Please Read: Archives

Hi Everyone,  odds are good that you’ve been directed to this site from one of my books.  The Road Home and The Day After (sequel to The Road Home) both pointed to  Personal Emergency Communications – Staying in Touch Post-Disaster pointed to

The Road Home
The Day After (Sequel to The Road Home)
Personal Emergency Comms

And there was one more blog…, in which I wrote several reviews of radio-focused books.

They’ve all been migrated!  And now everything is here, in one, convenient location, for your reading pleasure :-).  And it will be here for the foreseeable future.

(Please note that the publication dates for the articles were reset when I migrated the content. Apologies if that mattered to you for any reason.)

Enjoy, and for the radio folks, 73!

-Andrew, AB8L



A Chink in Your Emcomm Armor

Law enforcement, fire, medical, emcomm team members, Emergency Operation Center managers, other emergency services personnel and managers, business continuity (BC) or continuity of operations (COOP) coordinators, please pay attention. Being able to use most of your key emergency plans in a serious event will depend on what I discuss next.

Have you tested emergency response plans for your communications teams or emergency office? Maybe you’ve worked through a county-wide earthquake drill or simulated hurricane or tornado response. Most of us have done some testing or exercise. But a key part of these exercises is usually not covered. Specifically, who does the work if families are in danger? In other words, how well will those plans work if nobody shows up because they’re busy trying to determine whether their families are safe?

No Personal Emergency Communications Plan?

Most emergency operations people I meet are generally well-prepared for a short-term problem, with at least the three days of food and water, a CERT class under their belts, first aid, CPR and other basic certificates in place. But in a recent talk I gave to an audience of emergency management professionals in government and the private sector, I asked how many of them had a written, personal emergency communication plan. The results were eye-opening. Less than 10% of the audience raised their hands. While it may be different on your team or in your office, the numbers aren’t surprising to me. Very few people have answered “yes” when I ask whether they have a written plan. I aim to change that, slowly but surely…

Let’s be clear about the problem: most of the people we will need to rely on during or right after a disaster do not have a personal emergency communications plan. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to take this one step further. If the people who are already personally and professionally actively engaged in emergency preparedness don’t have a personal emcomm plan, the vast majority of people in their offices won’t either. The people they rely on won’t be available. When we test our official plans, we assume our emergency personnel will be present. In many cases, they won’t.

Here’s another way to look at it. If you are at work and your area is hit by an earthquake, twister, unexpected flooding, power outage or anything else that could seriously impact your family, what will be your focus? For that vast majority of us, our top priority will be to ensure our families are safe. Everything else is lower priority, even if our job is to help others in emergencies. Read about Paul Schubert, 30-year police veteran who needed to care for his wife after Katrina hit: If you get to the end, you’ll see the crux: “I chose my wife,” Schubert says. “It was a no-brainer.”

For the ~10% of the exceptionally well-prepared people who do have personal emcomm plans, I’ll ask you another question. Can you manage your offices alone? Can you do everything that needs to be done all by yourself, after a natural disaster or other emergency? Most of you will probably answer “no.”

This is a glaring gap in our overall ability to respond to a disaster at all levels. No amount of equipment and supplies will prepare us to survive disaster without any trained personnel to lead, communicate, coordinate logistics and distribution, etc. An emcomm plan for yourself and everyone you depend on is critical for every member of any emergency response organization.

How Do We Fix This?

What’s the solution? Just as with our planning at the city/county/state level, we should have a written and tested personal emcomm plan for every critical member of our various emergency response teams. This idea certainly shouldn’t be foreign, but it is still generally overlooked.

What kind of plan are we talking about? As with our “professional” plans, a plan needs to take the following into account:

  • Who? (e.g., family, friends, possibly neighbors we feel responsible for)
  • When do we attempt communication? If phones don’t work, when do we use precious battery power to transmit or listen?
  • What gear do we use at which time? Do you try with an FRS/GMRS radio, amateur radio, satphone? Which frequencies or channels do we use if the first ones are busy?
  • What are the backup plans, and what are their schedules?

Do you have a template for a plan? You can get one for free here.

Along with a realistic and tested plan comes equipment and training. Family members should be equipped and trained to use the appropriate technology for your budget, terrain, distances, etc.

Do you need more information? Dozens of tips on planning, technology specific gear are covered in my book Personal Emergency Communications, available on in print, and in Kindle and Nook formats soon.

Stay safe,

Andrew Baze, AB8L

Still No Emergency Communications Plans? EMCOMM West Update

Do You Really Need a Personal Emergency Communications Plan? You tell me.

I recently wrote an article titled “A Chink in Your Emcomm Armor“, in which I described the need for people in emergency communications roles of any kind to have personal emcomm plans, in order to ensure they would be available in an emergency, versus doing their best to get home and check on family, neighbors, etc.

Then I went to EMCOMM West, a fun gathering of emcomm professionals in Reno, Nevada. The audience for my talk was about 50 people (I was excited to speak to a crowded room!), and I asked the same questions I’ve asked before.

“How many of you have some kind of emergency communications role, whether paid or volunteer?” Everyone but one person raised their hands.

“How many of you have a personal emergency communications plan?” … Not one hand went up.

I see this as opportunity, and in fact the topic of my class was “How to create your personal emcomm plan,” and we walked through a template, with people filling in options as we went. So am I surprised by the answers I got? No.

Now I have a different question, for everyone. Do you think people really need such a plan? Is it overkill? Am I tilting at windmills when I propose that everyone who has an emcomm role should have a personal plan in place? For that matter, what about people who aren’t interested in emergency communications, but who are still interested in disaster preparedness in general? I’d love to hear what you think. Maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m taking an extreme approach. Or maybe I’m right on the money. What say you?

What is APRS?

APRS gives your radio some fascinating flexibility! But what is it? ‘APRS’ stands for Automatic Packet Reporting System, a system developed by Bob Bruniga, whose call sign is WB4APR.  (In case you’re wondering why the call sign matters, ham guys like you to know what their call sign is, in case you come across it on the airwaves sometime.)

It’s an interesting, flexible, and useful system, which allows users to transmit text messages, alerts, bulletins, etc., in addition to their GPS coordinates. It’s a form of digital communication that you can use with handheld, mobile, and base station amateur radios.

You might be able to imagine how handy this system would be for people on search and rescue missions or during other emergencies, aside from during everyday communications. A rescuer can transmit his or her location while searching for a victim.  A support vehicle on scene or a vehicle on the way to help could be located in an instant on a map, at any time. A standard status report could be given with a few button clicks.  That’s cool!

Here are a couple places to learn more about APRS: and

Why Call Signs are Cool

A ham radio operator is issued a call sign by the FCC, after he or she passes a licensing exam.  The call sign is used to identify the person operating the radio, whenever transmitting on ham frequencies.  Since 1934, west of the Mississippi, call signs that start with “K” are issued, and east of the Mississippi, call signs that start with “W” are issued.  If you listen to music on the radio in the car or at home, you will occasionally hear the station announce “This is KMPS” or “You’re listening to WKRP” (or some other combination of letters) – this is their call sign, also issued by the FCC.  Since the station is a business, their call-sign is a slightly different format, but the idea is the same.  People who talk on certain frequencies have to identify themselves with a call sign.  When you get your license, you’ll get your own call-sign!

If you’re willing to pay a few dollars extra, you can get a call-sign with letters and numbers that you choose, called a “vanity call sign.”  And depending on the level of license that you choose to get, they will be anywhere from four to six characters long.  If you are able to get the “Extra” license, you can get a call sign with four, five, or six characters.  Having a “General” license will allow you to use five or six characters, and the “Technician” license will allow you to use six.  If you prefer, you can keep the original six-character that you are issued by the FCC, regardless of what additional licenses you may get later.  Here are some fun possibilities, combining different characters:  N0HOW, K1SS, K0RN, W0MAN, WA5HME, and KN1TTR.  When it’s your turn, you choose!

Do you want to look up a call sign?  You can do that here:
If you’re looking for more details, you could also try the FCC database directly:

How Does a Radio Repeater Work?

The Quick Version:  You transmit a message with your radio, the repeater receives the message, and the repeater simultaneously re-broadcasts that message, usually with much more power and range.

Now for the some interesting details…

Many repeaters listen for a special tone, which is included in the signal that carries your voice when you transmit your spoken words.  Usually this is programmed into your radio when you set up the frequency to use with the repeater.  Without that special tone, the repeater won’t repeat what you transmitted.

The offset tells your radio what distance to move up or down the frequency spectrum, in order to order to match what the repeater will receive and transmit.

For example, a repeater will receive a signal on 146.050 MegaHerz (MHz), and then re-transmit that same signal on 146.650 MHz (with a lot more power and range, so that many more people can hear it).

This means that when you use your radio, you will press the transmit button, your radio will transmit your voice on 146.050 MHz, the repeater will receive your transmission, and then it will re-transmit it on 146.650 MHz.  That way your radio can both broadcast and hear any replies, but now instead of having limited power and range (since in this case, you may be using a low-power handheld radio), now your message can be broadcast from the top of a nearby mountain (where repeaters are often located) with many times the power.  Cool, right?

What is Ham Radio?

What is ham radio?  It’s the term people use to refer to amateur radio, a fun hobby for many.  But why “ham”?  Some people speculate that it’s because certain people involved in amateur radio back in the old days really loved to talk, to and would “ham it up”, telling long stories to their buddies when they’d get together on the airwaves to chat.

How does ham radio work?  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set aside certain frequencies for people to use for non-business-related communication.  People use these frequencies to talk to each other using different kinds of radio equipment.  Not only can you talk back and forth on these radios, you can also send text messages, transmit GPS coordinates, talk to repeaters, send and receive TV signals, bounce signals off of satellites or even the moon.  Some people have even used hand-held radios to talk with the International Space Station!  That’s right – a person on the ground aims an antenna upward, tunes a radio to the right frequency, and has a conversation with an astronaut who is also a ham radio operator.  Pretty crazy, right?

To use a radio that works on amateur radio frequencies, you need to take a simple test and get a license.  The first license, called “Technician”, is not difficult to get, and there are a variety of books, CD’s, and websites available to walk you through the questions and answers which are all published already.  Once you’ve reviewed the material and feel comfortable, you can take a test and get your own license!  Many ham radio clubs administer the tests, and will be happy to help you with the simple paperwork at the same time.  Soon after, you’ll get your call-sign from the FCC, and you can get on the air!

These links will provide some additional, general information about ham radio:

Amateur Radio – A Powerful Emergency Preparedness Tool

Amateur radio is an incredibly flexible and powerful communication option, especially in a crisis, and it’s probably easier to learn about and get involved with than you think. In this and the next two articles, I’ll walk you through the basics, and show you the simple steps you can take to add a very useful tool to your preparedness toolbox.  It’s easy, interesting, and if you want to be realistically prepared to take care of yourself and your family, you’ll need this information!

My Amateur Radio Background

I have been involved with ham radio for a few years now, and I’ve learned a lot.  From the start, I took my Novice and General exams, and then a year or so after that, I took and passed my Extra exam.  (For me, Novice & General weren’t difficult, but Extra was.)  I’ve been actively involved in my local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Services) team for the City of Redmond, talking to friends on the radio, experimenting with digital modes, NVIS (more on that in article #3), satellite communications, and more.  It’s been enjoyable and educational. And there’s one very interesting thing I’ve learned during this process, which will benefit you directly.  Much of the learning material out there doesn’t make it easy!  This case will be different, however. My goal is to make some of these concepts much easier for you to understand. I’m going to explain things not in the manner of an electrical engineer, but like a regular guy would.  Here goes.

In this article, we’ll start with the basics, and give you some ideas for getting more information.  In subsequent articles, we’ll talk about specific equipment, technologies, frequencies, some interesting information on what’s really allowed during an emergency, and more.

What is Amateur Radio?

Let’s start with “What is amateur radio?”  Amateur radio is a fun hobby for many, also known as “ham radio.”  But why “ham”? Some people speculate that it’s because certain people involved in amateur radio back in the old days really loved to talk, and would “ham it up”, telling long stories to their buddies when they’d get together on the airwaves to chat.  In any case, in this hobby you can find people building radios, antennas, and other radio-related equipment, experimenting with all of it, and talking on the airwaves in many ways, which I discuss with a little more detail below.

How does amateur radio work? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set aside certain frequencies for people to use for non-business-related communication. To use a radio that works on amateur radio frequencies, you need to take a simple test and get a license. The first license, called “Technician”, is not difficult to get, and there are a many books, CDs, and websites (with free sample tests) available to walk you through the questions and answers. Once you’ve reviewed the material and feel comfortable, you can take a test and get your own license. (Subliminal suggestion: Do it.  It’s easy.) Many ham radio clubs administer the tests, and will be happy to help you with the simple paperwork at the same time. Soon after, you’ll get your call sign from the FCC, and you can get on the air!

These links will provide some additional, general information about ham radio:,

Why does this “hobby” (it’s much more than that to many, especially people who need it in a pinch) matter?  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with a scenario where cell phones don’t work.  You’ve probably been out of range of a cell tower at some point, and wanted to make a call.  But imagine if there was no coverage, no matter where you went…And a phone call could mean life or death.

I can clearly remember standing outside my office building after Seattle’s Nisqually Earthquake in February of 2001. Many people were trying unsuccessfully to make calls with their cell phone.  I remember one woman standing near me, sobbing because she was worried sick about her family.  No cell phones worked. The tower in the area was powered up, however it was also overloaded.  When everyone tried to call at the same time, it stopped allowing calls through. But in other areas, people lost cell coverage because the towers lost power or were damaged by the shaking. And that’s just one example of how our most commonly used method of communication can disappear.  A winter storm, hurricane or tornado, or even solar activity could make your phone essentially useless. And there’s another possibility: the government could shut it down. A couple weeks ago, officials in San Francisco decided to shut off cell service on public transit in order to prevent a possible demonstration.  That should give you something to think about.

What Can You do With Amateur Radio?

Aside from being fun to play with just talking with friends, amateur radio is a very effective way to communicate during an emergency. With something as simple as a small, handheld radio, an operator can do these things in addition to voice communication:

  • Transmit GPS coordinates
  • Send simple text messages
  • Send email (with a computer attached)
  • Sent small or large amounts of data directly (without email software needed, with a computer attached)
  • Transmit any of the above directly (line of sight) for several dozen miles or more (depending on antenna type and height, amplifier use, etc.)
  • Transmit using existing, publicly available repeaters to achieve long range communications with a small, low-power radio

By using a mobile (in a vehicle) or base station (usually on a desk) radio, along with an appropriate antenna, a ham radio operator can communicate across great distances, even across continents and oceans. Here’s an interesting example: I listened to a ham radio operator as he transmitted and then moments later received his own transmission after it bounced its way through the atmosphere, all the way around the earth!

What can you do right now to get started?  Go get your FCC Technician license.  It’s easy, really.  The FCC publishes all of the possible questions and answers, and you can find good resources for practice tests here: It’s a simple, 35-question test and if you pass, your license is free and is good for 10 years! (Note: License exams hosted by volunteers usually charge a small fee, around $15, in the U.S.)

In the next two articles, we’ll talk about UHF & VHF radio (often used for local communications), HF radio (which can be used for local/regional as well as long-distance communications), different things you can do with your radio, antennas, and more. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more, do an Internet search for local ham clubs and ARES/RACES groups in your area, and contact them. You can probably find people in your area who would love to talk about what they do.  All you have to do is ask!

The Secret to Getting an FCC Amateur Radio License in Record Time!

Getting your ham license is easier than you think.

If you want to be able to use the fancy radio gear that the hams get to use, participate in a local emergency communications team, be prepared to communicate with family and friends even when your cell phone or land-line service disappears, or do the many other cool things that licensed amateur radio operators get to do, you’ll need an FCC license.
Here’s the quick version, with explanation and resources farther down:

  1. Study all the Q&A ahead of time, using a book or flashcards or CD or whatever
  2. Take as many practice exams as you want to online, for free
  3. Take the exam
  4. Get your license from the FCC, for free

“Oh no!  It must be very difficult jump through all the hoops to get such a license,” many of you are probably saying.  Or “How could I possibly learn all of those technical concepts without an electrical engineering degree?”, or “There’s no way I could afford the huge licensing fees.”  Good news – none of this is true!  It’s easier, probably much easier than you think.
The test is easy to pass, and the license application is ridiculously simple.  Not only that, the people who administer the test will enthusiastically help you with any questions you have about the application.

When it comes to the content of the test, the concepts are not complicated. The electronics information you’ll need to know is super-simple.  But wait, there’s more.  Have you heard of the… metric system?  You’ll need to know about that too.  And can you remember some very complex rules?  For example, “You have to say your call sign at least once every 10 minutes when you’re talking on the radio.”  Remember some rules, some numbers and letters that matter to the FCC, and you’re just about ready.

I’m  trying to make the point that the test is easy, because it is.  But I have one more bomb to drop.  Ready?  Every possible question and answer you could get for the exam is already published and available for you to study.  Yeah.  It doesn’t get any easier than that.  You will need to review the Q&A before you go take the test, because a lot of the info isn’t stuff you’ll read about in People magazine, or Wired, or whatever you usually read.

Once in a while you hear about someone who didn’t pass the Technician exam.  I can only guess that the reason why is 1) very poor test-taking skills (e.g., not paying attention to which letter you’re filling in on the answer sheet, even when you know the right answer), or 2) lack of any studying whatsoever (that must be the case for some folks, just like in school.  But you don’t have to take the ham test, so why bother?  Peer pressure?  I don’t know.)

So why do I even need to write an article on this, if it’s so easy?  Because I want to make it even easier, to help anyone pass the test and get that license and open the doors to all the fun that ham radio can bring.  Here are some tips:

  • Start by figuring out how you learn best.  Since you already know that all of the Q&A are available, you will need to best way to review them so that they’ll stick in your head.  Do you learn by reading and remembering?  There are a few good books out there that have the Q&A, as well as additional supporting info, to give context to the answers.  Do you do better with flashcards?  They have those too. Maybe you learn by listening?  There are Q&A CD’s with which you can review.  Or maybe you’re like me and you learn how to pass the test by taking practice tests.  They have those too, online and free.  Or if you like, you can pay someone to access their online test-taking tools, which track your progress.  You can find a variety of online resources later in this article.
  • One other tip, which you can use on any test that gives you Q&A in advance.  Only read or highlight the correct answers in your study guide.  Cross out the wrong answers and only ever review the right answers. After you go through all of the questions, however many times you like, you will have only imprinted the correct answers on your brain, and when it comes time to take the test, you will only remember the correct answers! 🙂

Ham Radio License Exam Testing Resources

Here are some of the most common, useful books:

Here are flashcards, if you learn well this way:

Here are some online testing resources.  You can take the tests in advance, as many times as you want, for free!  (There are other sites you can pay for, but take a look at your free options first):

Note:  If you have only read one or two chapters of a licensing book and want to take a free online test, and then only get 15% correct, don’t get frustrated and give up!  You will need to review the rest of the material in the license book. If you go through all of the Q&A before you take an online test, you will get much better results.  I know that may sound like common sense to many of you, but I know a lot of folks who are so itching to take the test that they don’t review all the Q&A first, and they wondered why they didn’t get all of the answers right. 😐  But I know you’re smarter than that.

What did I do?  I started by reading through both of the Q&A books I list below (but I often take an overkill approach).  Then I read a book that explained additional info for beginners to ham radio, because I was curious about how ham radio worked.  And then I took a few practice tests, until I could reliable get a score greater than 80%.  After that, I focused on areas where the answers made the least sense to me, practicing those a few more times, making sure I had the right answers fresh in my memory.  This approach made passing the test a piece of cake.

Find the study approach that works well for you, and when you’re ready, take a couple practice exams. Once you can pass the online test regularly at 80% or higher, you should be ready to take it for real.

You can do it!  Seriously – how often does the test you’re taking already have all of the answers available?

Where to Take a Ham Radio License Exam

Finding a place to take the exam should not be difficult.  When I looked, I had a hard time finding a place, but I was on my own with nobody to help me.  These resources will make it much easier for you!

Eventually you’ll find out where the testing takes place in your area.  And that’s it.  You can review all the answers at your leisure.  You can find a club nearby who will let you take the test and help you (if you need it) with the simple FCC form.

Ham Radio FCC License Fees

And then you pay.  Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you.  The cost of a license is expensive… NOT!  An FCC amateur radio license is FREE.  You may have to pay ~$15 to take the test, so that the club running the testing can pay for supplies, room rental, postage to ship off your answer sheets to the FCC, etc., but you read correctly about the cost of the license.  Free.

But wait, what about when you renew, 10 years later?  (Yeah, every ten years.  Pretty convenient, right?)  That’s when you have to pay, right?  No, it’s still free.  However, there is a special circumstance when you could pay, if you really wanted to.  If you want a “vanity call sign”, which means you can pick some of the letters and/or numbers (if that combination isn’t used already).  Some hams do that with their initials (like me – my call sign is AB8L).   So that must be expensive, right?  Sorry to disappoint you once again.  It’s $14.25.  For ten years.  And the cost is the same when you renew, 10 years later.

One more thing — the first license level is called “Technician“.  It allows you access to a certain set of UHF, VHF, and some HF frequencies, which will give you the ability to do short- and some medium-range communicating.  The second license is called “General“, and gives more access to more frequencies, including a lot more of the HF spectrum, which will be important for medium- and long-range communications.  Tip:  if you are studying for the Technician exam, you may want to do the General exam at the same time.  You can take more than one test in the same testing session for no additional charge!  (And the license is still free.)  The last type of license is called “Extra” and gives access to all of the frequencies available to amateur radio operators.  You will probably need to study a lot more for the Extra exam – it’s quite a bit harder.  But Technician and General are probably all you would ever need.

Now what?  Have I covered all of your questions and concerns?  If you have any questions, post them and I’ll reply.

Now go out and get a license, and I hope to hear you on the air soon!

-Andrew, AB8L

An amazing little radio – the VX-8R!

The Yaesu VX-8R packs a lot of features into a tiny package. How tiny? Take a look! It’s about the size of a deck of cards, if you unscrew the antenna. Take a look at this:

VX-8R and a deck of cards

What can you do with this radio? You can talk on four different amateur radio bands (50/144/222/430 MHz, if you’re interested), while listening to broadcast radio (for example, FM radio) at the same time!

VX-8R with Diamond antenna

You can use a Bluetooth headset with it, and you can attach a GPS receiver to the radio or to a an attached speaker microphone. When you have GPS installed, you can also use APRS functionality, which means you can transmit your location to other radios, can send and receive simple text messages, and more.

If you wanted to get creative, you could even attach an special antenna and talk to an amateur radio satellite! It can receive weather alerts on special weather radio channels, can easily communicate with repeaters, and more. This is an amazing radio.

The VX-8R has been replaced by the VX-DR and the VX-GR. They’re all small, powerful, and loaded with features. Take a good look at the specifications, since there are some differences.

You can get more information at, on the VX-8R, the VX-DR, and the VX-GR.

Of course, the antenna adds some size to the radio, but you have many options, from very small (usually inefficient, for short-range communications) to longer (more efficient, if you can conveniently carry it). For example, in the picture directly above you can see the VX-8R with a Diamond whip antenna, which is quite efficient. Soon, I’ll post a picture of my “stealth” antenna. It’s very small, and very inefficient, but very convenient when I need to carry my radio in an inside jacket pocket and only need to communicate short-range.

Is the VX-8R the only small radio? Is it the only one that does APRS? Are some easier to use? No, yes, and yes! Some other common, powerful, feature-filled radios are Icom’s IC-91A and Kenwood’s TH-F6A. And there are many more. Do your research and you’ll find a radio that fits you well.


TriSquare eXRS – Frequency-Hopping Spread-Spectrum

Sorry everyone – it appears that TriSquare has stopped producing eXRS radios! I’ll leave this article up in case you come across a couple at a flea market.  But you have another option! –> What FHSS technology is available now? Motorola makes the DTR650 – see more details here.



Frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum communications – available to everyone with no license!

Do you have anything private to discuss on the radio?  Are you concerned about people listening in?  Are you tired of hearing neighbors, vacationers, and random kids constantly blabbering on all the channels of your FRS/GMRS (common handheld) radio when you have important business to get done?

Did you know that high-tech, frequency-hopping handheld radio communications are available without a license?  Did you know that FRS/GMRS radios usually have only 22 channels, and that a new system has 10,000,000,000 “channels” available?  To learn what this amazing, little-known (until now!) technology is, keep reading.  I’ll start with a few questions, and then dive into the specifics.


Do you have a plan for communicating during an emergency situation? What about if your cell phone and land-line phone aren’t available?  I have an option for you that few people are aware of, which has some amazing, high-tech capabilities. Prepare to be amazed… in a minute.

Let’s set some context. If you’ve been reading my blog, and if you’ve read my Emergency Communications Primer (free when you sign up for my newsletter), you’ll know that you have a few options, and the most useful are FRS/GMRS and amateur radio. (There are some other options, e.g., CB and marine radio, which may be applicable for you, in your area, but they still have a limited number of channels available, just as with FRS/GMRS).

Every option has its pros and cons. The easiest and least expensive option is usually the FRS/GMRS (Family Radio Service / General Mobile Radio Service) radio, and that’s what many people have already.  But for about the same price, and the same effort (relatively low price, no license needed) you have another option, and option that changes the game significantly.

Let’s quickly look at another key limitation of FRS/GMRS.  Since this system has a limited number of channels and since these radios are so common, you should expect to have noisy competition for use of your radio at times (depending on your location – more people will mean more noise), and that’s the last thing you’ll want in an emergency. In addition, you may want an option that you can’t get with ANY other system, whether FRS, CB, marine, aviation, amateur radio, or even public service (police, fire) frequencies (which you can listen to on a scanner).  What is it?  Privacy.

None of these other options mentioned (unless law enforcement is using scrambled radios – that’s a different beast, and usually unavailable to non-spook civilians) allow you to speak in private.  Anyone with a similar radio or a scanner can listen to your conversation.  Do you want to have a sensitive conversation?  Do you need to discuss a topic that would put you in danger if someone else could hear it?  Of course, you’re not going to talk about moving your gold hoard from your house to the one down the street, but what if you needed to ask a neighbor for help because you hurt your back and couldn’t get up off the floor?  And what if another “neighbor” somehow heard what was going on, knew you or somehow determined where you lived, and decided to liberate you of your emergency supplies or anything else?  What if you live in an area where have to assume that some of the people listening are not good people?  And if you find any of those scenarios unlikely, what if you simply prefer privacy for privacy’s sake?

If you only have FRS or amateur radio, assuming your frequency is available in the first place, you can “obfuscate” (confuse other listeners) your conversation by talking in code.  Per FCC rules, this is not allowed on amateur radio frequencies (although it’s unlikely that the FCC will be enforcing such rules during the time of a disaster), and anyone can still listen in.  You may even attract unwanted attention with this approach (unless your codes sound like normal conversation).  This also means you and whoever you’re talking with will need to remember what the code words or phrases are, especially if you’re stressed out!  Talking like you normally talk would be much easier. There must be an easier way…


There is! It’s time! We have a solution. You can use these relatively new, effectively un-interceptable radios that use “Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum” technology. (Although I suspect that the FCC/The Man could intercept them, using fancy, uncommon gear.  The traffic isn’t encrypted. It’s just transmitted in a different way.)  These radios constantly switch from one frequency to another during the transmission, and they automatically synchronize between radios.  If you were trying to listen in and monitored any single frequency during the discussion (which is what a scanner will do – one frequency at a time), you would theoretically hear a microsecond blip of noise, and nothing more.  If you have a compatible radio, however, you hear the whole conversation!  Nobody else can hear a thing.

eXRS Frequency-hopping spread spectrum private handheld TSX300 radiosThere is one brand of radio that uses this technology, available to the general public.  It’s called TriSquare eXRS, and you should probably get one, if you need to be able to talk without interference, don’t want casual listeners to be able to intercept your conversation, and want some other cool options built in.

Additional Specs

These radios use the 900 MHz frequency band, which will limit your range in some ways, as with FRS/GMRS.  Every set of frequencies will have different propagation characteristics (meaning that the radio waves can travel farther in certain cases, or through different materials better or worse than others).  These radios put out one watt of power, which is relatively low (although twice as powerful as a 500 milliwatt FRS radio, and less powerful than a GMRS handheld radio, which is usually between one and five watts).

Let’s be clear: these are not long-range, powerful ham radios.  They are short-range radios, useful for conversation in your neighborhood, between nearby buildings, cars in a convoy, etc..  Don’t expect them to work 10 or 20 miles away.  In my experience they work for a couple miles in open territory, and for a couple hundred meters in downtown, steel-and-concrete city territory, depending on what’s in your way.  Of course, if you don’t have buildings between radios, the range grows considerably. Nonetheless, they still have some incredible features to offer.  Keep reading.

From TriSquare website, with my highlighting added:

“[The eXRS radios have the] added benefit of wide band digital security and privacy provided by the frequency hopping spread spectrum algorithm. Maintaining the information signal as narrow band FM modulation centered on discrete frequencies allows for a large pool of non-overlapping hopping frequencies to draw upon within a given section of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum. The pseudo-random drawing of the hopping frequencies spreads the total signal power equally over the entire bandwidth of the RF spectrum used, which ensures minimal interference between many simultaneous, independent users.

Interference Free is a major advantage that eXRS has over existing FRS and GMRS radios. Based on a contracted study from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department of a major university, more than 100,000 eXRS users within talk range can enjoy uninterrupted communications. Whereas, FRS/GMRS quickly becomes unusable with just a few tens of users within range of each other. Bottom-line is that the eXRS two-way radios provide private communications in areas where FRS/GMRS conversations can be congested or impossible.

Let’s talk features.  The radios are not set up to talk on FRS/GMRS frequencies, and can only communicate with other eXRS radios. This shouldn’t be a surprise. They can receive NOAA weather radio transmissions, which is great (and don’t underestimate the value of weather radio – it’s super-handy!).

Here are some of the cool features available, that I haven’t seen on any other radios:

  • You can identify any specific contact or group of contacts using unique alphanumeric codes
  • You can page/call a specific radio or person using a unique (5 available) tone
  • You can select a group or an individual, depending on who you want to talk with
  • You can identify any radio with a 10-digit number, which gives you about 10 billion options!
  • Call waiting!
  • Voice-operated (“VOX”) operation
  • Text messaging (sending whatever message you like, or pre-defined messages), and your radio can store messages as they come in, and you can retrieve them at your leisure
  • You can clone radios or transfer contacts, no cables needed
  • And now they even come in camouflage 🙂

These radios are truly awesome!

There are two models, one with just a few keys (TSX100), and one with a full keypad (TSX300). I recommend the full keypad, because it gives you more flexibility. It costs a bit more, but I think the added ability to easily enter numbers, etc., make it worth it.

eXRS Frequency-hopping spread spectrum private handheld TSX300 radios


If you aren’t inclined to get an amateur radio license (although I highly recommend it – it’s easy and extremely useful!), this can be a useful way to communicate in a densely-populated or otherwise noisy area, or if you need privacy and text messaging features. Plus, these radios are just plain cool!

Midland XT511 Review – A Great Piece of Emergency Communication Gear

I’ve written about some other radios, and have discussed various amateur, FRS/GMRS, and other two-way radios, but the Midland XT511 is one of the best options out there when it comes to very basic, general emergency communication equipment that requires no license or training.

The Midland XT511 FRS/GMRS/NOAA/AM/FM radio

The Midland XT511 is a full-featured, FRS/GMRS/NOAA/AM/FM radio with a variety of power options for emergency use.

Here is a quick run-down on the features packed into this compact package:

  • Charge your cell phone or other USB-connected devices
  • LED Flashlight
  • AM and FM radio reception
  • NOAA weather radio reception, including hazard alerts
  • Transmit and receive FRS/GMRS, with privacy codes and other features available
  • Scan FRS/GMRS traffic in your area

Not only does is have AM & FM reception, FRS & GMRS (two-way), it has a built-in weather radio. But that’s not the best part.  It also uses four AA batteries and has a separate, built-in rechargeable battery pack, which can be charged by the included AC and DC charging cords. But we’re still not at the best part.  Here is a big difference between this radio and many others: it has a hand crank that folds out from the side, which will allow you to

Midland XT511 rechargeable battery pack

The included 700 mAh, 6.0V, rechargeable Ni-MH battery pack.

recharge the batteries with no other power source. In addition, you can use the USB port to charge other devices (e.g., your cell phone) by turning the crank. All of these features fit into a package that’s smaller than I thought it would be. This radio is quite flexible!

Midland XT511 power options

As you can see here, the XT511 can be powered with AA batteries, its internal rechargeable battery, a DC power supply, AC power supply, and the crank arm. This is a great set of options for an emergency radio.

Midland XT511 displayed options

You can see some of the many features available in the sticker that covers the display, fresh out of the box.

That’s a decent set of features in a handy, small package, and this radio should at least be on your “emergency” shelf. along with your spare batteries, lantern, extra food and water, first-aid kit, and other supplies.


I still recommend a set of FRS/GMRS radios as one of the most important emergency communications tools for everyone, but at the same time I think this radio is just as important. While your existing handheld radios should operate on AA batteries in addition to a rechargeable battery pack, and should also receive the NOAA weather (or “all-hazards”) channels and alerts, it’s unlikely that they can be recharged manually like this one. In addition, it has a built-in three-LED flashlight (which is relatively bright).  Did I mention that the device has a lot of features?

It also has a handheld microphone/speaker, with a couple of interesting options.  The plug is two-part. One part of the plug fits in the microphone jack,and one fits into the speaker jack. When it’s plugged in, as you probably expect, the built-in microphone and speaker on the front of the radio are disabled. But what if you still want to operate the hand-microphone quietly?

Midland XT511 handheld microphone

The convenient headphone jack in base of the handheld microphone (shown with the attached plug out of the jack) makes it easier to use and hear the radio in noisy or quiet environments.




The handset has another speaker jack, into which you can plug an earpiece. Good thinking on the part of the engineers. The features just keep coming!

So far, the radio is working fine for me. To echo one of my coworker’s comments, while some of the dials may seem a little bit loose, the radio still appears to be plenty sturdy and is holding up well. Most of the reviews I see on Amazon also seem to indicate similar experience.

As you can see on the box in the first picture, the Midland XT511 is called “Base Camp Radio,” and I think the description is a good one. While it’s not the first radio I’d put in my backpack, due to its size (even though it isn’t that heavy), it’s a great radio to have at home or wherever else you call your base camp, especially if you have an emergency where you lose grid power, even long-term.

The Top Three Reasons to Take up Amateur Radio

Why mess with amateur radio? What’s cool about it? Why put in the time and effort, just to talk to someone, especially when you already have a phone?  Take a deep breath and the answers will be revealed… There is more here than meets the eye.

1. The Cool, High-Tech Gear

Amateur radio doesn’t look quite like this any more.

I’ll admit, at first I was intrigued mostly by the gear. I’m a gadget guy at heart, and I’ve always been fascinated by the latest, coolest gizmos, from smartphones to one-handed fire-starting devices, LED flashlights, and titanium multi-tools. And at first, I thought amateur radio gear was all old-school, nearly antique technology, walkie-talkies with huge antennas or big desk radios with multiple knobs and dials and an accompanying, huge chrome microphone like they used in the old days (see picture).

And I was partially right. There are walkie-talkies and big desktop radios. But the technology has been changing constantly, and I found those changes fascinating. The amount of change isn’t in the same order of magnitude as with massively-popular smartphones or high-resolution, flat-screen, 3D TVs with built-in Internet applications, but there have been big changes, including increased popularity of digital technology such as APRS and D-STAR, software-defined radio, and (tongue in cheek…) the use of 20th-century technology such as USB connectors in desktop and even some handheld radios.

Modern handheld radios are loaded with high-tech features! (Kenwood TH-D72A)

Nowadays, you can get small and very powerful radios jam-packed full of cutting edge circuitry. They don’t come with video-games, but they will transmit and receive all manner of radio signals very, very well. And for the hard-core gadget junkies among you, some of the hand-held radios even come with built-in GPS and Bluetooth support. 🙂

2. Open New Doors

Barring the destruction of our telecommunications infrastructure, amateur radio will never be as popular as texting, playing word games with friends, taking pictures and video, or listening to music on the latest, coolest phone. But radio still has allure, and not just because of the radios themselves. Now you’re wondering… if it’s not just about the gadgets, the apps, the bling with the two hundred million dollar advertising budget, what then?

It should go without saying that any serious prepper should have radios and know how to use them, SHTF, TEOTWAKI and all. But we’re talking about relatively common scenarios in which ham radio plays a vital role very often.

Do you like to help people when they’re in trouble? At the scene of an accident, are you the type of person who will call 911 instead of taking pictures with your phone? (I just talked to someone the other day who took pictures with his phone as a fire burned a nearby building. Nobody called 911 for several minutes, and he didn’t even think of it until later. Yes, there are people like that. But if you’re reading this article, you most likely aren’t.)

Amateur radio is frequently used in emergency situations in which normal communications aren’t sufficient, either because they are unavailable (e.g., tornado or earthquake destroys or temporarily disables normal communications infrastructure), overloaded (not enough cell phones to go around, towers or land-lines overloaded), or you just need a well-trained communicator to do the talking.

Local ham radio operators, as well as operators from out of the area, through local organizations such as ARES or RACES, the Red Cross, and other groups, volunteer in disaster areas to help people in need. You could do this too, if this type of volunteering floats your boat.

Are you not ready for that much stress? There are other ways to volunteer that are much easier. Consider the many options to get involved in your community when everything is “normal.” For example, event organizers very frequently recruit local ham radio operators (usually through clubs or emergency communications groups) to help at events such as foot races, bike races, parades, walk-a-thons, etc. These events are usually very complex to organize, and hams play a vital role in ensuring messages get transferred rapidly and efficiently, people are safe, and problems are identified before they get too serious. Aside from being a great way to practice using equipment and getting to know how it will work in which locations and situations, these events are usually a lot of fun anyhow.

3. Learn Stuff You Should Know Anyway

The great sci-fi author Robert Heinlein wrote:

 “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.”

While he didn’t say “A human being should be able to operate a radio,” I bet he would have included it if he had more room. Many other important things didn’t make the cut, so ham radio operators shouldn’t feel slighted :-). And while I’m not a famous writer like Heinlein, I am a writer, so I’ll say this (and quote me all you like!):

“A human being should be able to operate a radio.”

Yes, everyone should have a basic idea of how to operate a radio. There are some simple things you should know, for example:

  1. Push the button and talk into the radio, then let go of the button so someone can talk back
  2. Yelling doesn’t make a radio transmit with any more power
  3. Listening usually uses a lot less power than talking (and most people should probably listen more anyway)

But there’s bonus material. Everyone should also have a very basic understanding of what electricity is, what radio waves are, and how an antenna is used. We don’t need to know that on a day-to-day basis the same way we need to know to tie our shoes or how to not overdraw the checking account, but it’s still good information, and radios are a part of our world. For example, cell phones are radios…

Another thing people should know about, which ties back to number two on the list, is who will be available to help in an emergency. Do you know who your emergency communications (emcomm) volunteers are in your area? How about the location of your city or county emergency operations center? And an even better question… would they let you in to help in an emergency? Go get an amateur radio license, volunteer for the group, get a fancy access badge, and you’re in!

Don’t forget one of the biggest reasons of all.

It’s fun!  The people are great. The technology is cool. The opportunities to learn and help others are endless. And the hobby is fun.


Bridge collapse and Seahawks parade emergency – what’s the connection?

What do a bridge collapse and the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl have in common? If you were there, odds are good that you couldn’t use your phone.

Emergency Cell Phone Outage #1

On May 23, 2013, a truck with an oversized load crashed into the bridge structure on I-5 near Mount Vernon, WA. Aside from the bridge being taken out of commission, disabling traffic flow in the Interstate for almost a month, there was another issue: cell phone voice traffic came to a standstill.

How did that happen? Were all of the local cell towers built on top of the bridge? Did the truck also somehow hit a cell tower before taking out the bridge? Did an important communication cable run across the bridge? How could a truck hitting a bridge take away the ability to make a phone call?

The truck didn’t take out a cell tower. Everyone in the area afterward did. Everyone tried making calls at the same time, paralyzing local cellular phone systems. It was that easy. No earthquake, tornado, sun spots or alien attack required.

Emergency Cell Phone Outage #2

In 2014, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Washington fans were excited, to say the least. They were so excited, in fact, that on February 5, 2014 about 700,000 came to Seattle, into the same area at one time, to congratulate the team. In doing so, while calling their families, texting their friends, and updating their Facebook pages, they nearly took out downtown Seattle’s cell phone service. This was after cell phone companies, anticipating significant additional usage, upped bandwidth and brought in additional, mobile cell towers. In addition to significantly degraded service, it appeared that 911 service was being seriously impacted, and officials were so worried that they started making announcements, asking people to stop using their phones, to allow for emergency voice traffic.

What is your emergency communication plan?

The moral of the story (aside from “Stay away from sensationally-broken bridges and crowds of over 500,000 people”) is no surprise to a reader like you: You can’t always rely on your cell phone, especially if you are in or near an emergency that is bigger than your personal situation. Consider getting a radio to round out your communications toolset!

Of course, the naysayer would point out that if everyone had radios, those airwaves would be clogged up too, especially in an emergency. Probably true, but don’t worry. That won’t happen, no matter how often I or any other radio-pushers recommend. 🙂

I don’t mean to sensationalize radios. They’re no panacea. We know that in the days of yore (e.g. before the 1990s), people were indeed able to survive without cell phones or radios, even if the absence of a texting, selfie-snapping, web-surfing smartphone is unimaginable for some folks. Regardless, if you have a serious need to keep in touch with someone no matter what, definitely consider a radio for your backup plan.

Here’s another opinion, from the Seattle Times Article referenced below:

“Kyle Moore, public-information officer for the Seattle Fire Department, said he’s always getting laughed at for using an ‘old-school pager.’ But he gets the last laugh knowing his device will respond in an emergency. ‘If the cellphone towers go down, this pager works,’ Moore said.”

Personally, while a pager is a radio of sorts, I’d rather have a ham radio, and some (e.g. Yaesu VX-3R) are about the size of a pager (if you remove the antenna). Just sayin’.

For more details, see links to the parade and bridge outage articles below.


You can read more information on the Seattle near-outage here:

This is the only article I saw mentioning that cell communications were impacted:

About halfway down the article, you’ll see: “Daryl Hamburg, manager of operations for Dike District 12, said cell phones are not working at the moment except for texts. Hamburg said people are everywhere.”

If you’re interested in more background on the collapse, you can get the low-down here: Note there’s no mention of communications being impacted at the time of the incident!

FHSS options – TriSquare eXRS is Gone, but Motorola’s DTR650 is here

I have good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad news.  You’ll have a very difficult time finding eXRS radios because TriSquare has apparently decided to stop manufacturing them.  Here’s one reference to that effect (even though as of publication, their website is still up). Apparently my recommendation didn’t go viral and significantly boost their revenue  .

Motorola DTR650 FHSS handheld radio, image from

Motorola DTR650 FHSS handheld radio, image from

Now for the good news.  Frequency-hopping spread-spectrum (FHSS) radios are still available for general, unlicensed use! (Reminder: FHSS radios switch frequencies multiple times per second and only transmit for a fraction of a second at a time, making it impossible to intercept without very expensive, specialized equipment, which I assume that only three-letter agencies and military units have.)

A Better FHSS Option?

Motorola is producing the DTR650, the latest in its line of FHSS radios (including the DTR410 and DTR550). This is a good thing. Motorola generally makes solid radio equipment, and the DTR650 meets various military specifications (810 C, 810 D, 810 E, 810 F) for blowing rain, salt fog, vibration, blowing dust, shock and temperature.  They appear to be much more durable than the TriSquare radios. You can see the DTR650 specifications here.

Additionally, they have many accessories available, including various earpieces, antennas, chargers, etc. And since this appears to be the latest in a line of radios, there will presumably be improvements to the product line and warranty or technical support available long into the future.

It isn’t all roses, however. I’m finding these radios for sale in the $200-250 range, per radio. That’s quite a bit more than the eXRS models, but depending on your budget and communication needs, these may fit the bill.

I haven’t used these radios yet, but I’m definitely interested in doing a hands-on evaluation. Now if I could convince Motorola to ship me a pair to evaluate…

Emergency Power for Radio Commmunications

Emergency Power for Radio Communications
Emergency Power for Radio Communications

Emergency Power for Radio Communications is one of the best books I’ve seen so far on the topic of creating reliable, portable back-up power solutions.  Even though the focus of this book is on radio comms, the solutions Michael Bryce WB8VGE describes are useful for just about any of your power needs – recharging other communications devices, lighting, etc.

Whether you’re a radio person, looking g at off-grid power solutions for your cabin, or interested in alternate power sources for any other reason, like a winter storm, this book is jam-packed with very useful information.  Even though the title says “for Radio Communications”, don’t let that fool you.  This book is for anyone who needs power in an emergency.  It could have been titled “Emergency Power Solutions for Any Reason” (but that wouldn’t have sounded as good, I guess).

Let’s quickly look over what’s covered, with a little editorializing on my part (that’s why  you’re reading, right? :-)).

  1. Hey, I am in the Dark: This chapter is about lighting.  You may think that talking about batteries or generators or radios would come first, but if you think about it, if you have no power, and it’s not daytime, light is critical!  This is a good, basic review of emergency lighting options.
  2. Solar Power:  Basics of solar panels, types, how to calculate $/Watt, power ratings, making your own panels, mounting, safety, dealing with wind, and more.  This is a great intro to solar power basics.
  3. Charge Controllers for Photovoltaic Systems: It’s not often you see a set of solar panels with no charge controllers.  All the energy coming from those panels needs to be managed somehow, and you’ll learn about how they work, different types, what you will need for your setup, and more.
  4. Generators: Gas, Wind, and Water: This is interesting.  I’ve never seen anyone lump these technologies together in one section before.  In either case, the author does a solid review of the different types and technologies that exist for gas generators.  Even if you only need to power part of your house with a generator when the power is out, this book will be worth the purchase just for this section.  I learned a lot here. He also briefly describes some wind and water power basics.  If you are planning on setting up a permanent off-grid wind or micro-hydro power solution, this won’t be enough info, but will get you started.
  5. Load Sizing: How much equipment do you need to run and how much power will it consume?  If you don’t know, you could be in for a nasty surprise when you run out of power, the sun has just set, and your emergency power solution happens to be solar panels and batteries.  This section will help you calculate what you need.
  6. Holding your Volts: Battery Systems and Storage:  All about batteries.  Types are covered – NiCad, NiMH, Lithium-ion, flooded lead-acid, AGM, and gel-cell .  More details of voltage, temperature, charging, amp-hours, maintenance, setting up a battery bank, safety, and examples of what *not* to do are also covered.  And there are a lot of good pictures.  Another fantastic resource for anyone who needs to use battery power.
  7. Systems for Emergency Power:  This is where it all comes together – the alternate power source, power management and storage as needed.
  8. Inverters:  If you need AC power and have a battery, you will need an inverter.  But what kind? How much power should it produce?  How big of a batter would you need to produce enough AC?  Do you need  a pure sine wave?  Does it need to tie to the power grid?  These questions and many more answered here.
    Station Instrumentation:   You will learn various ways to measure and monitor your power supply.
  9. Safety:  Of course, electricity can be dangerous for a few reasons.  This is definitely worth reviewing.  To his credit, the author discusses safety all through the other sections too.
  10. Emergency Practices:  One thing I like about this chapter is that the author covers general emergency preparedness well, discussing an overall plan, budget, light, communications (of course), food and water, health & sanitation, pets, firearms, and getting others involved.  For a short chapter, it is dense with good advice.

There are a few appendices at the end, also content-rich.  All in all, this book is a treasure trove of emergency power information, and better than most books I’ve seen on the topic.  Enjoy!

Ham Radio for Dummies – Not a Dumb Book

Ham Radio for Dummies
Ham Radio for Dummies

I’ll freely admit that I’m generally not a fan of the “… for Dummies” books.  I have found that they’re often big on filler and cute graphics, and light on useful data.  I have purchased a few, and later realized that I could have bought a half dozen other books that contained twice as much information, even at the beginner level.  However, Ham Radio for Dummies is an exception, and contains a lot of useful information.  I have referred to it more than once, especially when I was just getting started.  (Confession: Even after a few years messing around with ham radio, I still refer to it occasionally!)  H. Ward Silver is a recognized expert in the field, and has obviously ensured that his book isn’t full of noise (no pun intended :-)).  He did a great job laying out the basics in a way that a beginner can understand, even if he or she doesn’t have an electrical engineering degree.

When I looked back through the book again for the purpose of writing this mini-review, I was even more impressed than the first time I read it.  Not only is there a ton of information for the very beginner, there is also a ton of information for the experienced ham radio operator.  If you want to learn about different emergency communications organizations (e..g, ARES & RACES), there’s info on that.  Do you want to learn about digital modes you can use?  This serves as a great primer for that area too.  Or maybe you haven’t gotten licensed yet and are looking for an easy, common-sense, inexpensive approach to getting your license out of the way.  Ward does a great job of describing a variety of useful options, and will save you a lot of legwork and wasted time.

 What’s covered in Ham Radio for Dummies?

  • Part 1 – What is Ham Radio All About? — will get you acquaint with ham radio in general
  • Part 2 – Wading through the Licensing Process  — it’s easier than you think!
  • Part 3 – Hamming it Up – Making contact, using your radio in general, emergency communications and public service opportunities
  • Part 4 – Building and Operating a Station That Works — that’s right — setting up your own radio station, which is also easier than you think 🙂
  • Part 5 – The Part of Tens — nifty lists of ten items each — 10 secrets for beginners, secrets of masters, first station tips, easy ways to have fun on the radio, etc.
  • Part 6 – Appendixes — glossary, other listings, and a Morse code table

Ham Radio for Dummies is not for dummies.  If you’re interested in learning about ham radio, you will be wise to start with this book. 🙂

Happy reading!

The Definitive Amateur Radio Reference: ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications

ARRL 2014 Handbook for Radio Communications
ARRL 2014 Handbook for Radio Communications, from

My reference book Personal Emergency Communications is by no means an exhaustive “how to” when it comes to ham radio. There are 1300-page tomes on that subject. In fact, this is the definitive Amateur radio guide: the ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications. The handbook also comes with an e-book version with an attached DVD, so you can have a copy handy on your computer just in case.

Note (4/19/2014): If you weren’t aware, the ARRL Handbook is updated yearly. Since this was originally posted, the 2012, 2013 and 2014 editions have been published. As it turns out, the 2014 edition is the “Centennial Edition”, with 1320 pages and 5.5 lbs. of radio reference goodness, including all manner of brand new information and searchable CD-ROM . I haven’t purchased one of the latest versions, but I’m confident that the description ARRL provides is accurate.

Here is the link to the 2014 hardcover edition (currently lower cost than the paperback edition!).

Here is the link to the 2014 paperback edition.

From the ARRL description found here:

This 91st edition of The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications marks a milestone: the 2014 ARRL Centennial. For 100 years, ARRL has been at the forefront of promoting technical advancement and improvements in radio operating practices. And since 1926, The ARRL Handbook has defined the latest innovations in the field of applied electronics and communications. The Handbook is written by radio amateurs…for radio amateurs, experimenters, engineers and students.

This commemorative edition has been extensively updated and revised…

New Projects:

  • A one- or two-tube linear amp for beginning builders
  • VHF and UHF signal sources
  • QSK controllers for amplifiers (analog and digital)

New Information

  • MOSFET design for power amplifiers
  • Telemetry and navigation data including GPS
  • Oscillators and synthesizers
  • Current battery technology
  • The new Codec2 software for HF digital voice
  • New material on microwave techniques

Annual transceiver model review
CD-ROM Inside! Includes all of the fully searchable text and illustrations in the printed book, as well as expanded supplemental content, software, PC board templates and other support files.


ARRL Antenna Book: The Ultimate Reference for Amateur Radio Antennas, Transmission Lines and Propagation

ARRL Antenna Book
ARRL Antenna Book

If you are looking for an incredibly thorough antenna reference, the ARRL publishes one of those too, the ARRL Antenna Book: The Ultimate Reference for Amateur Radio Antennas, Transmission Lines, and Propagation. It’s very comprehensive (as its long title would indicate) and I’m not aware of anything more detailed or thorough when it comes to understanding antennas of many types. It describes almost any kind of antenna you can imagine (and probably many you wouldn’t), with building guides and specifications for many types of antenna projects.

Update (4/19/2014) I have referred to this book several times over the years. But since I’m not an electrical engineer, I’ve usually spent more time referring to less meaty books, for example, Low Profile Amateur Radio. That’s not to say you won’t find many uses for this reference. No ham radio library is complete without it! 🙂

Low Profile Amateur Radio – Save Yourself a Ton of Effort!

Low Profile Amateur Radio
Low Profile Amateur Radio

This is one of the best books I’ve read on ham radio, because it has saved me the most time and helped me understand the most, compared to other books in my ham radio library: Low Profile Amateur Radio: Operating a Ham Station from Almost Anywhere.

I can say honestly that if I had paid more attention to this book early on, I would have saved many hours of sweat and frustration. It’s full of simple antenna concepts that work well in emergency-type situations because they are often small, portable, and can easily be temporarily rigged. But at the same time, these same antennas would do very well in a permanent installation.  I recommend this book to anyone learning about antennas, especially if you want to save a ton of time and effort!

As opposed to some of the engineering-heavy amateur radio tomes available, I found this book to be lighthearted, easy-to-understand, and suitable for many beginners.

Chapter topics include: Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, Low-Profile HF Antennas, Disguised Antennas, Indoor Antennas, Operating Modes and Tips, Interference, Antenna Tuners, Transmitter Output Power, Low-Profile VHF/UHF Antennas, and Mobile Operating

  • Pay attention to this guy’s recommendations. He knows what he’s talking about.

(4/19/2014) I have sad news. It appears this book is out of print. While it’s still available on, my last searches show that it’s prohibitively expensive. Maybe this is where I need to think about focusing for my next book! 🙂

Strong recommendation: If you see this book for sale at an amateur radio convention or flea market, snatch it up!