Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies- Part 4, by R. in NC

We’ve previously covered non-FCC license dependent communications devices and are wrapping up our examination of FCC license dependent communications options, with special consideration for their use in an emergency. Today, we’ll also begin looking at resources and accessories that help us improve communications.

VHF/UHF Radios

Almost all of the “base station” VHF/UHF radios are designed as car Ham radios. Because of this, they can be very flexible in usage. Most of these are 25-50 watts, and some are even stronger. With the limited range of VHF/UHF, I think that going over 50 watts is probably not needed. FM is the primary modulation for these kinds of radios, and today it is rare to find one that supports AM/SSB. Some vendors support Echolink, D-Star, DMR, and or APRS. Most of these radios also cover the NOAA stations. These (NOAA) emergency radio stations usually report weather but can relay other information. Having access to those stations is a must when I’m looking at a model.

“HT” or Handheld radios are also very useful. (See comments on inexpensive Chinese radios below.) For quality HTs, I recommend paying attention to the IP ratings on these radios. Expect to use this radio in bad weather. These are almost always 5 watt radios, with NOAA and FM radio receive. Some are “smart phone like” with apps for repeater selection based on location. Just make sure you also get the following, if they have them available: programming cable, ear bud, upgraded antenna, and VOX support.

Pros and Cons of Inexpensive Chinese VHF/UHF Radio

There are pros and cons of inexpensive Chinese radios. First off, many of the HT (handheld) radios are good enough to connect to your local repeater and allow for different antennas. In SHFT, many of the models, like Baofeng, allow for TX outside of the Ham bands, including on FRS/GMRS/MURS/NOAA frequencies, and they can receive FM radio stations. This can be very handy, since they usually put out 5-8 watts, depending on model.

Free programming software like CHIRP almost always works on these radios, as long as you get a programming cable. A distributor called BTECH also has data cables for the Baofeng that will allow you to connect your Baofeng to an iPhone. When combined with a low cost iPhone app called PocketPacket, you can send out email, SMS, and other information via APRS.

The downside is that they almost never have a good manual. Also, different firmware from different distributors can cause issues, stock antennas are usually horrible, and they have limited power and IP ratings. Some of the Chinese radios, especially the small car units, have overheating issues, so pay attention to the Amazon reviews when looking at different distributors.

Many new Hams start with these radios, since they usually cost around $30. These prices mean the cost of the radios are low enough to get for practice, learning, and then dump them in an ammo can when you upgrade.

Antenna Tuners

If you only use one band, wavelength or small range in frequencies, you will not usually need an antenna tuner. You can cut an antenna to length (covered below in the antenna section) and work without one. However, many of us operate on a wide range of frequencies, and an antenna tuner helps to protect the radio by synchronizing the input and output resistance (Ohms) between the antenna and your radio.

Why is this important? This is an oversimplified answer, so buyers beware. If too much electricity comes back over the antenna, you can damage your radio. If the radio pushes out more RF than the antenna or coax can handle at that frequency, it bounces right back at the radio over and over again, which can damage your radio. The reason many use an antenna tuner is because your radio is expecting 50 Ohms resistance on the antenna. When that is not true, there is some “buffer” with the resistance but not much.

How much resistance you get between the antenna and radio depend on many things. They type of coax, length of coax, type of antenna, the height of the antenna, and how far off frequency you are from the antennas optimal resonance. Antenna tuners help match all of this. They can make a wire that would not operate well on 20 meters, actually work on 20 meters. It’s not magic, but it can greatly expand the number of frequencies you can operate on.

Types of Antenna Tuners

There are two basic types of antenna tuners: manual and automatic. As the name suggests, one you dial using knobs (and write down settings for different frequencies); the other is close to plug and play. Both have their advantages. The one that is manual can be a pain to keep adjusting, but they work with almost any kind of radio. Automatic tuners have adapters for your specific radio, so you might need to buy new cables and goodies if you replace hardware. Personally, I own a MFJ-934, because it is very flexible when it comes to different configurations. It even has a feature where you can tune your counterpoise. The downside is that whenever I move anything, I have to re-test my settings for each frequency. Others prefer automatic tuners, because you just press a button.


There are four major types of antennas and hundreds of variations of those basic forms. What works for you may not work for someone else, due to terrain type and restrictions. Also note that proximity to the earth impacts how the antenna behaves.

  1. Dipole antennas include variations such as G5RV, OCF, cage, cobweb, and many others. In its basic form, it has two wires. One wire is connected to the center lead of a coax cable and one to the outer (ground) of the coax. These antennas tend to give the best overall performance. The downside is that they can be long. Length of a dipole is calculated by 468/frequency in megahertz. So a dipole for 40 meters (7.110MHz) is 65 feet long. For some, that is a lot of space. There are folding dipoles that can cut that length in half, and they can be bent to reduce the amount of space the antenna takes up. Also the ideal height for a 40 meter wavelength is 40 meters in the air. These are usually the least expensive and are typically found for under $100 dollars.
  2. Vertical antennas are based on 1/4 or 5/8 wavelength (usually) and often come with loading coils to help make them resonant on alternative frequencies, and reduce the overall length. When you see these on automobiles, they are using the car itself as a ground and counterpoise. When mounted on the ground, they often require an extra wire(s) buried or spread out, with a length of around 1/4 wavelength. These can cause several hundred dollars and still need to be mounted as high as possible.
  3. Loop/magnetic antennas are some of the smallest antennas. Some only take up six feet in circumference. Most are designed for use close to the earth and can be found as kits with portable mounts. They are semi-directional in nature but easily rotated. This makes a great quick deployment and takedown antenna. The downside is that most versions that are reasonable in cost are for low power setups (QRP – less than 20 watts). For something that can handle several hundred watts of power, expect to pay in excess of $400 or even $600, without the mounts.
  4. Yagi antennas are directional antennas. They amplify signals for both sending and receiving in a single direction and have a significant null or dead area in areas where it is not pointed. In its basic form, there is a reflector, driver (1/2 wave dipole), and one or more directors.

With the (possible) exception of the loop antenna, all antennas should be mounted as high as possible. When most of these antennas are less than one wavelength off the ground it has an impact on the “takeoff” angle of the signal.

NVIS: When the antenna is less than 1/4 wavelength off the ground, an interesting phenomena takes place. The radiation coming out of the antenna is shot almost straight up, and the reflection off the ionosphere is almost straight down. Now the 1/4 ratio varies, depending on what report you sight, and some say it can be as low as 9 feet, but the results are generally the same. This reflection, in an almost straight down angle, combined with ground wave, gives you a circle of communication possibly out to 500 miles.

You will not be able to talk beyond that, but you will be able to receive past that 500 mile mark. Also note that the 500 miles is very subjective. It could be as little as 200 miles. If two locations are within 500 miles and you do not care to talk past that, then setting up both sites with NVIS may be your best option. You can adjust the height to see what is optimal for you.

About FCC Ham Radio Licenses

Some preppers have an issue with the FCC requiring you to submit a SSN and address with a license application (PO Box is allowed). For the most part, they are concerned with a lack of anonymity and risk of confiscation by the government during some kind of SHFT emergency. I understand that viewpoint and even share some of it; however, if you are one of those people, please consider these points.

  • It is legal to use a Ham radio in a life-threatening emergency. If you call with an emergency under normal conditions (i.e. I am not concerned about confiscation or loss of freedom during SHFT), then I and any other Ham out there will move mountains to help, and we won’t care that you don’t have a license. We are kind of addicted to helping. That being said, in a SHTF situation, I won’t risk my freedom or my radio to help someone I do not know and who doesn’t even have a call sign. And if you don’t have a license, then I have never talked to you. I don’t know if you are from the government. And every second I’m on the air places me at risk of direction finding. Sorry, but that is the reality of it. During SHTF, I would expect Hams to change their call sign to hide their identity and end up relying on personally recognizing each other’s voice or CW swing.
  • Just because I can hear you, doesn’t mean that you can hear me. This is everything. You can buy equipment, connect up an antenna, and direct it to hear what you want to hear, but that still doesn’t mean that I can hear you when you transmit. And without a license and call sign, I’m not answering you to let you know you are really “connected” to my region. Every Ham has spent countless hours tweaking their antenna to communicate to the location they want to. This tweaking requires transmitting and someone answering you. No license, no answer, no confirmation of reception.
  • Transmitting to your friends when you don’t have a license. Direction finding (DFing) is a significant part of the Ham radio hobby. There are old farts all over the country that high-five each other whenever they hear you key up. In time, they will find you, record you, and hand it off to the FCC. The fine is $10,000. You see, it’s not about you being a pain, or us on some ego trip. It’s not even about using the radio without a license. Amateur Radio is self-regulated, and without being aggressive at self-regulation, Ham radio will become just like CB radio or the comments section of a political blog. We do everything we can to keep the trolls away and to keep the government from implementing an active control on the Ham bands.

Tomorrow, I will tell you how to go about obtaining your Ham radio license. You’ll also learn about establishing and planning your communications.

See Also:

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  1. You have done an excellent job with this series. I am very grateful to you for the time you dedicated and the quality resultant.

    The majority in my groups are slowly moving towards licensing. ..and thus training which will increase operational capability. Theirs will increase mine. And you also illustrated that concept beautifully.

    Yes, members of our club practice Fox Hunts every month. I explained the self-policing aspect to a new Tech last week. Ham radio people fought a bitter and ultimately successful fight to keep the US government at arms length in taking total control of the radio spectrum about a hundred years ago.

    Thanks again and God Bless.

  2. 1) In response to a query from Part 1 of this article –re protective measures — I would note that Army Field Manual Fm 24-18 explains some of the er.. more interesting aspects of NVIS antennas:

    “there are many advantages in using the NVIS concept. The tactical environment. There are skip-zone-free omnidirectional communications.
    Terrain does not effect loss of signal. This gives a more constant received signal level over the operational range instead of one which varies widely with distance.
    Operators are able to operate from protected, dug-in positions. Thus tactical commanders do not have to control the high ground for HF communications purposes.
    Orientation of doublets and inverted antennas become noncritical.
    The EW environment ù There is a lower probability of geolocation. NVIS energy is received from above at very steep angles, which makes direction finding (DF) from nearby (but beyond ground-wave range) locations more difficult. ù Communications are harder to jam. Ground-wave jammers are subject to path loss. Terrain features can be used to attenuate a ground wave jammer without degrading the desired communication path. The jamming signal will be attenuated by terrain, while the sky-wave NVIS path loss will be constant. This will force the jammer to move very close to the target or put out more power. Either tactic makes jamming more difficult. ù Operators can use low-power successfully. The NVIS mode can be used successfully with very low-power HF sets. This will result in much lower probabilities of intercept/detection (LPI/LPD). ”

    See — sometimes you do get something for those tax dollars.

    Re terrain masking to block jammers/ evade direction finding, I believe they are referring to locating within ravines, canyons, small defiles in mountains, etc where you are surrounded by earth and vegetation but have an open sightline to the sky.

  3. Addendum on Magnetic Loop antennas:

    I’m adding this because mag-loop antennas have such high promise for stealth applications, in the field, at a base location, or when your HOA has antenna restrictions.

    Several companies make Magnetic Loops: Alpha Antennas (, Chameleon Antennas (, and MFJ ( are some of the more popular ones and you can find instructions on the internet to build your own. Only MFJ makes one to handle 150 Watts (that I know about), but the Alpha and Chameleon antennas are backpack portable.

    For a comparison on Alpha and Chameleon loops see the video reviews done by OH8STN ( OH8SN lives in arctic conditions and tests many ham portable tools in the field.

    There are pros and cons to a magnetic loop. The pro is that the loop can be as little as 36″ in diameter making it easy to hide. That’s 36″ (inches) compared to a dipole that could be 100 feet long.

    The con (or pro) is that the loop is a low bandwidth, high Q antenna, and mostly directional. What this means is that the loop will have to be tuned whenever you change the frequency and possibly rotated. If you plan on putting one in the attic then get ready for a lot of back and forth because most models do not have a remote tuner. Only the MFJ model has a remote tuner integrated.

    Bandwidth vs High Q 101:
    Antennas with a large bandwidth (dipoles, end fed, and others) can resonate on a wide range of frequencies before you need to adjust an antenna tuner. This is good for scanning, and hopping around on a band. This large range of frequencies also means that you are pulling in a lot of unwanted “reception.” Loops antennas have to be tuned often because they are much more narrow in bandwidth – meaning they focus their receive, and transmit on a smaller sliver of the band. Often Magnetic Loops are better for digital modes, CW and voice when there are busy adjacent frequencies.

    For an analogy, dipoles are the binoculars of antennas where mag-loops are the microscopes.

    In my case, I have an MFJ on order. My plan is to use my G5RV and loop via an A/B switch. The G5RV is for bands not covered by the Loop, and for scanning around. When I find a frequency I want to operate on I can switch over to the loop.

    For those really restricted in space or have stealth concerns, MFJ along with others, makes a receive only loop that has a large bandwidth for collection – these can be hooked up in an A/B config, but you will break the RX only loop if you accidentally transmit on it – so be careful.

  4. Like many, I continue to enjoy this series. I recently upgraded to my extra ticket.
    This hobby can really help in clearing out the cobwebs as I am constantly learning. You will never know it all. I wish I had been given the benefit of reading this series of articles before I took my technicians test and bought my first radio.

  5. Don Williams,

    Yes, big brother has all kinds of toys and computer time. In theory, if you have a large number of points to collect know the ionospheric conditions at time of broadcast, along with signal strength, at that data-point, you could plot out where the signal is most likely coming from, and then focus on ground wave based DF. Rumor has it that the US government has those resources and I tend to believe it. There are even new Doppler based mobile antennas that assist in it.

    The best way to prevent Local Detection is to avoid being so high a priority for them that they put those resources into finding you.

    Keep messaging short, possibly use code instead of encryption (not that encryption isn’t more secure, but it is far less obvious that you should be a target). Rotation of signals and strength of signal, vary between data, voice and CW. I would even go as far as changing the speed that I sent Morse Code, and they keyed. Do everything you can to keep them from thinking: I heard two “things” today and they are from the same people.

    You want them thinking: communication A was two old guys sharing a beer brewing recipe, communication B was someone kid practicing Morse Code.

  6. A good article with a lot of technical info. But what it does not do is make some clear simple low cost suggestions as to what to buy. If you aren’t a ham and don’t want to spend thousands of dollars and many hours of your time every day/week to keep up. What is a good option to keep up on news after the SHTF and what is a good option to communicate with family and/or help in an emergency or after SHTF?

    If the response to these questions are it’s too complicated to give an answer than that is less than useful. If the answer is going to cost a couple thousand dollars more than likely that will be less than useful too.

    What can I do for under $100 (or maybe $200) That will at least be useful for these two needs? Not perfect, not the best, but at least useful.

    1. I didn’t because I’ve spent the whole article arguing against using this approach, but I will answer your question. Just remember that what I say I has serious limitations, all outlined in the non-licensed section. Below will require no, or almost no training, and minimal cost.

      2 way short range communications ($75 for a two pack with a dual charger) FRS – Home Depot, Lowe’s and others sell these in two packs an example with waterproofing and NOAA channels is There are a bunch of these available, just make sure it has NOAA and is waterproof.

      Don’t believe the 35 mile claim. Expect 1-6 miles. You can just select a channel, no need to program, and you won’t have to deal with antennas.

      Cobra also makes a number of CB’s if you want something more powerful, but antennas and power supplies are involved.

      For a general radio, I recommend and have a Kaito Voyager radio – several models exist and can be found on amazon. This radio has an internal rechargeable battery, can take new batteries while the rechargeable ones are still installed, has a solar recharger and hand crank, plus an AC/DC adapter. You can even charge your cell from a USB port. It covers FM/AM/several shortwave bands, and NOAA. Price ranges from $49 to about $99 depending on options and accessories. The Amazon’s link was a paragraph long, but you can do a quick search.

      Combining the FRS and Kaito radio will keep you within your price range.

    2. I think after reading all parts of this series the author has suggested solutions that either meet or come close to what you are asking for. A pair of Motorola Talkabout FRS radios on Amazon are around $150. This would give you communication, but the author noted the limitations.

      You can become a Ham but you’ll be close to your $200 limit.

      An entry level VHF single band hand held Ham radio by Yaseu, Kenwood or Icom cost street price of $109, $139, $189. You can go cheaper with a Chinese radio but IMHO they are more difficult to use.

      Amazon price of technician class test study manual from ARRL is $21. Equally good is the Gordon West technician class manual also $21.

      You’ll need to test to get your license. Google: “(Insert name of your city) ARRL VEC testing” or “(Insert name of your city) W5YI VE testing”. ARRL test is $7, W5YI is $14. Either group is great. When you pass they file with FCC, you get your call sign, and you are on the air.

      If my math is correct you are under $200. I would highly recommend at the minimum you buy an extra battery for the radio. But you will have to invest some time into learning and testing.

      Depending on the size of your community there’s probably at least one ham VHF repeater. You’ll be able to communicate with Ham’s with a geographical range of probably your county and adjacent counties. You can add your Spouse/Children to your emergency comm plan by adding one or more radios. By sharing your study book that cost is covered. Perhaps a family project? Study and test together. No cell service during an event? You all [virtually] “meet” on the repeater [frequency] and coordinate what’s next.

  7. Thank you R. in NC for this continuing excellent article. Some idea, hints, and tips.

    When buying a radio you can go new or used. For new hams I would reccomend new. That way you are not buying someone else’s problem. As a new ham you won’t know if the issue you are having is your lack of experience, or something that’s broke on the radio. And new radios come with a manual. Buy a Yaseu, Kenwood, or Icom. I’ve bought new from Universal Radio, DX Engineering, GigaParts and Ham Radio Outlet. Not an complete list. Ask other Hams. For a second radio with experience you might want to buy used there’s always Ebay. With eBay the usual buyer beware caution applies. Some scammers lift pics of good radios off other sites, and list bad radios or no radios at all. Bargains and good radios can be found on eBay. Sometimes it’s a Ham is a big eBayer or it’s a non-ham selling an estate radio or non-ham who bought one at a flea/garage sale. A good online resource for used equiment is the Swapmeet section of It’s a ham community which polices itself well….plus all pictures on QRZ must have hand lettered cards with the seller’s Ham radio call sign in it.

    The author notes to check the Amazon review of a radio before buying. Another resource is the Review section on They have reviews by Hams on radios, antennas, and equipment. I’ve found reviews from last week all the way back to 2002.

    I agree with the author on a mobile (with 12v power supply) as a base is a good thing to have. Top power out of 50 watts is fine. You probably won’t ever even need that. But in the Tim Tayor more power tradition I have a Kenwood TM-281A that does 65 watts. Probably will never need it, but extra watts in an emergency with a Ham in the field who can’t quite hear me could make a difference. Funny in the power wars Yaesu changed the FT-2900 to the FT-2980 with an increase in top power from 50w to 80w. I bet you run that radio at 80w for any length of time you could put a pan on the heat fins and fry an egg. Radio & camp stove!

    Great section on HF antenna tuners. My only addition is that you don’t have to buy the HF radio brand name tuner. If you do they will work great. There are other companies that make tuners that will work with your HF radio. The author mentions MFJ. I have had great sucess with LDG HF tuners. Check out the reviews on Also, if you have a long feed line (coax cable) to your antenna you may want to consider a remote base mounted HF tuner. More expensive but you are tuning to the antenna not the antenna an long feed line.

    I would add a couple of qualifiers to the section on Vertical antennas by divding them into three types.

    VHF/UHF FM vertical antennas. That’s what on your handheld radio or mounted on your truck. Height and antenna gain are your friend. As the author explained the curvature of the earth limits the signal’s travel. You want the antenna as high up as possible. On a base station mount on your roof, tower, barn. If you have easy access to mount you can use a less expensive VHF/UHF vertical. If it’s not easy access you may want to go more expesive, rugged, better made and save yourself effort getting to it to fix if trouble. Rember with height comes increaed risk of lightning strikes. Read up on how to put in a copper ground rod and grounding wire/strap. If could save your house from burning down.

    HF Verticals that don’t require ground radials. There are multi band HF vertical antennas that don’t have to be on the ground. I have a Cushcraft R7 (discontinued, on to R9) that I had mounted at my old house 30 feet off the ground on a chimney. Got 60 DXCC countries in a year. Worked great.

    HF Verticals that do require ground radials. These HF antennas have to be mounted on the ground. You need to run copper wires radiating from the base out on the ground. I helped a Ham fried install a DX Enginnering ground mounted multi band HF vertical. You actually staple the radials to the ground and either sprinkle dirt over them or let the grass grow over in a season or two.

    One comment on the Yagi (directional antenna) section of the article. The author uses an Amazon link to illustrate the Yagi. If you click thru to the link you’ll find it a broadcast HDTV antenna. Not for ham use. Quick tip for new hams. Cable TV and TV antennas work on coax cable thats 75 ohm. Ham radio is 50 ohm standard. Coax cable may look the same, but don’t mix and match. Use only 50 ohm for Ham.

    HF Yagi’s are fantastic. If you’ve got the resources and $$ mount one on a tower and you can talk to anyone in the world. VHF/uHF Yagis anc pinpoint your transmission where you want. Point a yagi at the moon and you can get Earth-Moon-Earth. If you’ve got a ham friend 20 miles away with a Yagi their house, and one at your house you could have great communiction on a couple of watts.

    Remember sucessfull ham radio communication depends 10% on the radio and 90% on the antenna.

    I will echo the author’s comments on unlicensed transmission. As a 20+ year Ham I’ve seen the evolution in FCC enforcement. In the olden days the FCC did it all. Being a government agency that means they were understaffed and somewhat lax. Now that hams find the offenders and turn over the evidence to the FCC. They enforce a lot better.

    Get a license, learn, enjoy and in an event protect yourself and your family by being able to communicate when all other paths fail.

  8. Well Rob, while you’re having fun giving high fives and RAT-ing out your fellow Americans remember this. When the SHTF the government will be coming to you and your buddie’s houses first. The last thing that Big Brother will want to happen is to have ham operators giving out information as to where the government has set up road blocks, concentration camps, troop movement or congregations, or any other intel that they don’t want civilians to know about. Licensed ham operators will be a thorn in their side (at least you will be considered as such)so you will be payed a visit first and while they’re at your home they will take your guns to boot. Then I suspect they will look at your preps and make a determination as to what you’re allowed to keep and what they consider prohibited items. And it could get a lot worse than that if they consider you a threat to their plans. You’ve already set yourself up and made it easy for them. IMO (licensed)ham operators are setting themselves up for a great fall if this country goes south.

    1. I hear what you are saying, and on some points I even agree.

      Personally I am an advocate of having the FCC increase the watts allowed for CB, and FRS. I even think there should be an “intro license” with access to a small subset of the tech bands, and needing people to take an online test instead of tracking down a HAM club.

      However, remember this is not SHIFT. And personally I do not avoid things like HAM radio licenses, or Concealed Cary, because what might happen in a large scale breakdown. Instead I use those to develop what I think are critical skills, while I still have that opportunity. But that’s my personal take. There are many other views that are just as valid as mine.

      This choice really is between these two conditions: either HAM radio operations police their own environment or the Government polices those frequencies. Between those two options I prefer self-policing.

      Also note that every time I’ve seen HAM operators activity tracking down a non-licensed person it was because that person was actively being a ***. They were seeking out frequencies in use and sending interference (keying up) over people intentionally, or sending/talking junk through repeaters.

      As far as being a target during SHIFT because they have our license contact information goes. There’s not much I can disagree with there, but I’ll point out this: in today’s internet world, HAM’s are the ones with 99% of the RF skill sets. Those skills developed DF’ing and from years of working with RF seriously decrease the likelihood of being “tracked down.”

      You can’t learn and develop countermeasures for something you have no experience with.

  9. Sir, good essay. But, one major point to consider. You stated, ” There are old farts all over the country that high-five each other whenever they hear you key up. In time, they will find you, record you, and hand it off to the FCC. The fine is $10,000.” And the reasons for doing so are quite clear and reasonable – today, in this world. But, those same individuals who would turn anyone in to the government today, I must ask, “why should anyone trust them post-SHTF?” . They are exactly the type of people I personally would never trust, associate with or in any way, shape or form create any type of alliance with – ever. Furthermore, in a SHTF scenario, it will be far more important to listen than to broadcast. The DF skills are fine. But the greater skill will be to know when to STFU and remain silent.

    1. Maybe your experience is different, but the people I’m talking about act like two year olds, intentionally stepping on people, generating signals to interrupt nets, and there’s even one person that just sends recordings of laughter over and over again whenever they hear a frequency in use. I have no sympathy for those people.

      Get licensed, learn what can and can’t be done.

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