If you haven’t read the intro to this series, please do so here. This is Part 8.
The up-front conclusion is that there’s a lot more to communications than keying up a microphone and talking. You need to practice and slowly expand, not just knowledge but practical skill. The best way to do this is by staying compliant with the FCC codes by getting yourself licensed.
Now that the end is over, let’s go to the beginning. I am a HAM Technician, which is the lowest of the three currently issued FCC license-levels. (There are actually some old-school “elmers” out there that have some prior licensing types.) Keying-up in analog-voice is the extent of my experience. You should understand that as the primary reason I’ll keep directing you to other knowledge sources.
So many preppers went and bought a Baofeng (or a dozen of them), especially as some FCC rule changes threatened the import and sale of them. So, the reasoning for that is slightly more complicated, but the simple truth is that the radios are able to transmit on some pieces of the bandwidth that they shouldn’t be, including some used by emergency services. But, I’m guessing a pretty decent majority have only ever used them on the FRS or MURs bands, and probably in violation of transmit-wattage limits.
I think I can summarize what those who don’t want to bother with getting licensed into a few sentiments:
- When SHTF, rules won’t apply anymore, so why bother
- When SHTF, my friends X, Y, and Z are all experienced HAMs
- I’m not good at or flat-out hate the math and electronics that are required to know
In other words, “Just give me a battery-powered radio that works, so I can go do tactical-ninja shit, ‘cuz that’s more my style.” I actually have a member of my inner-circle that has made a very similar statement more than once. Now, I occasionally catch him expressing a desire to try once more to learn the stuff. I think deep-inside, he knows the excuses don’t hold weight. I get that the third bullet-point can be the mentally toughest to break-through. With the exception of finances (legitimately paying off debt is a priority over spending money on radio gear you don’t want; notice I didn’t say, “don’t need”), that has been the primary excuse for me not advancing the license myself.
This could quickly turn into a balancing act discussion. “I only have so much time.” Yeah—I can say that, too. Everyone can. The bottom line is that, if you truly believe poop is about cook off, then this knowledge and skill-learning is more important than (insert hobby or lame TV show schedule here.) So let’s tackle those bullet points a bit.
Rules: like I opened with, knowing the rules enable you to practice in compliance with current code. But there’s more to it than that. HAM radio is probably the only licensed activity in which the users wrote the rule-book. While the FCC hangs that $10,000 fine over your head for breaking them, it was the operators who determined what the rules and tests should be. When you advance past that cheap handy-talky, you start to figure out why. Understanding how much band-width your signal uses helps you understand why there’s gaps in the channels as you program your radio. Understanding what causes signal distortion may help you figure out why your comms aren’t working in a spot on a given day, when it worked there just fine last weekend. Get it? The rules aren’t there to see if you’re compliant—they’re there to help you not walk all over everyone else’s signal when you key up.
My pals are HAMs: What’s your plan when they all get killed? I feel like that’s kind-of a “Boom!—goes the dynamite” clincher. Do I really need to draw this paragraph out anymore?
“Too science-y”: nothing worth learning or doing comes easily. You may have some legit learning-issues, so I won’t harp on that. But refusing to learn because it isn’t “your thing”? Well, now you’ve just discovered the discipline issue in all of this. I opened this blog series with discipline, saying that it could be addressed in every article. Now you get it for this topic: if you know you should be learning something you don’t want to, and refuse to do it out of spite, then you have a discipline problem. Correction…We…One of my strength’s has always been being able to call myself out. Let’s get past breaking the spine of poor-excuses and move on to a plan of action.
Many of you have at least played with the Baofengs some and are vaguely familiar with the operations. There are two primary ways to program them: the free “CHIRP” browser-based app; and manually. [NOTE: I use a Mac and have to enable Chirp to get past my security settings each time.] (Here is a courtesy link to a great Baofeng manual on-line.) Now, some radios are actually quite intuitive for hand-programming…but not those cheap Chinese bastards. You should be using the software and a good cable. Don’t get the cheap cable, because it probably won’t work. (There’s supposed to be a chip in the thing.) Most other good radios can be programmed in CHIRP, too, but not all of them. I have an ICOM 2730 as my home base-station, and I’ve hand-programmed it.
Create yourself a spreadsheet. I’m throwing in some screenshots of mine. One of the good things about it was that as I programmed my ICOM, I was able to discover some things that need improving in my Baofeng plan. Notice how I lumped the programming into logical groups. The first page is much of the local police and fire, etc. and I use the top 10 as a scanner. (You can determine which ones you want to be scanned in CHIRP; you can literally scan all 128 channels if you wish.) I have the FRS, MURS, 2-meter simplex and repeaters, 70cm simplex and repeaters, and weather channels rounding out the rest. Two great websites for learning the repeaters and emergency channels for your area are repeaterbook.com and radioreference.com.
HAM gets way more involved than local simplex and repeater voice communications. Benefits of learning digital include being able to send photos, emails, and position information to your team. There’s more to it than just buying new gear and taking a harder test. You’ll start learning the critical skills of building your own antennas and diagnosing issues. For instance, if your SWR-meter shows a reading that is too high, you know you need to start chasing a problem before the radio gets damaged. If you refused to get the knowledge and now your Posse’s HAM is dead, who is going to know the radio is about to get damaged?
So, if you’ve never actually made the commitment, here’s how to get started. Start taking free on-line tests over-and-over again, at sites like QRZ.com. Get the manual and start reading. Even an “expired” version will be 99+% correct in both the information and the practice tests. Find an experienced HAM and ask her or him to mentor you. Start attending the meetings of your local HAM clubs. Start listening to their weekly nets – you’ll learn a lot just form listening, and it violates no rules to do so. Remember the key combat triad of Posse Operations: Shoot – Move – Communicate.
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Coming next: Basecamp One: Securing Your Position