We are blessed in our modern-day society with a robust and diverse communications grid: landline phones, cell phones, cable Internet, even satellite communication.
But the stark reality is that all of those systems can, do and have gone down in an emergency. For better or worse, we are a communication-dependent culture, and many of us wonder the same thing: How will we stay in touch during an emergency or even when the grid goes down?
Many Americans have an answer, and it is amateur radio. Ham radio — so-called because of the “ham-fisted” nature of early amateur wireless telegraph operators — is literally designed to provide robust communication in case of disaster or emergency. In fact, that ability is one of the key planks of the entire program as defined and designed by the FCC.
Typically when primary communication goes down, volunteer ham radio operators provide their time and gear to local emergency response units, the Red Cross or simply with their neighbors, and get messages out when there is no other real-time communication method.
If you or your group want to get in on this, the first thing you need to do is get licensed. The exams are simple, the Morse code requirement was dropped years ago, and most importantly, once licensed you’ll be able to work with local clubs and groups that are dedicated to maintaining a communication backbone during an emergency. The most basic license, called “Technician Class,” is sufficient to get you on the air with the most common type of short range radios on the 2-meter band. Upgrade to General or Extra and you can work frequencies across the shortwave spectrum as well, allowing true global communication.
For many well-equipped survivalists, a simple two-meter handheld is all they’ll ever need. Sufficient for local work, for communicating with a small group, or accessing local repeaters, radios ranging from the ubiquitous and affordable BaoFengs to the more expensive and premium quality Yaesu handhelds will more than do the job. These types of radios are perfect for small group exercises, keeping in touch with nearby family, or getting onto a local net which may use repeaters or simple relay methods to pass traffic out of your local area. Some repeaters are connected to the Internet, giving you true global reach, or are trunked with other frequencies, like 10 meters, which can give you a regional or global reach. Either way, a good handheld is a must addition to your survival gear.
Hot on the heels of handhelds, it’s hard to beat a good base station. Whether installed in your vehicle or in your home, even a basic two-meter base station will give you greater range than a handheld. Remember, too, that most two-meter radios will be able to listen to NOAA weather reports, and even many common law enforcement and fire channels, making them even more invaluable in a survival situation.
If you spend some more money and invest in a high frequency radio, you’ll be able to use globe spanning frequencies like 10 or 20 meters, and, when coupled with the right antenna, be able to reach out for hundreds and thousands of miles.
Most critically, though, you need a way to power all of these things. Small handhelds run off of easily rechargeable battery packs that you can recharge with a generator, solar unit, or in your vehicle. Some also have battery packs that use common AA batteries, making them even more versatile. Acquaint yourself with local and (if applicable) regional networks. These are scheduled events usually open to any operator who cares to call in and join. Most of these also will activate during an emergency and may work with civil authorities or aid in relaying messages out of an affected area. Ham radios are also very useful for staying in touch with your family, friends or survival group in case of an emergency.
Of course, it is important to acquaint yourself with your gear and local groups BEFORE relying on them for an emergency. Some people think they’ll just get a radio and stick it in a drawer until they “have” to use it. This is simply a good way to get ignored or fumble around on the air at best, and to get badly hurt at worse. A ham radio isn’t some magical communication tool, but it is the communication tool that will remain functioning even in the worst of disasters due to its decentralized nature.
Right now, if you have the luxury of reading this in safety, you have the luxury to invest in some gear and get licensed. It could actually save your life someday.