Here’s our thoughts on some of the common Amateur Radio questions and concerns seen on many of the disaster preparedness and survival sites. Hopefully, you’ll get some good out of this information and it will remove any obstacles to obtaining a license. It may even reaffirm why you don’t need a license.
This is a fairly long article. Some of the questions and comments overlap so similar topics are grouped together. Please feel free to post a link to this page on your favorite discussion forum.
- Why do I need a ham radio?
- I don’t need another expensive hobby
Actually, in our opinion, if you are prepping alone, you don’t need a ham radio. You can probably just get what you need from a scanner. Scanners will receive police/fire/ham and other local emergency frequencies that can provide information about local disasters. There’s really no need to have a two-way radio if there’s no one you need to contact.
The only reason I could think of for a single person to have a ham radio is to be able to access a telephone landline when cell service is overloaded or down. Many VHF and UHF repeaters have a feature known as “autopatch” that enables a ham operator to use telephone services with a ham radio. Autopatch is one of the privileges that drew me into ham radio. This was an unadvertised benefit to ham radio long before cell phones became popular.
If you are prepping with a group, you and the others should seriously consider ham radio. As compared to CB and GMRS, Amateur Radio offers more options and is somewhat more reliable and secure. Using the free online study materials, you can get into ham radio for under $150.00, which includes the cost of the license and a good handheld radio.
The main thing to remember is that there are two basic aspects to ham radio: Local communications and Long Distance communications. The equipment requirements are distinctly different.
We think of ham radio as a tool, not a hobby. Our group has chosen ham radio as one layer of our comms preps as a way to stay in touch with each other locally. In an emergency, we have no reason or desire to communicate with anybody outside of our group or anybody other than the trusted hams in the counties that we live.
Long distance ham radio is a hobby that a couple of us tinker with occasionally and it can get expensive. Having that equipment and understanding how to use it does come in handy for listening in on emergency networks but you could do the same thing with a decent shortwave.
Some hams that I know are perfectly content with their entry level license while others expand their interest into other aspects of ham radio.
- Why does the FCC / Gov’t need to control radio anyway?
- Why do I need a license to operate a radio?
These are really good questions. Most folks only think that radio frequencies are being used for broadcast and 2-way radio but there’s really much more going on than that. The radio spectrum is another name for the complete range of frequencies that are currently in use and the spectrum is massive. When you get the time, take a look at this Spectrum Chart . You’ll see that there are frequencies being used for science, business, military, TV, FM/AM radio etc.
The FCC was created to manage the frequencies into planned groups of intended uses. If you think about it long enough, you’ll realize that some group would have had to come along and organize the spectrum eventually. This organization is a good thing:
- First and foremost, it keeps our military, police and fire departments from being interfered with while they do their jobs. Imagine if everybody could just key their microphone and talk over the frequencies that have been set aside for defense and public safety.
- It undoubtedly keeps the cost of owning radio equipment down by giving manufacturers clear parameters when designing and manufacturing the necessary equipment. Think about how expensive a radio would be if it was capable of transmitting on EVERY frequency and think about how many different antennas it would require. It also benefits the end user by taking the confusion and frustration out of choosing the right equipment. How ticked-off you would be if you spent a few hundred dollars on a set of radios only to find out that the local TV station was using all of your frequencies or a cell phone company has come along and used them for cell service.?
Licenses are required on all parts of the spectrum. Businesses will obtain a license to use certain frequencies once it’s established that the frequencies are not being used by other licensees. Sometimes the license is included with the radio (CB) and no testing or fee is required. Sometimes only a fee is required (GMRS). And sometimes a test and a fee is required. The test is basically to clarify the operating principles and safety issues associated with the type of radio and the frequencies involved.
A ham operator is tested to be sure that they have knowledge of what frequencies are available to use and what potential health hazards could come from operating their equipment. CB owners aren’t required to get a license because CB radios don’t generate harmful levels of RF energy and the manufacturers must limit their radios to 40 specific frequencies.
- I don’t have time to get a license.
- How do I get a Ham license?
- I don’t understand all the radio terminology
- Why is there more than one Ham license?
- I don’t want to learn Morse Code
Getting a ham license is fairly easy but it does take time and effort on your part.
The two easiest ways to start are:
- Contact your nearest Red Cross office and ask for the Amateur Radio group contact in your area.
- Since your already on our website, contact us and we’ll send you some links to the Amateur Radio groups around you.
The time involved will be up to you. Some new hams don’t study at all and instead will spend a couple weeks prior to testing taking the online practice exams. Some will take a month or two reading books on the subject.
It’s becoming very popular for Ham Clubs to hold one-day workshops with test study in the morning followed immediately with testing in the afternoon.
The FCC has recently changed the ham testing and licensing structure. The entry level test now actually contains very little technical content. And Morse Code is no longer required. There are so many aspects to the ham service now that all of the technical terminology explanation and instruction comes with whatever equipment that you decide to buy.
There are three levels of licensing: Technician (entry) Class , General Class and Extra Class. The Tech license gives you what you need for local comms plus just enough privileges in the long distance frequencies to see if you’d like to move up.
The next level, General, expands on the Tech class by opening the door to even more long distance frequencies. And the Extra class adds a few more on top of the General Class.
I am a General and I am content to be at this level. I am also a Volunteer Examiner which means that I can be one of the three required to administer a Technician exam. I’m currently weighing the need to move up to Extra class and, to be honest, the only reason I would move up is to be able to administer the General Class exams.
- I don’t want to get a license because my name will be put on a list.
- If the government knows I have a radio they could confiscate it
I think the one personality trait that is common among preppers is a slight suspicion in government. Yes, your name will be put on a list. Everybody’s on a list. I think the argument could be made that you could find yourself on a real short list by trying too hard to stay off the rest of the lists…
Confiscation?….. There’s never been an instance in the US, that I know of, when legally operated ham radios have been taken away from anybody. (I have heard of scanners being taken away from motorists during traffic stops).
One thing that is made clear to all new hams is that the FCC can dictate how and when certain amateur frequencies are used in a disaster and, since you have agreed to operate under the FCC regulations, you are expected to abide by any emergency declarations.
- I’ll just buy a ham radio and only use it after a disaster
- It’s legal to use a ham radio without a license during an emergency
Well there’s nothing stopping anyone from buying a ham radio. Buying a radio, charging it up and keying the microphone is easy. Finding help in an emergency is not that easy. You may hear others on the frequency but unless you understand certain operational details you could yell and scream into the mic all day and no one will hear you.
Also, just like any other disaster gear you may own, radios need to be tested periodically. Getting on the air without a proper call sign could cost you some money. There are hams everywhere that love to find “pirates” and have even made a sport out of it.
Yes, it is OK to use ANY radio in an emergency. Just be sure that you know how to use it before a life is actually depending on it.
- Modern ham radios are susceptible to EMP damage.
- The best kind of ham radio to have is the “old” tube type.
The jury is still out on this one, in my opinion. We’ve had several strong solar storms in the recent past and there were no reports of widespread damage to electronics. Todays’ EMP weapons are designed to take out local communications and they do that job well (just ask anyone in Baghdad). I think the case could be made that you have other things than your radio to worry about if a device like that was detonated over your immediate area.
The topic of EMP and the technical details of how it affects electronics would take several posts. I can say that I’ve seen dozens of electronic components damaged by lightning and none damaged by solar storms.
It’s generally believed that the old tube-style radios are more rugged and easier to repair than the modern radios. I’m not convinced that is true in all cases. What few tube radios that have survived the last five or six decades are in sad shape and are hoarded by collectors for spare parts. If you were able to salvage one it would take constant tweaking and maintenance to keep it functional. These radios are lovingly referred to as “boat anchors”.
- How far can I talk on a Ham radio?
- I would only want to talk to (name the person) in (name the state)
- Ham radio is not private, anyone can listen in
As mentioned above, anyone thinking of getting into ham needs to separate the service into two parts: Local comms and Distant comms.
Range is a common question. Radio-to-radio local comms will depend on antenna height and terrain. A handheld or mobile radio’s local range can be extended thru repeaters. This may mean reaching across a large city or into the next county. In some areas there are repeaters that have been linked together to cover wider regions.
Successful radio-to-radio Long Distance comms rely on atmospheric conditions, proper antenna selection and a knowledgeable operator at both ends. These types of comms can be extremely unpredictable and frustrating. This cannot be accomplished with ANY currently marketed handheld radio.
Ham radio transmissions are not secure. Other hams and folks that just like to monitor the radio can hear everything that you say. However, there are couple ways to gain a little privacy. Some operational modes use text and require specialized equipment to send and decode. There are also certain groups of frequencies that aren’t commonly searched by scanner enthusiasts and are rarely used by hams.
You and your group could also learn morse code. There are certain frequencies throughout ham radio that are set aside for morse code only but it would require an additional investment in time and special equipment..