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HAM Radio for Emergency Communication: HAM Radio Go-Kits

Most emergencies leave you yearning for information. Disasters big and small are a reason to have emergency communications (EMCOMM) skills and gear. Get started with this primer.

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Our society is fragile in more ways than one. Our instant gratification society demands the ability to contact instantly anyone at any time.

Further, we have adapted to have the answer to any question at our fingertips. With a few clicks on a phone, we can call anyone. A few more clicks answer any question.

Disasters bring interruptions. No power. No phones. No internet. We are left to our own devices during these information blackouts.

Don’t fret though. The solution to any breakdown is the creation of a redundant system. Remember, one is none and two is one. Your emergency communication “two is one” starts with HAM radio.

Emergency communications (EMCOMM) are like any other survival preparation. An EMCOMM kit meets your communication needs when all else has failed. Let’s look at how to put together and how to use an EMCOMM kit.

What Disasters Can Bring Down Communications?

The advanced technology that keeps our society afloat complicates the associated systems. As a result, they are frighteningly delicate. Likewise, the infrastructure supporting it seems to be held together with baling wire and chewing gum.

These two factors make it easy for our grid to overload and fail. Natural and man-made disasters can easily bring down the entire system.

Any disaster that affects the electrical grid will cause communication to falter. This includes damaged power lines, cable lines, and phone lines. Even the redundancies in the cell phone system can be overcome.

Most cell towers have power backup systems however these only last for a day or two. After that, even they will go silent.

One of the largest natural disasters I experienced was in 2008. A 12-hour ice storm wreaked havoc on the northeast. We lost power for 5 days and some friends were down for 2 weeks.

The result was no phones, no television, and no cell. Had we not prepared; our cell phones would have gone dark on the second day. The only information source in the house was a few old AM/FM radios.

Ice storms aren’t the only natural threat. Thunderstorms bring down power, cable, and phone locally with ease. A few down trees or branches is all it takes. Remember, a disaster doesn’t have to affect millions of people. A day without power can be a personal crisis for some families.

Regional disasters include hurricanes and snowstorms such as Nore’ Easters. Each can affect entire regions of the country. Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, and nameless others have affected millions of lives. There are still sections of Louisiana that are recovering today.

Let’s not forget man-made disasters. The Metcalf sniper attack brought down one electrical substation and could have been much, much worse.  Our electrical grid is famously infiltrated. While a physical attack can bring it down, a cyber-attack could make repairs impossible.

Finally, we have the big one…and EMP! An electromagnetic pulse, if large enough, can disrupt our lives at our very foundation. By damaging or destroying electronics large and small, we would be left without communication, transportation, and many of the tools we rely upon today.

History of Disasters and Communication

HAM radio operators have an obsession with helping during emergencies. Organizations have even grown out of this passion. Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) are two such organizations.

Each has chartered themselves with providing communication assistance during emergencies. We will talk about them in depth in a few minutes.

Regardless of their affiliation, or lack thereof, amateur radio operators have always helped in times of need. During the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina, they really shined.

In areas devastated by wind, rain, and floods, HAM operators strung antennas, powered up radios, and passed traffic.

Even operators outside of the affected area helped. Operators in Missouri and Ohio relayed traffic between loved ones, assuring that those in the affected areas were fine.

Welfare traffic was one focus of AmRRON’s deployment to the Washington State Conconully wildfire. This deployment truly demonstrated the power of communication. The town was shut off from the outside world with all terrestrial communication lines and cell towers down.

The AmRRON team provided the local first responders and firefighters with welfare traffic by sending emails, yes emails over radio, to loved ones throughout the united states.

The AmRRON team also provided weather reports to the local command structure as relayed to them from their support group outside Washington State.

What HAM Equipment Can Be Use for EMCOMM Operations?

EMCOMM equipment does not differ from other HAM radio operations except for portability. EMCOMM operations require the ability to move, set up quickly, and tear down eve quicker.

The entire purpose of an EMCOMM kit or bag is to go where the emergency is or to take it with you when you flee a disaster.

Decide the purpose and size of your kit. Do you want a small kit that is an adjunct to your BOB? Do you want a trunk kit you can roll out and support a crew of 4-6? Do you want a complete mobile base station that covers all the bands and has redundant power support for 3 days of unassisted operation?

These are all within the scope of EMCOMM. Review your skills and resources and set up the applicable kit. They all have a fit in a prepper operation.

Let’s focus on a simple kit. The goal of this kit is that its man-portable and covers all bands. Your basic kit will require means for short-range communication, long-range communication, and power.

Short-Range Radios (UHF, VHF, line of sight)

Let’s first cover line of sight HAM communications. Not the lies told to you by blister pack radios, but real HAM radio. Your choices here are 2-meters and 75-centimeters. Both transmit line of sight and will be affected by your environment and transmission wattage.

The rule with these radios is height matters. You need to get up high or you have to get your antenna high.

Your EMCOMM kit should have at least a pair of handi-talkies. These will usually provide you with 5-10 watts of power. Depending on the environment, you can get up to 20-30 miles of communication.

Again, this highly depends on the environment. If you are in the city, expect a mile or less. If you are communicating mountain top to the valley floor, then your reach may be at the upper end of that range.

The perennial favorite for beginner prepper HAMs is the BaoFeng family of radios.

They are incredibly inexpensive however they are not as sturdy as a Yeasu, ICOM, or Kenwood. That being said, you can buy a half-dozen for what you will pay for one of the other radios.

Once you have cut your teeth, pick up a pair of quality radios and become familiar with their use, programming, and expansion.

If your EMCOMM kit is larger than a simple bag (e.g. a COMMS box you don’t intend on hand carrying) you can afford a larger mobile radio or base station. These can boast 50 watts but will require external power.

Extending Line of Sight – UHF/VHF Repeaters

One of the biggest benefits of 2-meter and 75-centimeter communications is the use of a repeater. Repeaters receive a signal, then re-broadcast it on a slightly different frequency. This allows two radios that normally could not reach each other to communicate.

Some mobile radios act as repeaters. This can be helpful in an emergency. Setup your repeater, post an antenna waaaaayyy up, and you’ve extended the effective communications range of your team.

UHF/VHF Antennas

One of the controlling factors of your 2-meter and 75-centimeter transmission and reception is your antenna. Most HAM radios allow for the use of an external antenna, or at least the ability to swap antennas.

The stubby antenna that comes with your handi-talkie will do for close-range communications, however, consider investing in a longer antenna.

Many manufactures make 1/8th, 1/4th, and 1/2th wave antennas. You can even purchase antennas connected by a feed line you can string up on a pole or in a tree.

My personal favorite is a ½ wave roll-up J-Pole antenna on a 10-foot feed line. I can hang this in a tree and get the maximum out of my little BaoFeng.

Medium Range

Short-range is the realm of UHF and VHF. This covers your immediate location to the horizon. Long-range is the realm of HF. HF excels at 500 miles and beyond. The gap between the horizon to 500 miles is where NVIS rules.

Near Vertical Incident Skywave (NVIS) is an HF technique for communicating in this gap. I’ll leave the physics lesson to the reader on how it works. But the short version is NVIS broadcasts HF signals vertically, they then reflect to earth covering this missed region.

The good news is that the only required special equipment is an antenna. NVIS antennas rely on their configuration to radiate most of the signal straight up, maximizing your ability to communicate in your region.

The one thing about HAMs is that they like to experiment and tune until their equipment is perfect. HAMs that are into antenna design are a special breed.

They take this hobby to the extreme. The best part is that they love to share. Hunt around the web for “Expedient NVIS Antennas” and you will find many designs to choose from.

Please note that, unlike short-range options, you will probably need an antenna tuner with these antennas. An antenna tuner matches the impedance of the antenna with the expectations of the radio. Again, hit the web if you want to know the physics behind it all.

Long Range

To truly reach out and touch someone requires HF communications. HF transmissions use the ionosphere to bounce radio signals around the world.

Again, there is a physics lesson here that I will skip, but think of radio waves like light on a hot summer day. At a low enough angle, the light bends with the help of the air above hot asphalt causing a mirage.

With the right antenna and frequencies, HF allows you to talk over the horizon and around the world. With an HF rig, you can talk across the US, to Europe, Asia, and even Australia. Then again, you don’t even need to talk, you can just listen.

Mobile, car-mounted, HF radios are widely available and are recommended for your EMCOMM kit. You most likely don’t want to expend the space or power requirements on a full base station.

You don’t even have to go that big. The Mountain Topper is an exceptionally small HF radio that isn’t much larger than an Altoids tin. Best used with Continuous Wave, this low power (QRP) has more than enough juice to talk across the U.S. and is trail portable.

One note about HF communications. Because of the interference caused by a signal traveling several thousand miles, often voice communication is not possible. This is when HAMs use digital modes. Digital modes transmit information via analog channels using audible frequencies.

The simplest digital signal is Continuous Wave (CW), otherwise known as Morse Code. A simple series of dots and dashes presented as simple tones are much easier to hear and understand than a voice.

Other digital modes take this concept much farther by enhancing reception through the use of check information, etc., that increase the assurance that you have received the correct information.

Digital modes are much like texting via HAM frequencies, however, their use is not this limited. Several modes even transmit images. Just consider the intelligence value of that.

Digital modes take a computer, a little extra knowledge, and a lot of practice. That being said there is no better way to get your information across quickly and accurately than HAM digital modes.

Along with your transceiver, you will need the standard accompaniment of accessories including a power supply (battery bank), antenna tuner, and antenna.

COMMS Plans

Radio… Check. Power supply… Check. Antenna… Check. Someone to talk to… Hello? Someone to talk to…

The electromagnetic spectrum is a lot of territory to cover if you don’t know where to look. You need a COMMS plan.

If you had unlimited time to search all applicable frequencies, you would still need an enormous amount of power to feed your transmissions and hours of listening time. That is not practical during an emergency.

Having a communications plan narrows the spectrum down to a few known coordinates. A COMMS plan establishes the frequencies, times, and modes of communication to assure you have someone to talk to when you need it.

A simple example. You are hiking, get injured, and need help. You have a 2m radio but no COMMS plan. You broadcast with your call sign every minute. You miss the window for returning home and your family gets worried. You continue to broadcast.

Within a few hours, your family has finally convinced the police and they start a search. Unfortunately, they don’t know you are on the air. An hour into their search, your radio goes dead. It’s now dark.

Same you, same family, same injury, same radio. Except for this time, you have a COMMS plan.  On cue, you fire up your radio to a known frequency at a specific time (top of the hour) and start broadcasting. For 5 minutes. Nothing received you turn your radio off. You continue this.

Your family recognizes that you have missed your window. They reach out to the local police, who contact those in your travel area. They describe your COMMS plan. Everyone starts listening. Within 30 minutes they hear your distress call. Shortly thereafter you are rescued.

Slightly different scenario. You are bugging out. Because of the circumstances of the disaster, you and your family have traveled separately. You are arriving three days after them. The world is no longer the calm and genteel place it was. You approach your bugout location.

According to your COMMS plan, you wait for the assigned time and reach out to your loved ones. You notify them of your current location and ETA. Shortly thereafter you are welcomed home with open arms, not rear sight/front sight alignment, and a well-executed trigger press.

A complete COMMS plan defines how and when to establish communications. First, set up the time windows to communicate. This can be as simple as the top and bottom of the hour for 3 minutes each. 

Second, your COMMS plan needs to record the frequencies that you will attempt communication with. Include primary, secondary, and tertiary frequencies across all relevant bands.

Finally, where applicable, define the digital mode and the parameters of that mode. There are too many options to risk not finding the correct one.

Power

This section will be a little short, as it depends on your specific gear. Most HAM radios are powered by 12-volt sources. You can either use a dedicated power supply or plug into a compatible battery.

The nice thing about this standardization is there are a vast amount of batteries and chargers.

Lithium batteries are the current, commercially successful, gold standard of portable power. They are safer than lead acid and can be transported without the risk of acid leakage.

Don’t forget alternate charging sources. Solar is nice; however, it is much better suited to car-carry or stationary radio operations. A small panel will not be sufficient to recharge a battery of any size. You will need several hundred watts to charge your system in a reasonable amount of time.

Three EMCOMM Kits

Just as any other survival kit, EMCOMM kits come in all shapes and sizes. Consider the following as a starting point for your own kit. Update as required and make them your own.

BOB COMMS Kit

The BOB EMCOMM kit is an adjunct to your BOB. It supports the communications need of a single person. Each HAM licensed person in your family or mutual assistance group (MAG) should have this in their BOB.

  • Dual band (2m 75cm) handi-talkie
  • Ear piece and button mic
  • Spare battery
  • Spare antenna
  • Roll up J-Pole Antenna
  • Laminated comms plan card
  • Write in the rain notepad and pens
  • String and weight (to hang antenna)

Dedicated COMMS Bag

This bag supports a small team and is carried by the communications specialist in a group. They will carry other gear, but the bag should make up the bulk of their supplies. This bag allows the team to gear up if the situation requires.

  • 2-4 Dual band (2m 75cm) handi-talkies
  • Ear piece and button mic for each HT
  • Spare batteries for each HT
  • Spare antennas
  • Roll up J-Pole Antennas
  • HF radio (e.g. MountainTopper)
  • Spare batteries
  • Solar charger
  • Long wire antenna
  • Tablet computer with FLDigi
  • Connection cables
  • String and weight (to hang antenna)
  • Laminated comms plan cards
  • Write in the rain notepad and pens

COMMS Box

This gear will require more than a single box and is not man-portable. It has sufficient gear to set up a complete field communications unit.

  • 4-8 Dual band (2m 75cm) handi-talkies
  • Ear piece and button mic for each HT
  • Spare batteries for each HT
  • Radio battery chargers
  • Spare antennas
  • Roll up J-Pole Antennas
  • Mobile HF radio
  • 12-volt batteries (eg 50-100 amp hours)
  • Solar charger array
  • 400 watt inverter
  • 1000 watt generator
  • 12-volt charger
  • Long wire antenna
  • HF antennas
  • Flags (high vis) for warning about cables
  • NVIS antenna
  • Laptop computer with FLDigi
  • Connection cables
  • Table
  • Chairs
  • Canopy with sides (wind rain proof)
  • String and weight (to hang antenna)
  • Comms plans
  • Laminated comms plan cards
  • Write in the rain notepad and pens

Resources and Practice

HAM radio is not something you pick up and run with. It requires learning and practice. The associated knowledge and skills are perishable. You need to practice. The best way to practice is by finding a group or take part in readiness exercises.

Licensing

To transmit on a HAM radio requires a license. In short, there are three licenses. Each represents a progressive level of skill, and the reward is a new section of bands to broadcast in.

The testing process is simple. ARRL publishes a pool of questions for you to read, understand, and study. During a test, they will present you with a small sample of these same questions. When you get an 85% or better, they give you a callsign and license.

There are multiple study guides, methods, and online resources. Look around and find one that best fits your learning style.

Beyond licensing, there is so much to learn. The internet, and especially YouTube, is your friend. Get out there and start exercising your new skills.

Groups

The best way to advance knowledge on any topic is to work with a group of like-minded individuals. The good news is HAMs love to talk and share. Three groups have specific applications to EMCOMM.

ARES

ARES as noted above is a corps of trained radio operators throughout the United States and Canada. Organized at the town or city level, ARES clubs gather and practice emergency radio skills and provide support to local emergency units during disasters.

RACES

Similar to ARES, RACES organizations are a similar collection of HAM radio operators. The primary difference is that RACES activated by the state.

AmRRON

AmRRON is an organization built by and for preppers. AmRRON is a collection of HAM radio operators preparing for radio usage when the SHTF. AmRRON national networks meet monthly while some regional nets happen more often. The operators at AmRRON are a rich source of prepper-practical information.

Exercises

The hardest part of any hobby is getting time in practicing. You need to find a regular way to fire up your gear and make contacts and exchange information. If there is one thing HAM radio operators love more than talking, it’s talking on the radio. They have established several ways to get on the air regularly.

Contesting is the practice of making the most contacts as possible with other operators in a limited amount of time. Often contestants go for volume.

Other contests add twists, such as contacting as many regions as possible, and others strictly use specific methods (e.g. CW, PSK-31). Contests are going on continuously. They are easy to get into and learn from.

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Field Day is HAM radio’s open house. Clubs around the world open up and break out all their gear. It’s a great opportunity to get on the air and make a few hundred contacts.

The final exercise is AmRRON’s T-REX. They base this exercise on a fictional event (rapid spreading pandemic, earthquake, grid-down event) and urge the participants to go to their BOL and get connected.

AmRRON broadcasts a week of announcements that set the stage for the exercise. Over the weekend, they spread traffic over the net in an attempt to have all operators get the “full” picture. 

The 2018 T-REX event centered on an earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The exercise followed a multi-agency exercise by the US Government. T-REX fed off the related “press releases.” This made an already great event even more realistic.

As T-REX encourages participants to make it as real as possible, it provides a grand avenue for preppers to practice their entire craft. From pack up to bugout, to BOL life. It’s a one-of-a-kind way to get immersed into the prepper life for a weekend.

EMCOMM Wrap Up

Being prepared takes a lot of energy, effort, and knowledge. There is so much to do and so much to know. Eventually, you have to prioritize your efforts. This has one major effect. Prepping is all about balance.

It would be great to have 90% of your survival dollars in guns, but without ammo or training, you would be useless. Further, without food, you’d be dead. Prioritization forces you to pay attention to the little things.

Prioritize your prepping time to make sure you have an appropriate EMCOMM approach. Without communications, anyone outside of walking distance will become someone you used to know. Likewise, faced with an emergency, you will need to pass and receive information.

Knowing what’s going on in the world around you is the only way to live to see another day!

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