Off Grid Communications For When SHTF
For many folks living the preparedness lifestyle, prepping came first, and an interest in emergency communications came later on down the road; perhaps after perfecting their prepper pantries, building their bug-out bags, creating the best long-term food storage plan, or purchasing a million rounds of ammunition for each caliber of weapon they own.
Now, there's nothing wrong with any of those things or deciding upon any particular route, and there's no perfect strategy, either - no ultimate rule book on how to properly prep. Ask one person, they'll tell you how to do it the right way according to them. Ask another, they'll tell you a different way while explaining how the previous advice you received was stupid and foolish and will most likely get you killed.
To each their own. For this lover of the outdoors/firearm toter/survivalist turned author, communications came first. While I've pretty much spent half my life outside and had a gun in my hand since my single-digit years, I didn't really get into prepping until I became an amateur radio operator.
My love for radio communications began in early childhood when my brother and I got our first set of Radio Shack walkie-talkies for Christmas. See below and allow nostalgia to work its magic.
That's right. The radios with the goofy 'rubber duck' antennas (a metal spring surrounded by rubber) and International Morse Code embossed on the front plastic - with a convenient keyer for those of us savvy enough to send and receive at the age of 10 or 11. Well, I wasn't one of them, but it was a fun way to annoy anyone else on the other end.
The radios operated on 49.860mhz - the same frequency used for remote controlled toys, cordless phones, garage doors, doorbells, and other wireless items hitting the markets. They had very cheaply made receivers, and at times it was possible to hear truckers talking on the citizens band (over 20mhz away) and anytime someone nearby wanted to race their remote toys, it was impossible to use them. They were far from robust and our hard use easily destroyed several sets of them, and I didn't mind, either. Mom and Dad would just buy us another pair for around $20.
After going through several sets of walkie-talkies, I found my way into CB radio - the venerable Citizens Band. Forty channels of amplitude modulated unpoliced craziness. At 5 watts of legal output, the range increased substantially, especially if operating with an external antenna on a base station like the one my father owned and eventually gave to me - a Royce 619.
Even today, citizens band has its place. It's been around for decades and it's well established. Truckers and road travellers use it daily. Many police and fire departments still have them and you can buy amazing radios for the band nowadays at truck stops. Channel 9 is and has been the most well-known radio emergency channel; aside from maybe the Marine band's channel 16. Movies have been made where CB radio was the only means of communication - from Smokey and the Bandit to Die Hard. And what about the most popular channel ever to exist in radio to date? Channel 19. The highway channel. The trucker channel. If you own a CB, you keep it on 19 until you turn it off or switch channels to chat with someone.
FCC rules exist, but no one seems to care on the citizens band. You can get away with practically anything, from cursing to gambling to running illegal amplifiers with thousands of watts of power in order to 'skip' your signal halfway across the globe when propagation allows. I remember the first time I talked to a guy in Jackson, Mississippi who called himself "Moondog." Oh yes, I forgot to mention, everyone on CB identifies with a 'handle'. When I was younger, mine was "Black Dragon," a nickname I picked up due to my love for all things ninja. Later on, I became "Nightcrawler," for no real reason.
My first set of CB walkie-talkies, also purchased from Radio Shack, were hand-held bricks with six-foot-long center-loaded telescoping antennas. See below:
They ran on eight AA Alkaline batteries with two 'dummy batteries, or ten 1.2 volt rechargeables, and each one weighed about three pounds. They even had a strap on the back to slide your hand into to better grip them, and from what I remember, when plugged into a wall adapter, the lights would dim in my bedroom when I keyed up.
The Amateur Radio Transition
9/11, and the subsequent loss of normal and public service communications caused one of the largest influxes of ham radio applications in history. Something bad happened. A terrorist attack. And the one thing people relied every day failed them - their ability to call or text someone. Who was there to fill in the gaps? Amateur radio operators. As such, thousands of people from all over started studying to get their licenses, and I was one of them. It was unprecedented. And, in December of that same year, I became a licensed ham after spending a few weeks studying for the exam.
Actually, all I did was purchase the study guide from Radio Shack and memorize the question pool, but whatever. The technician exam isn't as daunting as you might imagine. In fact, you can study for it now online without purchasing anything. Check out HamStudy.org or HamTestOnline for more info.
At the testing site, three VEs or ARRL volunteer examiners and a VEC or volunteer exam coordinator, all signed my CSCE, or certificate of successful completion of examination. After that, I had to wait for the FCC to assign my call letters in order to be an official 'ham'. In the interim, I started looking for a radio, and that was a completely unique journey all to itself. Here's what I got:
My first ham rig; an Icom IC-T7H HT or 'handie-talkie'. A 5-watt, MIL-spec, easy to use portable radio.
The sequential call sign issued to me was KG4QVU, a horrible mess of letters both spelled out and spoken phonetically. Go ahead, try it. Kilo-golf-four-quebec-victor-uniform. Gross. Six months later, I couldn't take it anymore and I applied for and was granted my vanity call sign I still own today, W1CAR - the last three letters in the suffix being my initials.
In late 2003, I upgraded my license, passing the then required five word-per-minute morse code test and the general exam on the same day, thereby allowing me the privilege to transmit on amateur radio frequencies below 30 mhz.
Initially, I wasn't 'radio active'. In fact, I was suffering from the worst case of microphone fright ever before seen. I hated how my voice sounded and I was a complete newbie...and I did everything I could to stay away from keying up. But, eventually, those feelings subsided. The more I listened, the more I learned. I found a more experienced mentor, someone referred to within the hobby as an elmer, and had him show me the ropes. I got more involved in random conversations and something known as roundtables, where a large group of hams talk to each other (one at a time, radio isn't full-duplex, meaning only one person talks while everyone listens) and when the person or station transmitting is done talking, he must pass the mic to the next one in line, if he can remember who the person is.
Along the journey of becoming more involved, I found my way into radio nets. A net is a regularly scheduled on-the-air gathering of amateur radio operators on the same frequency organized for a specific purpose - whether it be passing and relaying messages, discussing common interests, dealing with emergencies and severe weather events, or simply a regular gathering of friends for conversation.
Some nets are informal, while others are formal or directed. Directed nets have a net control or NCS that manages the net for a given session. The NCS calls the net to order, directs the participants, keeps track of the roster of check-ins, and orchestrates the net until closing. Stations are allowed to go direct with each other, but only after given permission by net control.
I started out merely as a regular check-in, but it wasn't long before I became a net control station for our local traffic net - the Northern Virginia Traffic Net, or NVTN, and eventually wound up being nominated as the Net Manager.
Traffic nets operate primarily to relay formal written messages into and out of a local area, both as routine and emergency public service, and are a component of the National Traffic System of the Amateur Radio Relay League. The NTS is fairly dated and the messaging format is obsolete and rarely used during emergencies, having been replaced by Incident Command System instituted by FEMA post-9/11. However, the format carries with it a strict protocol and a specific set of rules for how it must be verbally transmitted over the air, and in doing so, keeps the radio operator sharp and able to send and receive messages accurately and efficiently. Here's an example of an ARRL radiogram used in NTS nets:
And this is what it sounds like (the .mp3 doesn't match the radiogram to the right)
Traffic nets have their use, but aren't the only type of directed radio nets out there. As such, I soon found myself immersed in another, more intense version.
On April 22, 2002, I was travelling home from Hagerstown, MD on the interstate. The weather was bad that day. It was incredibly windy, the skies were dark and storms were popping up everywhere. The most popular amateur radio repeater in the area (and perhaps the the east coast) was, and still is Wes Boxwell's 147.300 WA4TSC machine in Bluemont, Virginia. (click here for more on repeaters) It was where the NVTN mentioned above met each night at 7:30pm, where I made most of my acquaintances in the hobby, and was also where the SKYWARN severe weather net would activate in the event the National Weather Service in Sterling, Virginia requested it. On that day, an F4 tornado ran a 24 mile swath through southern Maryland, ripping the town of La Plata to shreds. A net control station was keeping it all together while receiving hundreds of panicked yet professionally divulged eye-witness damage reports from mobile and portable amateur radio operators at the scene and near the path of the tornado. I was beyond impressed; so much, in fact that I not only became a SKYWARN spotter, but soon became a net control station. And, after dealing with my own high-speed low-drag severe weather events such as the President's Day Blizzard and the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, which spawned a massive tornado outbreak across Virginia in which we took hundreds of reports, I eventually made my way up the ranks into leadership as the SKYWARN Amateur Radio Coordinator for the National Capital Area SKYWARN Amateur Radio Support Group.
WX4LWX is the call sign for the amateur radio station at the National Weather Service office in Sterling, Virginia. I designed the badge using some very shoddy software and a majestic photo taken by NASA of Hurricane Isabel.
Hurricane Isabel was the costliest, deadliest, and strongest tropical cyclone in the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season. It caused shoreline damage to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia where major flooding occurred. Other lasting effects, the ones I remember most, caused by the high extratropical winds Isabel brought hundreds of miles inland, lasted long after Isabel dissipated. The winds toppled trees and the trees took down hundreds of power lines, teaching many of us living in the northern Virginia area one particularly important lesson - how do we live without electricity for an extended period of time?
It's estimated that nearly six million people lost power in the wake of Isabel, and while some of us went without electricity for days, others went without it for nearly three weeks. Generators quickly disappeared from the shelves, but so did gas cans. Gas stations that still had power were inundated with folks with voracious appetites for gas to feed their generators, if they found themselves lucky enough to have one. To make things worse, some people made the decision to steal them. Gas prices increased and some stations ran out. Demand quickly overtook supply. People left their homes in search of refuge elsewhere. Businesses shut down. Power companies and co-ops from all over the nation shuttled in to help with the relief and repair efforts.
How many people were prepared for this? Not as many as you might think. But the amateur radio community was there, manning shelters and setting up portable stations to provide communications support in areas that were powerless or otherwise blacked out. They were self-sufficient too, bringing with them loads of gear, batteries, antennas, food and water. And, one thing became clear to me very quickly just over a year after becoming a member of this society: these guys were ready.
But ready for what? Obviously, they were communicators - highly skilled ones at that. They understood propagation and antenna theory. They had radios and radios required power...so at the very least, they had batteries, chargers, generators and fuel to run them for a while. I guessed they probably had solar panels and charge controllers and the like. But was that it? Was that all they prepared for?
Turns out, it wasn't. Most hams - and I do want to clarify - MOST hams, not all, were also downright soldier of fortune-level survivalists or were otherwise into preparing for just about anything, up to and including the end of the world as we know it - something we all now refer to using the term prepping.
And they liked guns - really liked guns. And I soon realized this was exactly where I belonged. Why hadn't I done it sooner?
So, I began my journey into preparedness by following their example and using their advice as a vehicle, and it continues on still today. I won't go too far into it here...I think it would be improper to divulge the location of my bunker of semi-perfect SHTF supplies to the masses; we hardly even know each other. Plus, there's already a plethora of information out there about how to prep. You don't need my help on that...I am far from being an expert. But, if you want to know more about amateur radio; whether regarding the hobby in general or specific questions about my journey into it, please email me or stalk me on Facebook. I've been in the hobby for 16 years now and I'm happy to answer questions and offer advice.
I will say that looking back, one of the biggest mistakes I made in life was falling behind and losing track of the amateur radio hobby. I sold off a lot of the radios and gear I once owned due to financial difficulties and I'm finally getting back to where I once was. One thing is for certain - radios weren't cheap then, and nothing about that has changed.
No, I didn't own a car with a thousand antennas and the roof of my house didn't have strange looking horizontal beam antennas draped everywhere, but the station I once had was formidable. I had the capability to transmit on every frequency from 160 meters to 440mhz, utilize every mode from CW (morse code), to SSB voice, to PSK-31 and MFSK-16, and every useful form of propagation with multiple antenna arrays. I was very active in support comms during times of emergency and preparations for emergency communications in my local area, and while not very active today, I still retain a membership with Virginia ARES / RACES, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service / Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service.
Communications prepping today
There's no doubt about it, there are plenty of options out there now in regards to communications - more so than ever. They're cheap, too. Fred Mason even introduced them to the folks in What's Left of My World. The Baofeng portable radio is something you can pick up for about $25 capable of transmitting on all VHF and UHF ham frequencies, and although not type accepted for use on the bands, can also transmit on FRS, GMRS, MURS, marine, public service (police, fire and rescue), and a host of other frequencies. That being said, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. I've purchased several styles of these radios, and if you don't have a computer, cloning cable and programming software to go along with them, they absolutely suck to work with; and that can put you into a major bind if the shit ever does hit the fan. Also, I've never met anyone locally who knows how to work on them should something ever go wrong with them. If you buy these and rely on them, buy a lot of them. That's the best advice I can give you.
Of all the options available to us, true amateur radio is by far the most prodigious. It allows you the most legal power (2000 watts if you can afford it and power it), touts the longest range (miles line-of-sight to worldwide depending on the band, choice of antenna, propagation considerations and solar/atmospheric conditions), has the most power options (12vdc can be ran from anything from an AC to DC power supply, hundreds of different types of batteries, and solar arrays), is supported by the most popular brands (Alinco, Yaesu, Icom and Kenwood), has thousands of third party accessories available for power and antenna options, and that's just the beginning. Sure, you're going to pay a lot more for name-brand radios and gear, but like I said earlier, you get what you pay for.
My first radio, the Icom IC-T7H I purchased in 2002 still works today and has all the original memories I programmed into it over fifteen years ago. The Nicad batteries that came with it died a long time ago, but I have a few aftermarket AA packs to keep it alive. Whatever works.
Today, in addition to working towards solidifying a plan to keep my family in contact in the event the unforeseen occurs, thereby periodically purchasing the latest and greatest gear, I spend most of my time researching field expedient means of communication - that is, stations that can be moved from place to place and assembled in a jiff; remaining as mobile as possible. You know, in case we actually do have to bug out someday.
Currently, I'm working with a Yaesu FT-817ND - an all-band, all-mode portable radio used for backpacking and other outdoor activities.
I want to be able to grab it and go, and have enough battery power sitting there to run it for a day or two before needing to recharge. The internal battery it comes with, for lack of a better word, sucks. It's rated 1400mAh, and that's pathetic considering there are aftermarket options available now rated over twice that capacity, constructed of better, lighter materials.
So, first, we dump the stock internal battery and go with something like this.
The FT-817 is capable of operating on an external power source, and there are hundreds of options out there, each having their merit in some form or fashion. For the sake of portability, I want capacity coupled with light weight. It also has two antenna ports, one front and one rear. The front port is meant to attach an included VHF/UHF antenna and operate while on the move, even though, if you want the antenna to work well, it's best to keep it away from your body (which absorbs your signal like a sponge) and give it its missing second half, or counterpoise. The rear port is meant to be used for attaching an antenna for the lower bands for HF or high frequency operation, although the antenna ports are switchable via the radio's menu system. I do carry a portable antenna for this purpose, but it's not the best choice for operation because small antennas aren't efficient on the lower bands. For this purpose, I also carry a couple wire dipoles constructed with ultralight materials and small-gauge cable that I can string up between trees and whatnot. And, as dipoles go, they usually don't work on all bands unless without an antenna tuner, and for that purpose I chose the Elecraft T1. As far as backup power goes, I'm currently researching solar options.
Basically, a field expedient setup requires that many things be taken into consideration. It is a form of prepping, afterall. Antenna systems must be easy to construct, erect, and repair, and repair materials must be easy to come by. Radio equipment has to be robust and able to take a beating, and if not, backup options are crucial. Power has to be redundant and renewable - nearly all amateur equipment runs on or has the capability of running on 12 volts dc, meaning batteries will become a primary source of power somewhere along the way, and typical lead-acid batteries are cumbersome and must be handled with care. Charging (and overcharging) flooded batteries causes outgassing of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen, and hydrogen is highly explosive. Newer technologies such as lithium ion and the newer, safer lithium iron phosphate LiFePO4 are much better options, weigh incredibly less, but cost more. A 12vdc battery will eventually discharge and will require recharging, but if the grid is down, how will that be possible? Lead-acids are easy to recharge, while newer technologies require specific voltages, cell balancing, and timing. You could use your car along with a charging cable, charger and cigarette lighter voltage or DC to AC inverter, but you might need the fuel in the tank for transportation, so it's not wise to waste it on charging batteries unless you're doing both simultaneously. Generators are an answer, but they require fuel as well, and fuel is a finite resource. Solar and photovoltaics are fantastic options, but the best solar gear is prohibitively expensive, and so are the right batteries for storing power solar power, especially long-term. The sun only shines for a portion of the day - you could run your station with the proper solar panel / controller setup during the day, but at night you'd need to run it from stored power. And how much stored power do you need? How much do you intend to operate off your solar setup? Do you know how to calculate it?
What if all those options fail? The generator; your auxiliary power source dies or you run out of fuel. Your solar panel; the emergency power source short-circuits. Do you have a backup plan for your backup plan?
I try to illicit thought in my books by telling a story. So, that's where I'll leave you here, to think it through or at least begin to. Feel free to discuss - as usual, I'm all ears.