Photography by Michael Grey

This article was originally published in Issue 1 of our magazine.

So, you’ve made all your plans in case of a major disaster. You’ve got your plan of action, your bug-out bag, your drinking water, your rations, and even extra batteries for your flashlight. But, what happens when the disaster doesn’t cooperate with your plan? Perhaps, your family’s meeting point has been compromised. Perhaps, the streets have become unsafe to travel. Perhaps the phone lines are down. What are you to do then? How are you going to be able to change the plan and let your loved ones know about it?

We can tell you from recent experience that trying to reach someone right after an emergency was an arduous task. It took this author more than an hour to get through to someone just after the Boston Marathon bombings by cell phone. The kicker is that the person we called was not even in the vicinity of Boston. Although there was no physical damage to telecommunications infrastructure, we still couldn’t get through for some time. Considering that was a regional disaster, one affecting a single city, it is fair to predict that in the case of any disaster, regional or greater, you are going to need an alternate form of communication.

Based on this need, let’s take a look at amateur radio, more commonly called ham radio. We are all familiar with CB (Citizens Band) radios that you have seen at the local electronics store and on big rigs traveling down the highway. Compared to CB, ham radio takes radio communications to the next step. Ham radios are capable of using much more power than CB radios, and in radio, power equals transmission distance.

Ham radio amateur communications repeater handheld frequency tech diy 2

License

First of all, you need to know that becoming a ham radio operator does require a license from the FCC. There are three different classes of licenses: Technician Class, General Class, and Amateur Extra Class. The more advanced your license, the more frequencies are opened up for you to use. Most people start with a technician license and upgrade as needed. Courses and study guides to get a license are widely available.

Power and Distance

How much power you can supply your ham radio is key. The more power you have available, the farther your transmission will carry. In addition, what type, length, and quality antenna your radio is equipped with also affects transmission distance and clarity. Transmissions can be done via two radios directly on the same frequency, called simplex, or they can use a transmitter in between, called a repeater. Different frequencies travel different distances and can even bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere to reach people halfway around the world. You can check in your area for clubs and repeater systems that are available.

Repeaters

It is important to pick the best mix of licensing and types of radio units for your needs. For our family, we utilize a couple of smaller handheld radios. We also pay an annual membership to a repeater system. Repeaters are generally set up by amateur radio clubs in places with high vantage points such as tall buildings or on mountains. Like their name implies, repeaters repeat the transmission from your radio and broadcast it through their more powerful and better positioned antennas. This has the potential of increasing your range from a couple of miles to hundreds.
If a major event occurs, we are not limited to communication by phone or wireless device. We will be able to contact our friends and family, who are also equipped with ham radios, at a moment’s notice.

Ham radio amateur communications repeater handheld frequency tech diy 1

Above: Repeaters are generally set up in places with high vantage points such as tall buildings. They repeat the transmission from your radio and broadcast it through their more powerful and better positioned antennas.

Equipment

There are all kinds of models of radios that are available to the over-the-counter consumer. Everything from small handhelds to car-mounted units and to big base stations in your house or “shack.” Here are some benefits and downfalls of the different radios available.

Handheld Radios

Basic CMYK

Pros: These are often small and portable. They are available in many frequency ranges. They are all-inclusive and work right out of the box. These are definitely one of the most affordable options.

Cons: Handhelds tend to be light on power. They use a battery that needs to be charged and maintained.

Vehicle or Mobile Radios

Basic CMYK

Pros: More power! They can support larger antennae, which means longer transmission reach. They run off of the car’s electrical system, so there isn’t an extra battery to maintain, just your vehicle’s.

Cons: A mobile radio is attached to the vehicle and can’t easily come with you when you leave it. Even if you do make it mobile, it is dependent on the vehicle’s power source, which means that you will have to run some sort of power cable either from the battery (preferred) or via a cigarette lighter adapter, and you can bring it only as far as your power cable is.

Base Stations

Basic CMYK

Pros: These babies have as much power as you need. Usually, they are able to tune the frequency a little better. They tend to be used in conjunction with very large antennae.

Cons: Base stations are tied to one location. These can be big and require a significant power supply.

Ham Radio Slang

“Who was that YL you were rag chewing on your boat anchor with last night?” If that means anything to you, you’re a ham. The ham radio world is full of codes and phrases that are incoherent to those who don’t dable in it. Ham slang is unique and fun to figure out. In case you were wondering, YL stands for young lady but means any female ham radio operator, rag chewing is casual conversation, and a boat anchor denotes old, large radio equipment. With that, we’ll leave off with 73! (You’ll have to look this one up yourself.)

Learn More

A great resource to get you started is The National Association for Amateur Radio (also known as the American Radio Relay League or ARRL). The association provides a good amount of information on testing, licenses, and privileges. Its website is really user-friendly. You can also find more information at the FCC’s website.

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