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/GMRS “walkie talkie” devices.
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).
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.
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!