If you have been involved with preparedness for any time and have been reading any of the Survival Dispatch Insider articles I’ve written you know we have strongly suggested that you get a ham radio license, because without communications you don’t have shit!
If you can’t communicate with your team that is doing perimeter searches, then you have no idea what they find until they get back. You have no idea if they are in trouble, have found raiders heading your way or have found some valuable resource.
Tactical communications are local, they can be between your team that is out of a scouting mission or from the team to base. Usually we are talking up to 5-10 miles but it could be more. We are talking handheld radios, using VHF frequencies. Range is limited by the antenna, power of the radio and topography.
If members of your group are at work when the power and phones go out, for any reason, you have no idea whether they are staying in place or making their way to you. As we have discussed in other articles, the Technician license (entry level) will get you access to local repeaters and, in normal times, repeaters can be used to extend the range of a 5 watt handheld radio. With access to voice over internet connections such as IRLP and Echolink, you can talk across the country and the world. So why upgrade to General?
If we make the assumption that in a disaster local power and infrastructure has been damaged, as we have seen with hurricanes, tornadoes and similar disasters, then it is reasonable to assume that repeaters are not going to be available, at least locally. In a true SHTF we must make the assumption that normal communications will NOT be available. We must be able to communication outside of our local area if we want to keep contact with other like-minded folks, get intelligence and information on what is going on, at least regionally.
Access to HF Bands
A General license gives you access to all 18 of the ham bands. There are portions of those bands that are restricted to those with an Advanced and Amateur Extra license, but a General class license gets you access to most of the frequencies in each band.
The HF bands allow you to send messages way past the line of sight limitations of VHF/UHF. With correct antenna selection you can somewhat control how far the signals will travel. A near vertical incidence skywave (NVIS) antenna allows you to send a signal from about 300-3,000 miles. Other antenna selections allow you to bounce a signal multiple times around the world.
Atmospheric conditions can impact signals, however by using digital signal modes, such as PSK31, Contesa 4/250 and others, text messages can be sent even when atmospheric conditions are bad. It is even possible to send emails and images. The list of data modes is continually growing as Amateur Radio operators develop new ways to send data with less power even under the worst of conditions. In fact data modes will work very well, with far less power, than using voice. For a good explanation of the digital modes see WB8NUT’s web page.
The equipment needed for most of the data modes is an interface between your computer and radio. The Teltronics SignaLink is one of the easiest to use and they have cables to interface with almost every radio. The other item needed is software. FLDIGI is a program that is capable of utilizing many of the data modes. Some of the newer data modes have their own software and most of the time it is free.
HF nets are held on a regular basis to practice communications skills and pass messages. A number of like-minded groups conduct regular nets on HF frequencies, such as the American Redoubt Radio Operators Network (AmRRON), who are preparedness minded ham operators. AmRRON conducts both voice and digital nets twice a month and the schedule and frequencies can be found on their web page.
One daily sequence of nets is conducted by the National Traffic System (NTS). The NTS is a ‘fall back’ to the days of the telegraph. NTS operators practice passing radiograms, a writing message in a specific format. During a disaster the ability to accurately pass a written message, without having to repeat it multiple times, is a very valuable skill. A list of nets can be found on the ARRL web site and AmRRON affiliated nets can be found on the AmRRON site.
During disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, where the local communications infrastructure has been destroyed, having access to these nets would provide the means to pass information into and out of any impacted area.
During a SHTF scenario the ability to quickly pass an accurate message, without repeats, significantly reduces the chances of being intercepted and/or your location being compromised by direction finding.
Practice Makes Perfect – Learn as You Use
As a General license holder, you will learn more about antennas and RF for your license. After you pass you will gain experience as you participate in HF nets, field day events, etc. You will see what antennas work for different bands and conditions and learn how to make your own. As you experiment with different digital modes you will learn what ones work best on different bands and conditions.
You will have a better understanding of electronics, power and circuits. This can help you build back up power supplies, solar back up and other systems.
Create More Value
With more knowledge comes more responsibility.
Any Mutual Assistance Group (MAG) is going to want skilled people. As a ham radio operator with a General class license and the ability to send and received HF radio transmissions you become a valuable resource. You will have knowledge about antennas, correct terminology, Q signals, frequencies and times for HF nets and other information.
You will also be a resource for training. While ideally every member of your MAG will have obtained at least their Technician license, but the reality is that not everyone will have. You will be a resource to train them in radio use and etiquette. Having been active with nets and with a better understanding of communications you will be able to help develop communications plans, including the use of one-time-pads if appropriate. (See our current video on OTP’s and more articles are coming).
So What’s Involved in Getting my General License?
The General exam is 35 questions, the same as the Technician. You need 75% correct to pass. Just like the Technician there are numerous resources for learning, including books written in different styles, videos, flash cards and apps with practice exams. I highly recommend hamstudy.org who provide free materials as well as a program and support for VE teams to conduct computer-based testing, including remote/online testing.
Once you are scoring 80-85% or better on practice exams you should be ready to take a test. The Laurel VEC affiliated teams offer free exams and will usually let you try again at the same session if you don’t pass first time. Their teams and test sessions can be found at https://www.laurelvec.com/
For a remote exam go to hamstudy.org/sessions/online
ARRL and some other teams list their tests on the ARRL site and you can search at http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license-exam-session
You are not allowed to use your cellphone for a calculator so make sure you bring one with you if needed.
For study resources see our page here.
The time to learn preparedness skills is now, before something bad happens. Like all skills they require practice. As a General class license holder you can help train others in your group but more importantly you can reach outside of your neighborhood to both receive news and get messages out. Practice makes perfect, so practicing with different antennas, finding out what works best for your area or in different conditions is important. Practicing with digital messaging and other modes is also a valuable learning experience.
Best of luck with your upgrade.