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Monday, November 11, 2013

Amateur (Ham) Radio and Emergency Operation

I have been involved with amateur, a.k.a. 'ham' radio for many years. One aspect of amateur radio that doesn't get nearly enough public attention is its continued use during emergencies. People assume that cell phones will always be available, even if land lines and Internet access are out of commission. Depending on what the emergency is, this is sometimes the case. Often, however, the cell towers are damaged by the same event that impacted the rest of the infrastructure. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires are but a few situations that could knock out cell phone service in an area. Then there's the spectre of a total failure of the US power grid - which would cause nearly ALL other infrastructure to fail within hours or a couple days, depending on how long it takes for backup generators to run out of fuel or batteries to become depleted. Even the Feds are taking this seriously - See the following article for details:
GridEX Drill
I was not active with 'ham' radio for a number of years, but since volunteering with a local group of civilian emergency responders, and also seeing the condition the world in general is in, I decided to dust off my old equipment and get back into the fray.

There are amateur radio frequency bands in the "HF' spectrum - that area above AM broadcast and below about 30 MHz; as well as other bands in the VHF - between 30 MHz and 300 MHz; iand in UHF - between 300 MHz and 1 GHz; and even in the microwave spectrum - between 1 GHz and 300 GHz. While there are uses for HF radios during emergencies, the discussion here will be limited to the 2-meter VHF and 70-cm UHF bands.

Both 2-meter and 70-cm band hand-held radios are used extensively for portable and emergency communications. The 2-meter band covers VHF between 144-148 MHz, while in the United States the 70-cm band covers UHF between 420-450 MHz. In Canada, the band is restricted to 430-450MHz. Both of these make extensive use of repeaters - radio stations that receive the low power signal from the portable radio and re-transmit that signal at higher power, on a slightly different frequency, so that the range is greatly extended. A repeater may be located on a tall building or a mountaintop to provide "line of sight" coverage over a large area. Amateur radio repeaters are generally owned by an amateur radio club. These may be either "open access" - available to nearly anyone, or "closed" - meaning restricted to members of the club which owns and maintains the machine.

All of that said, these hand-held radios may also operate without the use of a repeater in "simplex mode", meaning they can "talk" directly to each other if within range.

These radios offer compact size, light weight, and low power consumption - all of which are vital during a civil emergency. With the advent of small, relatively cheap solar panels, many amateurs now use solar power to recharge batteries or even operate their stations directly. Range varies widely depending on the local terrain, how much power the radio puts out, what kind and height the antenna is, etc and can vary from a couple miles to as much as 50 miles if working through a repeater.

The radio in the above picture is a 2-meter radio I have owned for about 20 years. My apologies for the relatively poor image quality; the lighting was not good and furthermore my photographic tripod has gone missing. The 2-meter band, as mentioned above, covers from 144-148 MHz. Radio Shack sold these, as well as a 440 MHz version, for several years during the 1990s. I was lucky to get one before they quit carrying them. I picked 2-meters because this was the most popular VHF band at the time and there were a couple active 2-meter repeater clubs in my area at the time. Indeed 2-meters is still quite heavily used. The object lying next to it is an upgraded telescoping whip antenna I bought separately. The so-called flexible "rubber-duckie" antenna that came with the radio doesn't perform well; the telescoping model is considerably better; an external J-pole or 1/4 wave vertical antenna mounted on a car or house roof is truly the way to go if you want optimum range. This radio has a low power setting of 1.5 watts; on the high power setting can run as much as 5 watts when powered from an external 12 volt supply.

What I Like About This Radio:
1) It has a jack for external 12 volt power right on the top of the radio. This allows one to power it directly from a car battery, solar panel, or other relatively long-lasting source. And by using external power, you realize the full 5 watt output this rig is capable of.

2) The 7.2 volt rechargeable power pack may be taken apart and rebuilt at home; luckily for me since mine is trash after 20 years. There are instructions for doing this online. So unlike many devices, the battery pack is NOT some factory sealed, unserviceable unit that must be thrown away and replaced at high cost.

3) Programming the radio from the keypad is quite easy compared to most units made within the past 10 or so years - and best of all is easily done WITHOUT the use of a computer. Instruction manuals, as well as repair manuals, are still available online. Having something that is easily reprogrammed will be vital during an emergency. You do NOT want to have to drag out a laptop simply to set your radio to talk simplex with someone! This radio amply meets that requirement.

4) It STILL works after 20 years! And that's after sitting around unused for 15 of those. The unit still held in its internal memory the settings for the last repeater I monitored 15 years ago! At some point, the lithium battery that powers the memory will have to be replaced, but there are also instructions online for doing that.

5) Unlike today's handi-talkie radios, this one does NOT try to be all things to all people. It does one thing - 2-meter FM communications - and does it really well.

6) It's got an honest-to-gosh BNC connector on top for the antenna. NO weird adaptors needed to mount different antennas here, unlike what I've read about some of the newer import models!

What I Don't Like About This Radio:
1) Some parts are no longer available - including some of the transistors used in the RF section. So if these fail or get damaged due to hard use, you're pretty much done with it.

2) Battery life - is short. Keep more than one extra battery pack with you if you will be using it heavily where you might not have external power handy. Fortunately these radios came with a separate battery pack you could load with alkaline or other rechargeable batteries. I'd keep that loaded with the new nickel/metal hydride type units.

3) These units ARE bulky by today's standards. Today's hand-helds are not much larger than a cell phone. That said, this is both a blessing and a curse. While compactness is great, it also means tiny little pushbuttons on the keypad. At least with the bulkier older radio, someone with man-sized fingers and hands can operate the keypad WITHOUT mashing several keys at once.

4) No product support available now. As with everything Radio Shack sells, once they decide to do away with the product line, there's no more support when things go wrong. Such is indeed the case here :(

A Couple Quick Notes About Amateur Radio

You DO need a license to TRANSMIT on the 'ham' bands.
But ANYONE, even without a license, may LISTEN IN - and this could be a real asset during any sort of emergency. While official news sources may be keeping quiet "so people don't panic", etc., 'hams' and even CB'ers likely will be talking about what they are seeing and hearing. Granted, one needs to take whatever one hears "with a shaker of salt", but 'ham' and shortwave radio could still once again become a primary source of news "from the outside".

With the near elimination of the morse code requirement, if one is willing and able to learn some basic electronics, as well as the rules and regulations governing amateur radio, it is NOT difficult to get a license these days. Unlike a couple decades ago on back, exams are no longer administered by an FCC employee in an office located downtown in a major city; most local 'ham' clubs offer classes and have volunteer examiners who can help you learn what you need to know and administer the written test.

Through eBay and local ham radio clubs, one can buy gently used equipment at reasonable prices. If one needs a portable hand-held 2-meter or 70-cm radio and is short on funds, they can pick up a radio like mine for around $50 used. One can also look into the new Chinese import brands such as Baofeng and Wouxun. While these are probably NOT built like Kenwood, Icom, Yaesu, etc., you cannot beat them for the money. Indeed, one can buy a dual-band Baofeng handi-talkie for about $50 - or roughly what my HTX-202 might sell for used. The main complaint I read about the Baofengs is they are quite difficult to program from the keypad; most users do that task using their laptop computer. I would NOT like that aspect of it if I needed to program in another frequency during an emergency.

Once a person has a license and some equipment, they not only will have a powerful resource during emergencies, but also have access to the many fascinating aspects of this hobby.

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