Most preppers get the idea that communication is an important capability to have during an emergency.
Despite this understanding though, few preppers have a solid communication plan in place beyond a few two-way walkie-talkie devices and the false hope that their cellphone will still function.
If that describes you (like it did me a few years ago), this article should hopefully open your eyes and inspire you to change that.
The Dangers of a Communication Blackout are Very Real
We take our ability to instantly communicate with others around the nation and the globe for granted. In reality though, the methods we depend on to communicate — internet and cellphone primarily — are extremely fragile.
One common theme you see in any widespread disaster (or even overcrowded sporting events) is that people are unable to make use of their cell phones for outgoing or incoming calls. We saw this with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, as well as the Boston terrorist bombings.
This is just a small glimpse into what might happen if there was a more widespread natural disaster or terrorist event – it would wreak havoc on our telecommunications
History has proven that when cell towers go down during an emergency, the whole network is at risk of being overloaded (or may fail entirely).
Can you imagine what a major emergency would cause?
What about Landlines?
Landlines aren’t much better. If things got so bad that our basic utilities were to shut down, landlines wouldn’t be far behind even though they run on their own power source.
GMRS/FRS radios (ie walkie-talkies), while great for certain scenarios, just don’t have the range if we plan on talking with anyone outside of a couple miles…let alone out of the state or in another country.
Satellite phones, while they can be very effective in an emergency, still have their drawbacks in that they’re very expensive to purchase and operate (~$30/mo for only 10 min of talking time) and they are still dependent on a 3rd party maintaining their satellites as well as keeping your account active (which may not be possible in an extended post-collapse scenario).
Also, they don’t work indoors or where there’s thick canopy (like in the jungle or thick woods). You need clear access to the sky where the satellites either pass over or are situated (depending on if the sat network has roving or stationary satellites).
What’s the Answer Then…?
That leads us to the only reliable emergency communication method that we have available to us when the SHTF. It’s a method that’s not dependent upon the grid and can be used for local, regional, and even global communication.
What is it?…
Amateur radio, or more commonly referred to as “ham radio”, is used by city, county, and federal emergency communications teams; by private relief organizations throughout the world; and by a large number of dedicated citizens who are active, knowledgeable, and have the skills and ability to respond and assist in emergencies.
And if you haven’t yet, it’s something that you definitely need to learn if you want to have an effective emergency communications plan in pace.
Now don’t misunderstand the word “amateur”. It has nothing to do with it requiring less skill or having less capabilites than a “professional” (if that exists) might use. Amateur in this case only means that it is not broadcast for purposes of making money (like much of FM radio is).
Pros and Cons of Amateur (Ham) Radio
The ultimate benefit of Ham radio is that there really isn’t any restriction to how far you can communicate. It can be used to communicate locally, regionally and worldwide.
In addition, it’s not dependent upon any public or private communications’ infrastructure and can be used on top of a mountain or in a crowded city, powered on the grid, or completely off by using a generator, a battery backup, or a solar setup.
The biggest downside (which can be a plus for us fellow hams) is that you need to be licensed and in addition, there is some ramp up time to get comfortable with communicating and using the equipment (it’s actually a skill that you will develop over a lifetime since there’s so much you can do with Amateur radio).
Why Should I Bother With A License Since It Won’t Matter When The SHTF Anyways?
This is a common question I get, and my answer is always the same: Since amateur radio isn’t something you can simply pick up and use without prior experience, you need to practice NOW before things go south; and you can’t properly practice without getting a license first.
There are a lot of things you need to learn such as antenna theory, skywave and NVIS propagation, which bands to use at what times and how solar activity and other environmental phenomenon can affect your transmissions.
And besides, there are still a lot of other emergencies (local and regional) that don’t involve the end of the world to be here to still warrant having EMCOMM abilities.
The Secret to Getting Your Ham License
I’m happy to tell you that it is much easier to get a Ham license than ever before.
Back in my Father’s Day, he needed to learn Morse code in order to get his ham operator license. I, on the other hand, was able to to not only get the entry-level “Technician” license but the “General” license (to operate on the HF frequencies that allow for regional and global communication) all in one day without needing to know a bit of Morse code.
Note: I’m not saying that Morse code is not a bad thing to learn (in fact it’s something that I am hoping to pick up soon) however the good news is since 2006 it’s not required anymore when getting your ham operator license.
Since most of the real learning you’ll do with ham-radio operating is through doing it, to get going with the “doing” part, all you need to do is pass the test. And passing the test for licensing only requires you to know what the right answers are.
Luckily, the entire pool of questions for each license type and their answers is available for study. Since the tests are multiple choice, you don’t even need to understand the theory behind the questions, just the right answers (this is more true for Technician than the others).
For example, when I first got my license, I studied for a total of 8 hours and was able to pass both the Technician and General tests in one sitting with over 90% each — just because I memorized the answers for the most part.
If you’d prefer to learn all the theory behind the questions before testing, that’s certainly your prerogative.
Here are a number of resources you can use to study the question pools and answers for each of the license exams:
- HamStudy.org – This was the resource I used to help me study and pass the Technician and General exams. For the Extra, I had to study a bit more in depth which I used the next resource for…
- hamRadioLicenseExam.com – This is my friend PI’s site (K1RV). He’s got a great resource that will actually tutor you so you really understand the theory and not just the answers.
Where Can I Take My Ham Radio Exam?
Most license exams are offered out of the many Amateur Radio clubs found throughout the US. Depending on where you live, you should be able to find one nearby at any week of the year.
Here are some resources to find and exam site near you:
- The ARRL: The ARRL has a nice search functionality that you just need to enter your zip code and it will spit out a number of tests given nearby along with their date and location.
- HamDepot.comhas a listing of most of the clubs throughout the US. Since most clubs are the ones giving the tests, you can contact a nearby one and find out when the next test is.
Is The Testing Expensive?
The test is only around $15 dollars to cover filing with the FCC and other handling fees.
Another great bonus is you can take all of the tests in one sitting if you so wish for the same price. You just need to be sure you pass each in order before going on to the next one.
Final Thoughts and Resources
Hopefully by now you see the benefits in adding Amateur Radio to your preps.
After all, when the grid goes down and cell phones and land lines no longer function, while everyone else is in the dark, all you’ll need is a wire, a battery, and a radio and you’ll be communicating with your loved ones and others around the world. That’s the ultimate benefit of ham radio.
For more info on getting started, here are a couple more links:
- Ham Radio For DummiesIf Ham Radio is brand new to you you’d have to be a dummy not to read this. It provides a great overview to get you started. You can even just go to the bookstore and sit down with a nice hot drink and get through it that way.
- Stealth Amateur Radio: Operate From Anywhere A great resource for communication OPSEC. For preppers looking to hide their radio station from nosy neighbors and other prying eyes, this book will teach you how.