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
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.
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:
- Push the button and talk into the radio, then let go of the button so someone can talk back
- Yelling doesn’t make a radio transmit with any more power
- 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.