Here’s a little history… Though interested in ham radio for much of my life, it wasn’t until 2005 that my interest really piqued. It was through helping a small community get connected to the intenet where I met Stan. Stan, now a “silent key” (a term used to refer to those hams that have passed on), had gear lying all over the place. At an age of 80-plus Stan had an intentness about him and a eagerness to learn new things.
Stan and his wife Mary had three phones lines. They each had their own voice line as well as a modem line since both liked to stay connected online with email and such. The broadband at the time was only 3Mbits, but was a welcome change from 56Kbit dialup (which often connected lower than 40Kbit).
Stan and his wife were full of stories. Stan in particular talked much about his time in the merchant marines and various projects he worked on for a government agency, of which I will not mention since both he and his wife worked for this agency.
In one story, Stan told me about how he was the radio operator on a ship. Stan told a fellow technician that he could hammer out a SOS even if the ship’s radios were down simply by using an ohmmeter and the ships existing antenna. Word got to the captain who insisted Stan give him a demonstration. Stan intially refused saying that sending an SOS would not be a wise idea, however, the captain continued to insist and said that it was impossible. Stan sent a brief SOS and an audible response to the SOS could clearly be heard from the captain’s radio. Stan told me he quickly disconnected from the antenna and was worried about reprocussions (which never happened), but Stan won his bet with the captain!
Stan had gear all over the place, ham transceivers, large amplifiers, antennas, homebrew projects, and he was showing a fascination with SDR (software defined radio, which was in its infancy).
With some encouragement from Stan, I tested into a General Class ham license and Stan helped me get set up with my first SDR rig (a SDR-1000 by Flex Radio). Once I had the rig, I had to get it online, which meant setting up an antenna. So, I built a 135 foot OCF (off-center-fed) dipole with legs of 90 and 45 feet. My first contact on the radio was a voice contact using SSB on 20 meters over 1,000 miles away on just 1 watt of power. I was blown away! Of course, much of that success had to do with Stan investing some time and energy into helping me understand low power and antennas.
So what does all this have to do with prepping? Ham radio operation can be a great addition to any prepper’s toolbox (given that one goes through the process of acquiring a ham radio license). But, one of the biggest problems with ham radio communication is that it cannot legally be secured.
Every transmission must be able to be read. It is read using readily available standards like SSB, CW (morse code), RTTY, packet data, AM, FM, etc. The ability of fellow hams and the FCC to read any given transmission is a legal boundary of accepting a ham radio operator’s license. Encryption cannot be used. Speaking in code is a violation of the license. Additionally, focusing conversation on political or controversial issues is a “no no.” The purpose of ham radio isn’t to protect one’s freedom of speech and it is to provide a playground for like-minded techies to discover radio technology and learn. The good is that ham radio does that last part very well, it does provide an excellent learning playground.
Adding more good onto this is that ham radio bands open up in the event of an emergency. But, that doesn’t mean anyone with a radio should use it (with or without a license). In fact, the morons out there that have radios and don’t have licenses will probably have very little understanding about how to conduct proper radio communications in an emergency because they have no experience. They’ve bought radios, check their charge every once in a while, maybe turn them on and listen in a little, then turn them back off and put them in storage.
Aggravating the emergency situation will be the multitudes of ham wanna-bees that have bought the crazy cheap Baofeng radios. Note: I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the Baofeng UV-5R or other Baofeng radio, I’m just saying it is like getting a really cheap gun and hoping it works well when you need it. In a disaster, the airwaves could get flooded with traffic from people who don’t know what frequencies they should or shouldn’t be operating on and potentially disrupt police, emergency services, paging and other systems.
But, more good is the fact that since there are ham radio standards like SSB, CW, and RTTY, one can easily, and with a minimum amount of gear, start tuning in. In fact, I think this is the most ideal way to use ham radio is simply by listening. One can gather information without shining a spotlight on their own location. When you tune in your TV on local stations, you bypass online streaming, your are not logged, you simply receive what is already available. It can be discreet. But, when you go online, your traffic is logged, Roku/Netflix/Amazon know exactly what you are watching or listening to.
Going beyond ham, listening in on shortwave can provide one of the best spectrums of information. Certainly there are garbage broadcasts out there, but there is also a wealth of news that is free for your listening pleasure. Over-the-air transmissions are probably the worst with regard to security, but could be the best with regard to anonymity. So, dig out that Beofeng and do some listening. Tune your Tecsun in, get a good antenna, and see what kind of range you can receive. Find your local repeaters on the 2-meter Baofeng and just tune in. Of course, if you have a license, then join the local banter and learn more about your gear.
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