Flood Aftermath
Mobility, Preparedness

Using Amateur (HAM) Radio for Emergency Communication

Importance of Multiple Communication Channels

When it comes to being prepared for emergency situations, there is a popular and very impactful phrase that appears in the prepper community. That phrase is “two is one, one is none” meaning that if you only have one tool for a particular survival function, and you have no backup tool or alternate solution, that is as good as having none.  Reason being, that you are creating a single point of failure for that survival function. If any aspect of it should fail, be that a mechanical malfunction, a lack of knowing how to perform it, or even simply not being able to find the tool, that aspect of your preparations becomes useless. 

One area of storm and emergency preparedness that many of us simply do not consider having backups for is communication.  Most of us rely heavily on our cell phones for communications. And we mistakenly take for granted that since cellular service is supported by a network of large infrastructure and thousands of telecom workers, cellular communication will always be available as long as we don’t wander into some remote backwoods or down into a rocky canyon.

But the truth is that the same forces that can cause us to lose electrical power at home, can cause disruptions in cellular service. Wind storms, hurricanes, flooding, or even the random lightning strike can bring down cellular service in your neighborhood.

That’s why it is essential for anyone who is serious about emergency preparedness to have a backup method (or two) of communicating with family, loved ones, or anyone who can help direct emergency services to your location. 

A Lesson from Hurricane Katrina

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast, my immediate family and I were safe and dry in Texas.  But all of my extended family was trapped in New Orleans. My older brother had the foresight to gather up not only his own wife and small children, but he also drove around down collecting our younger brother and his wife, children, and 11 year old sister-in-law of whom they were the guardians. As the storm was rolling in and starting to beat the city with wind and rain, he also drove out to the lower ninth ward to get our aging mother who was determined to ride out the storm in her home as so many native New Orleanians are want to do. After the flood waters receded, we would find out that her home had been completely inundated when the levees broke in the ninth ward and had been pushed by the flowing water three feet off of its foundation.

My brother brought all of these people to our father’s accounting office on the third floor of a downtown office building.  When the floods filled the city with water, my mother, my two brothers, their wives, and their children, one of them an infant were all stranded in the small office with no way to communicate with the outside world: no way to relay their position to emergency services, and no way to even let anyone know that they were still alive.

It was months before I would receive communication from them that they had survived and were relocated to Houston.

I later learned that during the flood and subsequent rescue operations, there were a handful of people who were able to get messages into and out of New Orleans. These people were HAM radio operators.

In those months that I worried and waited, not knowing if I would ever see my family again, HAM radio operators were communicating the whereabouts of survivors to other HAMs across the country making it possible for others to post lists of survivors on the internet.

That was absolute proof to me that HAM radio offers a tremendous amount of value for emergency communications.

The Strengths of HAM Radio

HAM radio is an almost ideal solution to the problem of back up emergency communications. Depending on the type of equipment you choose, HAM radio can be portable, it can provide both short range and long range communication, and it can continue to work even when local infrastructure goes down.

HAM Radio Is Portable

Ham radios come in a variety of sizes, power levels, and frequency capabilities. One available feature that makes it ideal for backup communications is that it can be portable. Unlike landline telephone, which I actually recommend later in this article, HAM radios, just like cell phones, can be purchased as a hand held device. With a form factor similar to the walkie talkie that most of us are familiar with, hand held radios can be easily packed in emergency (bug-out) bags, or kept in vehicles. As such, they can provide on-the-go communication when an emergency requires travel, such as when you need to coordinate meet ups with family members, or in the event that you must move an injured person to emergency services.

Short Range Communication (1 – 2 Miles)

Ham radio has options for short range and long range communication.  I have the good fortune of living within a 3-mile radius of both my mother-in-law and one of my brothers-in-law.  Although this means that any local catastrophe will likely affect all three of our households, it also means that as long as we can communicate, we can work out the logistics of who needs assistance and how to get it to them.  If the cell towers in our area lose power, none of us will have access to cellular communication. Ours is a perfect situation for the use of short-range HAM radio.

Generally, the short-range radios come in a small hand-held form factor that look similar to the walkie-talkies you may have used as a kid, or those you take hiking. The difference is that these “hand talkie” HAM radios operate in a different set of frequencies that are more tightly regulated. So, like any of the HAM radios discussed here, you’ll need to get a license to transmit on these devices.  But, while you are learning about HAM radio, and building out your radio setup, you can freely listen to any broadcasts you receive. 

The hand-held short range radios are typically used on two frequency ranges or “bands.” Those being the VHF 2 meter band (144 – 148 MHz) and the UHF 70 centimeter band (430 – 440 MHz).  When buying your first HAM radio, you’ll want to check the specifications of the device to ensure that these two bands are included in the radio’s capabilities.

Amazon has a good selection of inexpensive hand-held radios that are quite accessible for most new and aspiring HAM operators.

Click here to see prices for short-range radios on amazon. 

Medium Range Communication (Up To 50 Miles)

Depending on where you live, these lower powered radios also have the potential for much greater distances if there are HAM radio repeaters in your area.  Repeaters are well-placed antennae connected to transceivers for the purpose of re-transmitting radio signals. This free service is provided on a volunteer basis by other HAM operators.  Though it can be of great value to you in getting into HAM as a hobby, it’s best not to rely on repeaters being available in an emergency situation. The same power outage you experience will likely affect any repeaters in your area.

So for any emergency communication beyond the 1 – 2 miles your hand-held can provide, you’ll want to step up to a more powerful, albeit more expensive solution. That is setting up a radio base station in your home.

Long Range Communication (50 Miles, 100 Miles, and Around The World)

When you get serious about using HAM radio for emergency communications, you will undoubtedly want to set up a home radio base station for long range communication.  In the HAM world, long range communication is done with the magic of lower frequency radio waves. Though the area of the radio spectrum I’m referring to is called HF for High Frequency, its range is lower than the Very High Frequency (VHF) range used by small hand-held radios, and the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) range used by cell phone towers. 

These HF radios transmit lower frequency waves with much longer wavelengths. These characteristics cause a phenomenon that allows HF waves to be used for communication at great distances. HF waves actually bounce off of the upper atmospheric layer called the Ionosphere rather than passing through it into outer space. This signal reflects off of the Ionosphere directing the radio waves back down to Earth giving HF signals the ability to travel far beyond the horizon as seen from the antenna’s point of view.

With ideal solar and weather conditions, HF signals can travel halfway around the world allowing communication with other HAMS across the country or across the ocean.

Even though I live only a short bicycle ride from my in-laws, my own family all live some 500 miles away in New Orleans.  And while they live with the very serious threat of hurricanes and other tropical storms, my area is always on the watch for tornadoes.  Either of those scenarios can mean worrisome periods of non-communication when the local infrastructure is damaged.

In those situations, it is comforting to know that we can reassure distant family that we are alive and well using the long-range communication capabilities of HAM radio.

Here is a good example of a HAM base station transceiver on amazon. 

Independent of Local Infrastructure

One of the key benefits of HAM radio for emergency communications is that it can be independent of local infrastructure.  Cell phones depend on the short-range tower in your area to be up and running. In many residential areas, there is no redundancy in cellular coverage. if the tower located in the center of my neighborhood loses power, or gets struck by lightning, the one bar of signal that i get from the next closest tower is not enough to even relay a text message let alone sustain a phone call.

Shortcomings of HAM Radio

Though the utility of HAM radio for emergency communication is impressive, there are limitations.  

Cost

You can go to Amazon right now and buy a HAM radio for under $60.  But to build an effective alternative to telephone communication, you will probably spend hundreds or even a couple of thousand dollars in equipment including things like the radio itself, a power supply, an antenna tuner, and a quality antenna.

Learning and Licensing

As stated above, if you’ve already ordered your equipment, you can set it up and listen to HAMs broadcasting all day and night. But, if you want to strike up a dialog, you’ll have to get a license first.  There are many people who include HAM radio in their emergency preps because in an emergency, transmitting without a license will probably not incur any punishment. But if you are going to learn to operate your equipment properly, you’ll need to get licensed to broadcast.

Licensing involves a multiple choice test that requires some study.  More information about becoming a licensed HAM can be found on the website of the National Association for Amateur Radio, ARRL.org. 

Limited User Base

Most adults (and many teens) in this and many countries own and use cellular phones.  Millions of people use instant messaging and social media everyday. The number of people who actively use HAM radio is comparatively small.  Unless you were able to convince your distant family members to also buy, setup, and use radio equipment (not to mention getting licensed), you will likely need to relay your emergency communications through a HAM operator who does not personally know you or your family.  Though this seems like a strange situation, HAM radio is a community, and in times of need, HAMs have banded together (pun intended) to form ad hoc communications network relaying information about local emergency situations and the survival status of people on behalf of others. This article is original content published to homeplustech.com. If it is published on any other site, it is stolen content.

Use It Before You Need It

As great as HAM radio is as an emergency communication medium, there is a significant learning curve associated with the technology.  And you don’t want to be reading radio manuals or books about electromagnetic wave propagation when your house has a foot of water in it, and you’re holding a flashlight between your teeth.  Hopefully, before you really need your HAM radio to work for you, you will have learned to work with your HAM radio. That means going through all of the setup and licensing, and actually talking to people to get a handle on the etiquette and protocols of over-the-air messaging.

Alternatives to HAM Radio for Emergency Communications

Landline Telephone

Before researching HAM radio as my backup communications channel, my main choice and recommendation to family members was a land line telephone.  Hardly anyone has a landline telephone anymore for various reasons. Even though land lines used to be ubiquitous, with one in every home, newly built homes often have no telephone wire built into the walls, and some new housing developments don’t even have telephone wire running to the houses at all. 

Many in the younger generations don’t even know what a landline telephone is.  When I called my local telephone service provider to activate landline service to my home, the sales representative was confused by my request insisting that the VOIP phone that he kept trying to sell me was in fact a “landline” phone. And though it does use underground cable to relay the signal, what I wanted was the analog telephone that is powered by the phone system. That way, I explained to him, when the power goes out in my home, I can still make phone calls.  I guess he was not old enough to remember that such functionality existed.

That is, however, one of the best features of a landline phone in addition to being directly tied to a location for the purposes of calling emergency services.  

Unfortunately, analog or Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) service is actually difficult to come by these days. For one, although it used to be the cheapest option, the price of analog phone service has more than doubled in the last 20 years. I suspect that the reason for this is twofold. One, to deter people from using a service that the telephone companies would like to retire, and two, to push customers toward the newer voice over IP (VOIP) phone service that allows easy bundling with internet service.

Still, if you can get analog landline service in your area, it is a reliable secondary communication channel for the reason listed previously.

Internet When Cellular Is Down

Of course, for most of us, available communication media in our household often includes our home internet connection.  As long as your internet service is not provided by cellular service, it may be available when your mobile phone has no reception.  With a home internet connection provided by underground wire like cable or optical fiber, it can often be used in place of mobile service.  Not only can you send emails and messages via social media programs, but many smartphones have apps available that will allow you to make phone calls over your WiFi connection.

Some smartphone apps to look into for WiFi-based communication are WhatsApp, Signal, and Google Voice, the last of which does not require the other party to have the app installed. 

Another internet-based communication device that many may overlook, is your smart speaker.  Devices like the Amazon Echo Dot allow you to call the phones of existing contacts or communicate directly to another Alexa-enabled device.  I frequently use this feature when I leave my children at home for short periods. I remind them that Alexa is on, and they can use it to call me, their mother, or Grandma.  Alexa’s “drop in” feature also gives me a little extra comfort knowing that I can call into the device while I’m away and check on them, often letting them know that I’ll be home soon.

There are a couple of major caveats with internet-based communication during an emergency.  First, it may be difficult to contact emergency services when using a WiFi-based phone app. You may want to keep a print out of your local police and fire service phone numbers where they can be seen as internet-based phone service may not connect you with your local 911 service. Second, depending on the type of internet service you have, a power outage in your home, may also mean an outage of your internet service.  For this reason, it’s advisable to at least keep a battery backup for your internet modem or DSL device as well as for any computers you would need to access your service.  

The More The Merrier

Whether or not you decide to jump into HAM radio for your emergency communications needs, it is always better to have multiple options for communicating with loved ones and with local services.  But HAM radio is an excellent hobby, and a great prep for emergencies.

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