HAM RADIO AS A PREPPER TOOL
By Charles Henry, K4VUD, ham radio operator
Many preppers want communications options during times of vast calamities that shut off normal cell phone and other means for a long time. Often, ham radio is suggested for this use. Ham radio is not simple, like a walkie talkie or cell phone, but it can have a vital place during smaller or world-wide catastrophes.
Ham radio, amateur radio, is a hobby as old as radio itself which today is practiced by over a million people world wide. Often self-taught in electronics and radio functions, hams vary in activities from building their own radio sets to experimenting with satellites. Each ham must pass a government test to be legal to transmit. The ordinary use is to try to reach many places on the globe as an accomplishment or to just talk in an informal chat with an interesting person nearby or far away. The point is to use the hams’ knowledge of voice, Morse code, TV or data transmissions to communicate anywhere to fellow hobbyists. Ham radio has a long history of providing vital communications in emergencies where all other methods have failed.
Emergency communication is the aspect preppers should know about.
Preppers need two kinds of communications needs in times of calamities: contact among the immediate prepper family or group and contact with other preppers and with officials that may provide help or vital news.
Contact among family…. Unless the family is wildly disbursed (like hundreds or thousands of miles), prepper family/ group members need what is called INTERCOM. Intercom is short range (couple of miles) radio system which will keep all members in contact with all other members all the time. This system can be the little ear phone and microphone devices you see on police or military in movies (the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE folks have that) or just a walkie talkie for each person. There is a wide variety of walkie talkies which work on various radio bands—business band (like seen on a big construction site) or personal bands which include or are new versions of the CB system or the ham radio bands.
INTERCOM units need to be very portable, reliable, all be identical in bands covered, and have easily recharged batteries (removable is best). They must be simple to use with a volume control and a push-to-talk button. An ordinary system allows only one person to speak at a time, but allows all to hear the speaker. A group of excited people all pushing the talk buttons at once will jam the system, so training is a must. Two-channel units can be placed with the main bosses of the location so that the leaders can talk privately away from the group channel. Commercial business band walkie talkies are best because they are rugged and made for rank novices to use. Their frequencies are color coded, often by the case color. These type units will work well for group INTERCOM.
Whatever type of INTERCOM is selected, the danger is that others can listen to all that is said over them. Thus, if junior is crying for his Mother and disclosing his location, anyone within the short range of these radios can listen in. Too, business band radios have a few very common bands, so finding you on your INTERCOM is easy. See below for discussion of how to avoid this problem.
The other communication that may be needed is LONG RANGE radios. This is where ham radio comes in. LONG RANGE radios can work over many miles or around the world. The distances they work on can be controlled to avoid broadcasting to areas of danger, but whatever is said over a ham radio can be heard by anyone with the proper receiver. People can talk in some kind of made up code for a bit more privacy, but using standard Morse code does not automatically provide total privacy, but gives some because few people know Morse. LONG RANGE radios must exist at both ends of the communication channel.
Ham radio sets do have long range. The sets include a receiver and a transmitter in the same box. Having a receiver is an excellent prepper survival tool because listening is possible to any news or other calls which gives excellent intel (intelligence information like spies do), but just listening does not give away the location of the radio set. A short wave receiver set will do this same function with no transmitter included. All radio transmissions can reveal the location of the transmitter, either by special “sniffer” equipment or by some mistaken comment from the person speaking. Advanced radio finding equipment, likely owned only by the military, is very sophisticated, but an ordinary ham can only get a general idea unless very close to the transmitter being sought.
LONG RANGE transmissions need to be short and identified by recognition of voices or some simple code (a transmitted voice just calls himself George). Basically, LONG RANGE transmissions should be limited to people inside the family or group. Talking to strangers by radio can bring trouble. Thus, unless one group has a familial bond with another group at a great distance (over five miles), LONG RANGE transmission should be kept at an absolute minimum. Exceptions could be dire emergency transmitted calls, for example, but he danger of that has to be evaluated.
If two or more bonded groups wish to use LONG RANGE communications, they must use some kind of coded talk, keep transmissions short, and work on a predetermined time schedule. The latter two items also hold down on electricity needed.
LONG RANGE equipment has another huge draw-back—an outdoor antenna is a must for effective function. These antennas are not really small and certainly call easily visible attention to the preppers’ site. Antennas require maintenance and are easily damaged by attackers or even people just some doing malicious “fun.” It is very difficult to protect a good antenna on top of a 50ft tower, for example. If the prepper wishes to install a temporary antenna, made of wire, then there is the danger of exposure during the set-up and take-down. The rule is that the larger the antenna and the higher, the better it will work. Hams have written articles about making stealthy antennas, but the performance is limited (and will need testing). Lots of experimenting will be needed to discover just how small an antenna can be made and yet do an adequate job. In fact, it is the antenna that is most difficult for a beginner to deal with. Anyone can run a radio with minimal training, but installing, testing, and getting good results with antennas will take a professional or a ham operator’s help (and it is not a short job).
LONG RANGE radio equipment will most likely have to be from the ham radio market. Surplus military radios are rare and difficult to get manuals about. There are two kinds—tube type and transistor type. The good news about a tube type ham radio is that it is more resistant to EMP and operator misuse. However, replacement tubes must be found and kept on hand, and the radios are only old; all tube type radios are over thirty years old or older. There are virtually no units to be found that are new in storage. The Collins Radio Company made some very rugged short wave transceivers (receiver and transmitter in same box), model KWM-2, that were used in Vietnam and ham radio collectors often can refurbish such units to very good condition, but may end up costing a couple thousand dollars. The operation of these type units are not automatic and abusive or ignorant adjustments will burn the radios out. Training is required.
Brand new transceivers, and some newer used items, are “all transistor.” Transistors are more delicate, especially in EMP (note this includes all new walkie talkies, too). With minimal training, these units are easier to use, especially with a built-in antenna tuner, a must, which will automatically adjust the output transistors to the antenna. Many will run on a 12 volt car battery, but badly regulated generator voltage can damage them. Best to just charge the batteries disconnected to the radios, and then connect them.
At the height of popularity of the Citizens Band (CB) use, millions of these radio transceivers were sold. In their unmodified form, their 5 watts transmission power is only good for five to ten miles over open terrain. They fit in cars well and can have simple car antennas. Thus, they are very good to communicate car-to-car in a convoy, saving walkie talkies batteries. Many CB enthusiasts built modified, higher power CB radio systems. Getting one of these is cheaper than a ham set and has lots of transmit power; however, the CB radio has only 40 channels within one frequency band so it is easily spied on and many times limited in transmit range due to that band’s limits—regardless of transmit power of 1000 watts or more. Because so many survivors will have access to CB radios, the prepper must have one or two at least for listening.
Transmit power can be increased by ham radios and CBs alike with a second box called a linear amplifier. This device connects between the transceiver and the antenna and automatically boosts the output for talking. These are best used with the automatic transistor radio sets and need to be automatic also. The linear amplifier must, then, have a built in antenna tuner inside that amplifier to keep from having to know how safely to tune these items. Two common units with that capability are the Yaesu FL-1000 and the ICOM IC-PW-1 or similar ICOM models; both are now sold new or used.
Note that additional transmit power will not mean that you can hear better; only that you will be better heard. The higher power means that radio can be sniffed and found easier. The antenna still needs to be as good as possible for hearing purposes. Linear amplifiers take lots more electricity, like even 20 amperes.
A complete LONG RANGE short wave transceiver, amplifier if needed, and the necessary antenna can provide 24-hour communication to a variety of distances world-wide. It can be argued that the best use of this equipment is for listening. If there is a redevelopment phase after a huge calamity, this radio system could be of vital help in transmitting, too. A good working ham radio could easily be the center of reestablishing civil order and a return to some kind of post-calamity society. It is a good system to have on hand.
In using INTERCOM or LONG RANGE radios, operators can avoid being heard by snooping invaders by changing the frequency bands often and in a pattern only known to the inner group. For example, after a few words, a trigger word, like “change,” is spoken and all know to change to channel 2 in a pre-arranged order. Soon after on channel 2, “change” can notify all to go to channel 3 and so on. Probably written cheat sheets will be needed. One can see that as the complexity rises, problems of confusion also rise. A LONG RANGE radio operator pair would need this cheat sheet well before any calamity because they are widely separated.
Almost all radio transmissions are controlled by governments both to direct no over- populating the radio bands and to be able to trace illegal uses of radios (like drug traffickers). The first is done partly by having a test which measures the applicants’ knowledge of adjusting radios and of radio laws. Also, UN and other international treaties rules set frequency bands all over the world which keep police radios away from TV broadcasts, for example, and limit ham radio operations within set bands, too. Fortunately, the earliest telegraphers were trained to high standards of keeping secret the messages they passed and maintaining equipment in good order. This tradition of honesty has transferred over to ham radio operators who are very defensive of their bands and to improper uses of them. This tradition affects the prepper, as seen below.
All but a few bands for low powered citizen radios (and all cell phones which are also radios) are closely regulated and monitored by governments to enforce the radio laws. Because LONG RANGE radios will transmit over national borders, governments try to make their citizens obey the laws to avoid confrontations with neighboring nations. Enforcement, of necessity, means governments must know the location of radio transmitting operators and equipment (some governments also want to register all short wave radio receivers, too). A system of assigning call letters, different for each individual ham world-wide, to operators and the necessity of their transmitting those letters frequently helps identify the honest from the law breakers. The culture of ham radio is extremely scrupulous in obeying the radio laws, the operators protect and correctly use their call letters like their own names, and hams do extensive self-policing—correcting their own and even reporting bad apples.
Because hams are so well behaved, the law breakers, called pirates, are more obvious. A pirate will have no legal call letters which immediately shows him up. Hams help track law breakers often.
What all this legal stuff means to preppers is that the prepper needs to either obtain a license himself or be very careful testing his communication equipment illegally. American preppers can read http://www.arrl.org for the way to pass tests and get a legal license to use ham radio transmitters inside the ham radio bands. This is the ideal plan because having a real license opens the prepper up to help from hams, many who delight in helping a fellow ham (even putting up antennas, etc.). The ham license opens many bands to the licensee all the time. Using the ham radio sets and gaining experience with how radio waves behave will make the prepper better prepared.
In the USA, radio receivers require no license. However, if the unlicensed prepper tests his transmitting equipment, he must do so carefully with short test transmissions. He can escape the watchful oversight of hams by adjusting his own radio to transmit outside the ham radio bands. Too, the job of monitoring and enforcing all radio transmissions is overwhelming, as you can imagine. Pirate radio users on commercial fishing boats off Vietnam and Malaysia chat often. Rebellious military groups use unapproved bands to coordinate military attacks. Drug traffickers use radios to direct their travels. Catching them all would be like netting all mosquitoes at a backyard BBQ. Thus and sadly, many misuse the radio bands and the practice in the short wave bands is getting worse. Enforcement in these bands are not nearly as important as controlling military and commercial radio transmissions to and from satellites; satellite bands are well away in frequency from the HF short wave ham bands.
Note that most all ham radio transceivers can be adjusted to work outside the ham radio bands. No one should break the law this way. It is much better to simply pass the test and get a legal ham license.
Because getting a ham license includes identifying oneself to federal and other authorities, including legal names and addresses, some preppers may be resistant to having such information on file. However, it could be argued that any calamity that stops the use of currency, food deliveries, electricity, and riots and so on—the real sh^t hitting the fan—will also stop government agencies taking the time to look in computer files (which no longer work) to find a lonely prepper hiding with his ham radio set. The idea that any part of the governments could organize and enforce mass round-up of radios and guns, for example, boggles the mind considering the many other truly overwhelming problems involved. Even military tanks can run only so far without fuel, and getting men to stay at their posts while their families and society are crumbling calls into question how “the government” can come and get you. Anything is possible, but it appears that in the event of a massive, world-shattering complex situation, government officials and military will be much more concerned with saving themselves. For example, it is one thing to fight in Europe (WW2) and an entirely different thing for a military to function with the whole world falling apart. A prepper must examine these factors and decide what is likely best for him and his group.
In sum, ham radio is an excellent part of the preppers’ preparation. It may not save the family or group, and it may be broken just when it is needed. It requires electricity and competent operation. The prepper is best using ham radio if licensed and thus trained in ham radio use. A good working radio should be a part of the preppers’ enclave or hiding place.