Communication Matters: Become a HAM Radio Operator

No Dial Tone

If you have not read my post about joining CERT, please do (Community Matters: Join Your Local CERT Team).  After I joined my local CERT team, I discovered that one of the main areas that was lacking in my emergency preparedness plan, was communication.  I had ample supplies of food and water.  My family knows what to do when disaster strikes.  We have a first aid kit , and know how to use it.

However, if a tornado ran through here, and knocked down power lines, how would my CERT team contact me?  Phones would be out, including both landline and cell towers.  Without electricity, there is no internet. What would I do then? Furthermore, how would I contact my family?  How would I let my out of town family know that I am safe?  This poses a dilemma.  In fact, during disasters, the few phone lines that do remain operable, are constantly jammed with the huge influx of calls–people who desperately want to contact their loved ones.

Assuming my family and neighbors are safe, I want to do what I can for my community.  The problem is, if the CERT commander can’t contact me, then I won’t be any help at all.  If I just go out there and try to help, I might just be getting in the way and doing more harm than good.

Radio to the Rescue

The good news is, there is a perfect solution to these problems: HAM radio.  Radio communication works independently, meaning even if phone and electricity are out, radios still work.  With battery powered radios, people can still communicate, even over several hundred miles! This means that I can contact my family over the radio to communicate, without relying on phone lines or cell towers.

I was surprised to learn that it is fairly easy to become certified by the FCC to become an amateur radio operator, by taking a simple 35 question exam.  The study guide put forth by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), contains all of the questions that might appear on the exam.

The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual

If you are unfamiliar with concepts such as radio frequencies, or electricity, some of the concepts can be technical and confusing. While the official study guide is a great study tool, and covers all of the questions on the exam, I felt like I needed to have some of those concepts explained in a more simple way. The Ham Radio For Dummies book is helpful for breaking down the technical things in an easy to understand way.

I put in about two weeks of study with flash cards and practice exams. I passed the test. I had no prior knowledge of radio, electricity, or anything remotely related.  To put it into perspective, there was a 10 year old girl in my class who passed. You can do it!  Once you pass the test, you will be issued a call sign by the FCC, and you can get on the radio. It’s that easy!

You don’t need an expensive radio station and antenna to communicate.  A simple handheld radio will do almost everything that a new operator would need to do, and is actually perfect for disasters.

The radio that my mentors (or Elmers) recommend is the handheld Baofeng UV-82 Two-Way Radio. There is a two pack available ($59), but as of the date of this post, it is cheaper to buy two singles ($56), not including shipping and handling.

Why not just use Walkie Talkies?  They are only programmed to certain frequencies, and they generally only work by line of sight, which means you have to be very close together. Those radios are generally not powerful enough to work in dense areas such as cities where there are a lot of structures that get in the way of the signal.  Walkie Talkies are fine for very local areas, such as a campsite or apartment complex.  However, their reach is probably not more than one mile.  With a handheld HAM radio, you have a broader range of frequencies, and you can bounce your signal off of other radio stations to achieve a distance of perhaps 100 miles, depending on conditions.

This kind of communication is wonderful when I consider how many friends and family I have scattered all over this state.  I could use my HAM radio to check on them, and to let them know that I am safe (being careful to avoid the emergency bands of course).  Even when the phone lines are working, they can become jammed  during a disaster. It can sometimes be impossible to make a call, because everyone is calling in/out to check on the ones they love.

Know How to Use It

While the HAM test covers the basics, every radio is different.  Even various models from the same manufacturer are different.  You have to spend time reading the manual that came with your radio, or watching youtube videos for that specific radio in order to learn how to use it.  If you are lucky, there might be a HAM mentor in your area (called an “Elmer”) who can help guide you on how to use your radio.  It’s another great opportunity to get involved in your community, and get to know your neighbors!

Another Step in Being Prepared

By getting my family certified as HAM radio operators, we will be well prepared to communicate during a disaster, and prepared to be a much needed help in our community. I am proud to say that I have passed the test and earned my Technician license, aI am prepared to be an asset and a resource for my community during tough times.