Ham radio is amazing! I’m a very big advocate for it when it comes to emergency communications, and I am always very happy to see people investigate and jump into the hobby.
However, there are two related mistakes I often see new (and even not-so-new) hams make when planning to use amateur radio for emergency communications.
What are they, you ask?
They do not learn how to program their own radios, or if they do learn how, they fail to practice doing so regularly…thus forgetting what they had already learned.
You may wonder why this is such a big deal. Let me illustrate with the following scenario:
Imagine a sudden natural disaster such as an earthquake or a very severe storm occurs. You are aware that infrastructure around your community has been damaged, although you do not know of the extent. After you ensure the safety of those immediately around you, you set in motion your emergency communications plan to contact those who are not present to check on their welfare. You grab your HT radio and scan the local repeaters. Some of the main area repeaters are down due to the damage the community had received. The remaining main repeaters are busy with emergency traffic…so busy, in fact, that breaking into an ongoing emergency net would be disruptive and unwise just to make your personal contacts. The next move? You scan any of the smaller local repeaters to find any which may be available. You find one, but it is a frequency that has not been pre-programmed into your radio. You try to hit the repeater to make your contacts, but with no success. Why? Hmmm…looks like the repeater needs a tone. You could try to program different tones into your radio to try to find the correct one…but you forgot how…or perhaps…you never learned how to do so in the first place. You could use simplex on the frequency of the original repeater you had first planned to use, but you forgot how to turn off the tones which had been programmed previously. You are now frustrated…and that’s a nice way to put it…
I hope you see the need to be able to program your radio on the fly in a potential emergency. In fact, I participated with groups of hams in practice drills which simulated very comparable situations as the one I had just described. The result? Many hams were stuck, delayed, or confused. Why? They forgot how to manually program their radios quickly, or they had never learned how to program in the first place.
You may be wondering how likely you might face a situation like the one that was illustrated above. Repeaters are great, right? So if I just have plenty of repeaters pre-programmed into my radio, I should be good, right?
Repeaters are great. I use them all of the time, and they are a very important part of amateur radio, but they are not an infallible solution to all scenarios. Repeaters, like other radio and communication towers, are physical infrastructures which could be potentially damaged or destroyed in certain emergencies such as natural disasters or war. Thankfully, repeater range overlaps and units with back-up power can help in many situations, but it may not be enough to address your specific needs in every given crisis. In addition, in a large-scale emergency, many repeaters would likely be tied up in emergency radio nets… making it possibly very difficult for you to contact another party which is not directly affiliated with these nets. Sure, you may be able to ask to break in and relay a message, but I wouldn’t have that as my first option since breaking into an emergency net could distract the flow of whatever urgent communications were then occurring.
Perhaps you may be thinking, “I bought my radio pre-programmed, and I have a ton of frequencies already saved in my radio. There is no need for me to learn how to do this since I have plenty of options. I should be alright.”
Radios, after all, are electronic devices and subject to Murphy’s Law. I have seen many times when something goes wrong somewhere and the radio needs to be reset back to factory settings. Yes, it can happen. I have even had that happen with one of my more expensive radios. (UGH!) Of course, when you reset a radio, all the previous programming is lost and you are back to square one with the need to reprogram all that you had before. If you do not know how to program your own radio at that point, you would either be stuck or you would likely seek for another ham’s help. Hence, there is a reason a T-shirt like this exists:
I have seen this happen several times when some ham approaches another to ask them to reprogram their radio for them. Ideally, any radio operator shouldn’t have to ask this at all. Sure, ham radio has a learning curve, and more experienced hams should be happy to help anyone less experienced in the hobby, but for every ham who goes through the trouble of getting licensed, this is something they should be able and willing to tackle on their own…especially if they got into ham radio with the goal of preparedness and self-sufficiency. Ham radio is a skill to be learned and practiced, right? Yes, that also includes knowing how to operate your own radio…including programming.
What if you use programming software?
I think there is definitely a place for programming software. As for myself, I often use programming software just to save time. However, in a grid-down situation, you may not be able to just plug in and program in that way. It is still necessary to have the skill to be able to manually program your own radio. You need to know how, and you need to practice occasionally enough to keep that skill fresh and reliable.
I hope at this point you recognize the need to be able to program your own radios. This is a skill which must be practiced at least occasionally to be able to keep it in memory. At the very least, since many of us have too much to remember in the first place, I recommend carrying a cheat sheet card with the directions on how to perform critical radio functions. This is what I do with every one of my radio models…and I have had to use them! In either case, either by memory or with the help of a pocket reference, as long as you have had some experience programming your own radio, you should be able to adjust and adapt to whatever circumstances by having the ability to reprogram your radio on the fly. Emergency communications is a skill, and with the more options you would have, the better situation you would be in to be able to successfully contact those whom you wish to reach.