a wire dipole like a G5RV in the trees behind your house. There are all kinds of wire, vertical, and directional HF options which you will learn as you study and upgrade as a Ham. For portable I use a Buddipole. I have had success with US, DX (International) on all bands except 80m. The tuner in the FT-991A has helped. The author and commenters have mentioned NVIS (It’s not a new crime drama on CBS). You can add some wires to the Buddipole and get NVIS and local contact on 20m and 40m, I have. If you are a new ham, NVIS is a little advanced. You will get to it.

    Another comment mentions the upcoming interoperability exercise. The US military has powerfull HF radios that transmit/recieve on 60 meters. This is a new band availalbe to Hams. The test will be on Channel 1: 5330.5 kHz. My new Yaseu has 60 meters, the old Icom does not. In an event might I need to communicate with the military? Maybe, maybe not. But I have the option in my toolkit. Remember you can be DF’ed (Direction Find)if you transmit. Listening is OK.

    As you study you will learn about the Phoentic Alaphabet. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. Learn it and pratice. Right now say “E, V, C, B” out loud. The all sound very similiar. Listening to another Ham with a weak signal or noise on the band you may need them, or you may need to, literally spell out your message. In the stress of an emergency is not time to try and remember what “U” is. My hint, practice while you drive. Behind another car? What’s their license plate say? HUW-298. Hotel-Uniform-Wiskey-298. Practice makes perfect.

  3. Mrs. RLB,
    That is a perfect example of why being licensed and able to transmit is so important. Satellite communications, either voice or packet, is a skill that has to be developed by both ends of the link. It has limitations, as you expressed and would probably not be seen as a primary communications link. The same could be said about EME (Earth Moon Earth) communications. Although it could establish longer links (distance and duration), it requires similar skills as Satellite links and usually requires far more power. Common methods of EME are CW (Morse Code) and Packets, both pushed through a directional antenna at usually 1,000 Watts plus.

    As far as your Elecraft KX-2 goes, I’m jealous. It’s physically small and easily fit in a Ammo can faraday cage when not in use. In addition Elecraft makes 100 watt and 500 watt amplifiers that can be added on, almost plug and play. Downside $$$, but you get what you pay for.

    Midwest Marco,
    Thanks for the feedback and pointing out that not all HF radios cover the WARC bands (60 meters in this case). This is especially true for older Tube radios.

    If you saw how I have that G5RV wrapped around my basement you would be amazed that it actually works. To improve it, I modified the length, connected one end to my “wire” connection on a MFJ 934 w/Artificial Ground antenna tuner, the other end to the Counterpoise terminal, so technically it is running closer to a End Fed antenna than a dipole. Both dipole setup and my setup sound the same for reception. The big difference is in SWR and transmitting on 80 and 30 meters. This setup is very close to the ground, and technically some is underground which has a big impact on my SWR. If I didn’t have a license I would never be able to experiment enough to see what works best for me.

    Ordered and still waiting on MFJ to build my MFJ-1788 150 Watt loop… that looks really interesting for a stealth antenna deployment.

  4. R in NC,
    I hope you’re going to write up one of your posts on antennas, and here are two additional ones you may think about to add to your upcoming post:
    Magnetic Loop antennas – small, very portable, great for those indoor/HOA/CCR locations. Very popular now, many being both commercially and home made. Great for the digital modes when used with a QRP radio at low powers (can’t use too much power due to HV arcing in the loop antenna tuning cap, AND burning out the radio due to high duty cycle transmit)
    NVIS (Near Vertical Incident Skywave) antennas – the RF goes practically straight up and down, for hitting those areas in between where the sky wave starts and the ground wave ends.

    B Woodman

    1. Deplorable B Woodman,

      Major antenna types will be covered, including loop and additional info on NVIS. Most of the loops on the market are low powered due to the variable air capacitors used. And many build their loops out of coax. Great for 20 watts and lower. I wish I could include more info on the MFJ-1788 but I am still waiting on mine to arrive (this model handles up to 150 Watts on 40 to 15 meters).

      Mrs RLB,

      Your point about scheduling times and frequencies for communication is absolutely necessary as far as I am concerned. It’s true when you have a HAM radio or just a cellphone. This planning isn’t just important for talking, it is critical for battery and power management over time. I’ll be covering common methods for developing a scheduling plan later in this article.

    1. Good question, and a concern of many preppers. I have an entire section on pros and cons around this because it comes up so often. I’m going to save most of my answer for that section of the article, but for those wondering:

      The FCC allows you to submit your SSN separately from taking the test. You can get your FRN number beforehand and hand over the FRN number instead of your SSN when taking it.

      When getting that FRN, the FCC requires your full name and an address. Note I did not say your home address. This can be a PO box.

      Websites like and the FCC database allow looking up a call-sign, and it will come back with the address you provided, along with your full name. It will NOT come back with your SSN.

      Also note that you can have your license sent to you via email instead of an actual mailed paper (hint hint). They will only send you information to your address if there is a legal FCC reason to.

      Now for OPSEC. Remember there are lots of methods that people can look up your address and get your name. Many counties even will provide that information along with the value of your house and if/when you paid your property tax this year. The FCC database is a data-point, and not unique with having that information. But yes, no one likes how the FCC allows for the lookup of an address in the DB, except the FCC. But I’ll tell you here, and later in the article, it really keeps the “trolls” away. The conversations you hear on HAM radio and the personal interactions are far more civilized than anything you will come across on twitter, or other anonymous internet communications.

      The real question is how do you handle OPSEC during an “Event.” As you start to communicate with people in the local ham clubs, local repeaters and nets, and longer distance, you really start to identify people from their voice, and even CW swing. Under these conditions it becomes much easier to identify and accurately validate someone (not using a call-sign for “Event reasons”) on that personal level than authentication protocols used on the internet. [and the rest I’ll save for later]

    1. ER,

      I won’t say that IRPL has fallen out of favor at all, just that I don’t use it. Mostly I use EchoLink when routing RF over the internet.

      Unfortunately there’s lots of info that I didn’t cover. By the time I submitted this article, the doc was already 18+ pages long, and I started to have a little sympathy for HJL (the editor). I even submitted a shorter version, but thankfully HJL went with the long version.

      There’s a good 60-100 different digital formats that are popular that I don’t even reference. For instance FT8 is new and gaining in popularity. I mention Winlink but not Outpost, and I don’t even mention SDR USB Dongles.

      Heck, people are even using Raspberry Pie kits and/with Adriano kits along with rx only and tx/tx dongles and qrp kits to create standalone beacons, scanners, remote BBS systems for midway points, and all kinds of standalone/internet capable RF interfaces. With the Pie/Adriano’s being so low cost (monetarily and power consumption wise), they can actually make great ammo-can stored (Faraday) cache kits for staging drop offs.

      What has been great, is that people like yourself, and many others have brought these items and their own experiences up in the comment section.

      These comments are what really adds value to the article. So please continue to comment, ask questions and point out alternate methods and experiences that I did not cover. Every paragraph in this article could have been a books worth of writing, so use these comments as a way to make this of greater value to you and others.


  5. Ready to buy my first ham radio, been looking for over a year and just cant decide which one. Can anyone help me? I need to be able to reach family about 215 miles away. Both will have antennae’s in a 40ft tree. Still have tons to learn I might add and feel like I may be a little late to the game but better late than never. (Will be buying two – one for them one for me). Thanks!

    1. Budget is a major factor, but in general any HF transceiver from Yaesu, Kenwood or ICOM. I would go with a model that has a built in sound card, and run 100 watts.

      Personally I am partial to ICOM, they are a Japanese company that builds their radios in Japan. The others are Japanese, but build in China. I just don’t like my money going to China.

      There’s a US company called elecraft that has an excellent qrp and 100 watt transmitter but what would cost you $1,000 from icom will cost you $3,000 from them.

      The two that I was comparing for my HF rig were the IC7200 and the IC7300. Both excellent, but different. I ended up with the IC7200, because … well, I don’t need a GUI touch screen, and the IC7200 is more portable/rugged… plus with the overpriced metal handles it has a nostalgic PRC77 feel to it.

      Remember, if the radio you select does not have an internal antenna tuner, you will probably need to by one separate… you will be able to use more frequencies on that dipole.

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