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 www.PreparedBlog.com.  Personal Emergency Communications – Staying in Touch Post-Disaster pointed to www.EmergencyCommunicationsBlog.com.

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

And there was one more blog… www.HamRadioBooks.com, 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: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-02-20-neworleanspolice_x.htm. 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 Amazon.com 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: http://www.aprs.org and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_Packet_Reporting_System.

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:
http://www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio-1
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amateur_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: http://www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio-1, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amateur_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: http://www.arrl.org/exam-practice. 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 www.Yaesu.com, 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.

73!