So a few months ago, a few friends of mine and I decided to up our game with communications capabilities. It has become apparent over the years that in the event of a mass emergency, one of the first things to go down is the cell phone network. We wanted to have a backup method that wouldn’t fall victim to this particular phenomenon. There was some back and forth as to what the best plan of action would be, with one camp firmly staked in the CB radio option and the other in Ham radio. At the end of the day, the benefits of Ham radio far outweighed CB. So we were then left with what to do next. A lot of research was done on radios and it came to pass that the best option for us, for both cost and capability, would be a small handheld model also known as an HT. The model we chose was the Baofeng UV-5R, a very inexpensive VHF/UHF handheld that is made in China. These radios run around $30-$40 on amazon.com and are very accessible. The reviews of these radios are just amazing. For what you pay, there just isn’t a more capable radio out there. You can get two of the Baofeng radios for the cost of a blister back of FRS/GMRS radios from Walmart, with 8x the power and ability to communicate extremely far distances through the use of repeaters.
I went on to the ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) website and found a test date and location close to me and then immediately began studying for my Ham test to get my technicians license. The test is fairly easy and I was able to study for it and pass it within 4 days, although in full disclosure I have some significant radio experience from the my time in the service. You will need to take practice tests that are available online, as well as read through the multitude of free information available online. The test covers basic antenna theory and electrical components, not really applicable for someone like me who will never get more in depth with the radio then plugging in different antennas and changing out the battery but it’s what the FCC requires so it had to be learned long enough to be regurgitated in multiple choice test form.
When I received my callsign and license card from the FCC I immediately went to work. I spent hours looking around online and setting up a database in order to program my radio with all the local repeaters (Radio stations that relay your transmission with more power and range). I found quite a few active clubs in my area as well. There is one particular repeater that is close to me that is linked to quite a few repeaters state wide, thus allowing me to communicate from my living room to nearly anywhere in the State of North Carolina. That is an extremely exciting bit of capability. Most repeaters are set up with battery backups or generator systems that permit the system to be operational despite a lengthy power outage. There are a couple of programs you can use with your computer to program the radio. One is called Chirp (which will program many different radios), and the other is a proprietary program just for the Baofeng brand of radios. I found both to work quite well. Information about both can be found here, this page also has full users manuals for the Baofeng radios as well as a wealth of other information. If you purchase one of these radios, it is worth bookmarking that page.
The idea of Ham Radio has seemed to have changed from what some people picture in their heads of the young kid in his room or basement with the huge transistor radio setup, trying to talk to stations all around the world (which is of course still done) to the image of lots of dedicated and professional “amateurs” that are capable of setting up a large regional radio and data network at the drop of a hat to facilitate emergency communications in the event of some manner of disaster. That is why I have embraced Ham Radio as my backup communication of choice. There just is no other way to maintain communications in the event of an emergency that is better.