Ham Radio: Emergency Communication


photo credit: w9jim

Ham (“Amateur”) Radio is a reliable form of communication that is used in all sorts of scenarios, from hobby/recreation use to emergencies. This type of radio use is termed “amateur” because such communications are not allowed to be made for commercial or money-making purposes. Note that ham radios are a “step up”, as it were, from FRS/GMRSwalkie talkie” devices.

Licensing

Regulated by the FCC, Ham Radio has three classes—different levels of competency and licensed use. These are Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. Each class offers a wider spectrum of authorized use. In previous years, otherwise interested individuals were often discouraged from Ham radio because of the morse code requirement. However, the FCC phased out this requirement in 2007 for all class levels.

After a short class and a fairly easy exam, any individual (regardless of age) may obtain a license. Once a license is given, a callsign will be assigned as well (as an example, mine is KE7LMI).

Equipment

Having completed these basic requirements, you are now ready to buy a radio. Depending on your personal needs and class level, you may have authorized access to different frequency bands. Since I have no desire to be a ham hobbyist, my sole needs for the radio use are for emergency communications. Thus, I opted for a handheld radio using UHF/VHF, thus allowing me to have portable communications. HF operators have the ability to communicate at longer distances (which would be useful in obtaining news updates from remote locations in a TEOTWAWKI scenario), but the equipment is most often bulky and stationary due to the antenna size requirements.

I personally prefer the Yaesu line of handheld radios, and being the poor man that I am, I own one of the less fancy models. But depending on your needs, this may be more than enough for what you’d ever need the radio for.

Line of Sight Communication and Repeaters

Once you have a radio in hand, you’ll need to find somebody to communicate with. While handheld UHF/VHF radios can communicate on any (approved) frequency at line of sight, it is quite common to use what are called repeaters—a radio transmission device (usually mounted on a tower at a visible location) that receives transmissions on one frequency and broadcasts them on another. Using a repeater (or a chain of repeaters all linked together) you can communicate with others who are not in your line of sight, but who, like you, are within sight of the repeater.

A list of repeaters in Utah can be found here and here. You will, of course, want to determine which repeaters are accessible at your location within the state (or if you live elsewhere, find a list of repeaters in your area) and test your connection to them with your radio to ensure that you can connect. Even if nobody is on the repeater you’re trying to connect to, many repeaters will periodically send morse code tones of their callsign ID which would indicate that you do indeed have a working signal.

To connect to a repeater, simply set the frequency of your radio to the frequency of the repeater. In a sense, there is little difference between connecting to a repeater’s frequency and connecting to a frequency for line of sight communication with another person’s radio. Consult your radio’s manual for how to adjust the frequency properly. Once you are “keyed in” to the repeater’s frequency, listen. There may be a conversation occurring at the moment you connect, and so you don’t want to be rude and jump in. Once you have determined that nobody else is talking (or there is a long lull in their conversation), you may begin your transmission by saying the callsign of the person you are looking to speak with, and then giving your own callsign. So, you may say something like this: “KE8LMI this is KE7LMI.” If the person with the callsign you’ve identified is listening in, they would then respond to your broadcast and your conversation can then begin. (See here for a list of common terms used when conversing over amateur radio.)

Once you have a list of repeaters you can successfully access from your location, it is wise to store these frequencies in your radio so that you don’t have to remember them. If you grab your radio in an emergency and head out the door, you’ll be able to easily try to get a hold of somebody having already stored a set of repeaters to which you can connect and try to see if anybody else is listening.

Repeaters do not have a guaranteed existence, however, and so for any number of reasons (operator running out of money, adverse weather, EMP attack, etc.) the connection may simply not be there for you to use. If/when you establish a family communications plan (or one with your neighborhood or other group), it is important to specify a hierarchy of frequencies to try in order to finally reach one another. Your closest repeaters will be at the top (since you will have a strong signal there), while towards the bottom you may wish to have a few non-repeater frequencies on which you can try to directly connect. This is wise for two reasons. First, during pre-determined times to “chat” and during emergencies, accessible repeaters will likely have a good number of people trying to broadcast. Even more people might be listening in silently and anonymously to whatever you have to say. If you wish to privately communicate with loved ones or pass on strategic and/or sensitive intelligence, you don’t want this publicity. Second, repeaters are not necessarily reliable and thus you will want to determine one or more frequencies that will be used by you and your group to privately communicate with one another. If somebody else is discovered to be listening in, you can simply move to the next frequency on your list for increased privacy.

Conclusion

Conventional forms of communication (cell phones, landlines, etc.) should not be relied upon in the event of a major disaster. Even small-scale events in Utah have caused a surge in cell phone usage, overloading the systems temporarily. Whatever the source of the communication problems, ham radios are proven to be an excellent method of reliable emergency communications. Whether you have a handheld device, a setup for your car, or a larger radio system in your home, amateur radio is a wise investment in both time and money.

Utah Preppers Ham Chat

For those who already have their radios and callsigns, how about getting together for a chat on a local repeater? I propose next Tuesday night (6/23) at 9pm. We can meet up on the West Mtn. repeater. If that one is busy, we can use the Lake Mountain repeater. If this time/day doesn’t work for the majority of us, we can plan on something else—just leave a comment below w/ your preference. If you can make it, leave your callsign below in the comments so we know who to look for!

43 thoughts on “Ham Radio: Emergency Communication”

    1. I have gone over 200 miles from mountain top in Nevada to mountain top in Idaho with full quieting and 50 milliwatts on 2 meters. That would be best case,
      most vhf communications would be limited to line-of-sight without the use of a
      repeater on a tall building or mountain

  1. What’s the range without a repeater?

    Depends on your equipment, really. For a handheld with a basic antenna, you’ll probably average a mile or two outside (less inside a densely built city). Using a better antenna or more juice, you’ll get a better range.

  2. What’s the range without a repeater?

    Depends on your equipment, really. For a handheld with a basic antenna, you’ll probably average a mile or two outside (less inside a densely built city). Using a better antenna or more juice, you’ll get a better range.

  3. matthiasj: it depends on a *lot* of factors, but what really counts is that you have a lot of control. Depending on the frequency you are using, you can fabricate or purchase different types of antenna to extend your range quite far. And most any port of this country has access to some repeaters. Your local clubs that help administer the tests will have a lot of helpful information about HAM in your area.

  4. matthiasj: it depends on a *lot* of factors, but what really counts is that you have a lot of control. Depending on the frequency you are using, you can fabricate or purchase different types of antenna to extend your range quite far. And most any port of this country has access to some repeaters. Your local clubs that help administer the tests will have a lot of helpful information about HAM in your area.

  5. I’ll second the view that the test for the technician level is not too hard. In our area (Washington), a couple of Stakes from the LDS Church got together a class and out of the class, almost everybody passed the test (including a couple of children). During the class, we discussed every possible question for the test (there’s a defined set of questions), then after finishing that, we went and took the test.

    I would join one of the meetups, but unfortunately, I don’t think my Yaesu handheld would be able to reach all the way to Utah. We have a multi-stake sign-in on a regular basis here, though.

    ~Erin (KF7BZH)

  6. I’ll second the view that the test for the technician level is not too hard. In our area (Washington), a couple of Stakes from the LDS Church got together a class and out of the class, almost everybody passed the test (including a couple of children). During the class, we discussed every possible question for the test (there’s a defined set of questions), then after finishing that, we went and took the test.

    I would join one of the meetups, but unfortunately, I don’t think my Yaesu handheld would be able to reach all the way to Utah. We have a multi-stake sign-in on a regular basis here, though.

    ~Erin (KF7BZH)

  7. Four things. Its just me but on the internet I prefer not to post my call sign. There are several call sign look-up sites that post your full name and address.

    Of course, when on the air, hams must state their call signs.

    Range is determined by power output, antenna characteristics and obstacles (buildings, mountains). I have made 2 meter (VHF) simplex contacts (radio to radio) of almost 100 miles with a 50 watt transmitter and a large directional antenna. Small 5 watt hand-held radios with factory antenna get about 5 miles. HF (high frequency) reaches around the world.

    There is no privacy on amateur radio, repeater or not. Encrypted transmissions are illegal. Anybody with a good scanner can find you if you are on the air long enough.

    Cost: Decent 50 watt 2 meter mobile $200 new. Car antenna $40. High gain directional antenna for home: $100. Look on KSL classified for used equipment. Portable hand-held radios are cool and fun to use but your first radio should be a 50 watt mobile.

  8. Four things. Its just me but on the internet I prefer not to post my call sign. There are several call sign look-up sites that post your full name and address.

    Of course, when on the air, hams must state their call signs.

    Range is determined by power output, antenna characteristics and obstacles (buildings, mountains). I have made 2 meter (VHF) simplex contacts (radio to radio) of almost 100 miles with a 50 watt transmitter and a large directional antenna. Small 5 watt hand-held radios with factory antenna get about 5 miles. HF (high frequency) reaches around the world.

    There is no privacy on amateur radio, repeater or not. Encrypted transmissions are illegal. Anybody with a good scanner can find you if you are on the air long enough.

    Cost: Decent 50 watt 2 meter mobile $200 new. Car antenna $40. High gain directional antenna for home: $100. Look on KSL classified for used equipment. Portable hand-held radios are cool and fun to use but your first radio should be a 50 watt mobile.

  9. To TuxGirl:

    Many repeaters are linked together and can be remotely linked and unlinked to others. I have been on the air when Utah repeaters were linked from Las Vegas to Boise.

    It gets very confusing though because you hear all the traffic from one end of the link to the other.

    See this site: http://utahvhfs.org/snowlink.html

  10. To TuxGirl:

    Many repeaters are linked together and can be remotely linked and unlinked to others. I have been on the air when Utah repeaters were linked from Las Vegas to Boise.

    It gets very confusing though because you hear all the traffic from one end of the link to the other.

    See this site: http://utahvhfs.org/snowlink.html

  11. Tyler and I were able to connect briefly tonight, and was that Mike on the end as I was leaving?

    Let’s shoot for another chat so we can get a few more people. Does Saturday at 10am work for everybody?

    From here on out, I’d like to schedule a quarterly chat so we can continue to practice, invite over others who may be interested or newly licensed, and expand the group a little.

  12. Tyler and I were able to connect briefly tonight, and was that Mike on the end as I was leaving?

    Let’s shoot for another chat so we can get a few more people. Does Saturday at 10am work for everybody?

    From here on out, I’d like to schedule a quarterly chat so we can continue to practice, invite over others who may be interested or newly licensed, and expand the group a little.

  13. Yeah, I was listening too, never got my broadcast setting in correctly. Mike was listening for a while too.

    As for 10am this Saturday, I’ll be at the gun show :)

  14. Yeah, I was listening too, never got my broadcast setting in correctly. Mike was listening for a while too.

    As for 10am this Saturday, I’ll be at the gun show :)

  15. Great article! I also have a question I too am looking for a solutions that does not rely on Cell or Land line communication for emergency purpose only. I live and work near Princeton NJ my Girl Lives with me but works in NY City two or three days a week (doctor). In case something happens in the city do you think we can get away with two hand held units using repeaters? it’s about 50 miles line of sight. I have not used HAM before and am just getting an idea if it’s viable.

    thanks

  16. Great article! I also have a question I too am looking for a solutions that does not rely on Cell or Land line communication for emergency purpose only. I live and work near Princeton NJ my Girl Lives with me but works in NY City two or three days a week (doctor). In case something happens in the city do you think we can get away with two hand held units using repeaters? it’s about 50 miles line of sight. I have not used HAM before and am just getting an idea if it’s viable.

    thanks

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