I became interested in ham radio because I married a ham, and after he explained to me the benefits of having an amateur radio license, I was sold.
It’s all about communication.
If disaster strikes, you need information. However, not all forms of communication have been historically reliable in such events. The TV requires both electricity and a working infrastructure to receive any signal. Of course, a generator may provide you with a temporary solution to the power problem, but if the signal you wish to receive is missing, so is the possibility of getting the information you seek. An emergency radio is a must have in these situations, but it, too, depends on if the local stations are actively broadcasting. The internet? If anything depends on the world to be working correctly, it would be that.
I shouldn’t have to relate the pitfalls of depending solely upon cell phones. Signal issues, dropped calls, having the airwaves jammed up with too much traffic, and network susceptibilities all contribute to the unreliability of this communication method in the event of a serious emergency. Land lines are indeed more dependable than cell phones. However, in a disaster, the land line infrastructure could be affected as well.
So what other alternatives are there?
Two-way radios are a good option. There are several types. FRS radios (or Family Radio Service radios) are inexpensive and easy to operate. However, they typically have a range of just .5 to 2 miles, and they have an operating limitation of a just a half-watt of power. This would meet the needs of close-range communication, but what if you need to reach more of a distance? GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios are stronger than FRS radios, and, according to FCC guidelines, they can operate up to 50 watts of power, and they are advertised to have a greater range of about 5 to 25 miles. However, in practice, most GMRS radio models operate on far less power (usually less than 5 watts), and they generally transmit over much shorter distances of just a few miles when accounting for obstructions. They do, however, have the option of extending their range through a repeater system. Nonetheless, one must be licensed by the FCC to use GMRS in the United States. As of the date of this post, the current cost is $85, and the license is only good for five years.
Marine and MURS radios are other possible options, and they both do not require licenses to operate. Marine radios are intended for watercraft usage, and they typically transmit up to 25 watts, and they usually have about the same range as GMRS radios. As for MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) radios, they are becoming a popular option for preppers. As stated, one does not need a license for the use of MURS radio, but the FCC has limited MURS to only 2 watts of transmitting power. You may use antennas to increase your “gain,” but repeater use is not allowed. It also has been limited to only 5 channels. The disadvantage to this is if there is a significant increase of traffic, these channels are likely to become overcrowded very quickly making it difficult to use.
A very good option is CB (Citizens’ Band) radio. These radios operate up to 12 watts of power (depending upon the mode being used), and there are 40 channels on which to operate. The advantages to using CB radios are that they are generally inexpensive, commonly used, and they do not require a license to operate. The cons? Just as the other forms of radio just mentioned, the range of these radios is normally limited to a few miles. However, an advantage to CB radio is that one can extend the range with the right equipment. In my opinion, after ham radio, CB is next best option of communication.
So what about ham radio?
Well…the sky’s the limit…or…to be more precise…the sky increases your limit…beyond anything else.
With ham radio, it’s possible to reach around the world to send and receive voice communication. This is due, in part, to the ability to use external antennas, linked repeater systems, amateur radio satellites, and (depending on the equipment being used), the use of up to 1500 watts of transmitting power. It’s also possible to send emails, make phone calls, or send data or video images. It’s even possible to reach and speak with astronauts in space. Although a chat with a space station may not be of interest in an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, what should be worth noting is the possibility of being able to communicate independent of the conditions of surrounding infrastructures.
Because of this independence, and because of the range of distance and possible communication modes, ham radio operators have been historically turned to in the event of serious emergencies. They have proved time after time to be a reliable source of communication during such events. In fact, many hams participate in this hobby for this very purpose (as do I), and there are ham radio groups dedicated to this goal.
Do you need a license? Yes…ham radio is regulated, and a license is required. Luckily, it is not difficult to obtain a “ticket” if you desire one. There are many resources out there to help one study for the exam, and many clubs offer classes to assist in learning the material. In fact, the entire pool of test questions for the exam is published and available to study. Also, the fee is minimal (I paid just $15), and there are no renewal fees if you keep your license current. If one could obtain all of the benefits of both independent short and long distance communication, the use of multiple contact modes, and more channels, frequencies, and power with which to transmit,…all with just taking a test of only 35 multiple-choice questions,…why wouldn’t you?