Question about capabilities of HAM radio

Status
Not open for further replies.

nyFreq

Member
Joined
Sep 24, 2013
Messages
6
I apologize in advance if this is a completely ridiculous question. I had some experience with amateur radio many years ago, and am considering getting licensed and back into the hobby again - partly for fun, and partly to be prepared for emergency situations, etc.

I have some limited understanding of how ham radios work and have been reading up more on it - but I'm having trouble figuring out if it would be able to serve this purpose.

I work in Manhattan and live approximately 22 miles north in one of the suburbs. I am wondering if purchasing a set of hand held ham radios would be helpful for my wife and I to communicate in an emergency scenario if cell phones, and land lines were unavailable.

How would we use the radios in a situation like this? Would it be as simple as agreeing on an emergency frequency beforehand, and then clicking transmit - as if it were a long range walkie-talkie?

Secondly, would a handheld radio be able to communicate over a range such as this or would I need extra equipment? Does the fact that I'm in a densely populated area mean that there are more repeaters and does that extend the signal range I could achieve?

I first want to understand if this type of radio would suit my needs for this situation. If yes, I'm willing to invest the time in learning how to use it properly and getting both my wife and I licensed.

Thanks in advance,

~NYFREQ
 

PrimeNumber

Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2011
Messages
280
Location
MS Gulf Coast
No nyFreq, it's a great question.

The answer right now is VHF/UHF HTs and repeaters. Those will work great as long as the repeaters are up and available –*i.e., in normal times. After that it gets sticky because when groovy times come to pass, those repeaters will either be down or commandeered for emergency responder use.

One possible solution is a pair of HTs and Yagi beam antennas. You'd have to get a couple of hundred feet up on the side of the island facing home in order to reach, but Manhattan's got plenty of tall buildings. A 2m Yagi is pretty small, about a meter long and a meter wide. There are fold-up ones home-brewed from tape measures that stow neatly in cardboard shipping tubes. They pop out as you draw them from the tube, and auto-stow when you jam them back in, it's pretty cool. Or you can buy Yagis pre-made from aluminum arrow shafts that stow in a neat little nylon pack. They take only a minute to assemble. Aiming would have to be fairly precise but not pinpoint. A compass taped to the beam antenna would be adequate for the job. The propagation numbers look marginal, but it becomes feasible if you can get one or both antennas high enough. This is probably the neatest solution. You'd definitely have to extensively test this during normal times.

Another kind of weird solution is sideband CB. A decent base antenna at home and a wire Zepp antenna hanging out of an office window has a chance to make the 22 mile connection. But I don't know how crowded CB is in NYC, or how bad the RFI noise is there. Probably pretty bad on both counts, I'm guessing. If you were in Manhattan Kansas however, it would be a very good option.

You might do something similar on the 10m or 6m ham bands, though I don't have any transceivers to recommend here. On these bands even a Tech licensee can either talk or send data. I am confident that PSK31 would get through, and a smartphone or tablet is all you need to send and receive it. However, the radio and battery and coiled-up antenna would pretty much require a dedicated backpack.

After that, about all that's left is HF and NVIS, but you'd both have to pass the General license test to use that.

OK, that's all I've got. It's a tough problem, but it is not insurmountable.
 

zz0468

QRT
Banned
Joined
Feb 6, 2007
Messages
6,036
...but I'm having trouble figuring out if it would be able to serve this purpose.

I work in Manhattan and live approximately 22 miles north in one of the suburbs. I am wondering if purchasing a set of hand held ham radios would be helpful for my wife and I to communicate in an emergency scenario if cell phones, and land lines were unavailable.
Portable radios CAN be useful in that situation, but there's a lot to depend on. Direct communication beyond a couple of miles, at best, is unlikely. Repeaters would be necessary to cover that distance. And in a major disaster, you're running the risk that the repeaters could be out as well as landline/cell service.

How would we use the radios in a situation like this? Would it be as simple as agreeing on an emergency frequency beforehand, and then clicking transmit - as if it were a long range walkie-talkie?
No. In that scenario, you're sure to be out of touch, and disappointed.

Get both of you licensed. Go for the general license. You get more options. Get some radios, 2m/440 might be a good place to start. Get active in the community and on the bands. Learn where the repeaters are, and what they cover. Use them daily. Get it so it's a routine. Pick a couple that work best for you and your travel areas. Pick a couple of alternates, and use them occasionally so people know who you are.

When an emergency comes up, then you have some options to plug into your plan, and are less likely to be disappointed because you will know what works, where it works, why it works, and how it works. Just buying radios and hoping for the best is an exercise in failure.
 

Jimru

Member
Premium Subscriber
Joined
Dec 19, 2002
Messages
1,345
Location
Henrico County, VA
Some repeaters will be pre-designated to be used specifically by your local Emcomm groups (ARES, RACES or a local club that provides public service), so in an area wide emergency, if all you want to do is communicate with your spouse, you would not want to use them at that time as you would be most likely interfering with an ongoing net.
Zz gave good advice; and to add to it: if you are interested in ham radio for emergencies, get yourselves licensed and learn as much as you can about local Emcomm groups. You may even want to join up with them!
 

jaspence

Member
Premium Subscriber
Joined
Mar 21, 2008
Messages
2,427
Location
Michigan
Ham radio

For the use you are asking about, a repeater is the best bet and lowest cost. Getting a more advanced ham license would allow you to use other frequencies, but the equipment is much more expensive and not easily portable. Some of the HF bands are useless at the distance you mention, and band openings can be dependent on the time of day, atmospheric conditions, and interference.

Another option might be a GMRS license which covers all household members. You would need to check for a repeater that is open to public use.
 

nyFreq

Member
Joined
Sep 24, 2013
Messages
6
Thanks everyone for the helpful replies. So it looks like there's no reliable or simple way to be in touch with my wife over those 22 miles in a real emergency situation (i.e. no power, cell service etc etc)

I have one more follow up question to this. I have read in several places that a ham radio is the best type of radio to have for emergencies or shtf scenarios. In a situation like this, what exactly is the ham radio good for and how would it be used? I can see how it would be especially helpful in more rural areas where it's impossible or hard to get in touch with others, but I'm trying to understand how I would be able to benefit from this technology.

Thanks again.
 

teufler

Member
Joined
Dec 19, 2002
Messages
2,365
Location
ST PETERS, MISSOURI
As was reported, without a repeater than you can work, that has backup power, a portable only radio has a range of about 5 miles , on flaT TERRAIN..The range can be improved somewhat by use of better antennas, but a 5 watt signal will be difficult in the ny area to go 22 miles. Portable beams will help but you will probably be "skyscraper" blocked getting you signal through. You will need access to a window, not necessarily open, but a clear shot in the direction of your desired contact. The higher up, the better, then you will have to experiment to find a frequency that is open at the time you want to transmitt. At "emergency comms time", there will be others that are trying to do the same thing.
 

Jimru

Member
Premium Subscriber
Joined
Dec 19, 2002
Messages
1,345
Location
Henrico County, VA
NYFreq,

If you are really interested in emergency radio, I suggest that you & your spouse get your Technician's license and then find out where both your local ham club and ARES or other Emcomm group is. Join them, participate in local nets, get to know what's going on in your area. If something really awful goes down (hope it doesn't), then you and your wife will be well trained as to where to tune and how to proceed from there.

If you just each get a license, but just keep a couple of HTs around without knowing where to tune or what the on-air operating procedures are, you'll be not much better off than not having the radios to begin with.

That said, it is true as someone else posted here, that an HT, even with a gain antenna high up, is unlikely to reach your wife 22 miles north of NYC.

Maybe a mobile rig with 6 meter capability at each end, putting out 50 watts or so and a good gain antenna might be able to go that distance (via simplex) , but that is not a guarantee! It's certainly worth trying.

In a real SHTF scenario, if there is no commercial power, some of the repeaters will have backup power, but who knows how long that would last? If they are gasoline or diesel powered, they might get a couple of days, but as we learned in the aftermath of Sandy, gas was very hard to come by for many days, (even weeks!). This is true for both ham and GMRS repeaters.

I say get your licenses, because there is much more to ham radio then Emcomm, it's a fun hobby with lots to offer and you will make some life-long friends all over the world!
 

k6cpo

Member
Joined
Dec 30, 2013
Messages
923
Location
San Diego, CA
Thanks everyone for the helpful replies. So it looks like there's no reliable or simple way to be in touch with my wife over those 22 miles in a real emergency situation (i.e. no power, cell service etc etc)

I have one more follow up question to this. I have read in several places that a ham radio is the best type of radio to have for emergencies or shtf scenarios. In a situation like this, what exactly is the ham radio good for and how would it be used? I can see how it would be especially helpful in more rural areas where it's impossible or hard to get in touch with others, but I'm trying to understand how I would be able to benefit from this technology.

Thanks again.
Everyone else has covered the VHF/UHF radio situation in the scenario you envision. Getting your amateur radio licenses and moving up to general offers more possibilities, but with the greater capabilities, comes the need for more complicated infrastructure on your part and that means increased costs. You'll need a more expensive HF radio, a way to power it (batteries or solar—more equipment and headaches,) an antenna tuner if one isn't built into the radio, and a more sophisticated antenna. And you're going to need this at both ends. HF is not practical for SHTF situations for your scenario.

NYFreq,

If you are really interested in emergency radio, I suggest that you & your spouse get your Technician's license and then find out where both your local ham club and ARES or other Emcomm group is. Join them, participate in local nets, get to know what's going on in your area. If something really awful goes down (hope it doesn't), then you and your wife will be well trained as to where to tune and how to proceed from there.

If you just each get a license, but just keep a couple of HTs around without knowing where to tune or what the on-air operating procedures are, you'll be not much better off than not having the radios to begin with.

That said, it is true as someone else posted here, that an HT, even with a gain antenna high up, is unlikely to reach your wife 22 miles north of NYC.

Maybe a mobile rig with 6 meter capability at each end, putting out 50 watts or so and a good gain antenna might be able to go that distance (via simplex) , but that is not a guarantee! It's certainly worth trying.

In a real SHTF scenario, if there is no commercial power, some of the repeaters will have backup power, but who knows how long that would last? If they are gasoline or diesel powered, they might get a couple of days, but as we learned in the aftermath of Sandy, gas was very hard to come by for many days, (even weeks!). This is true for both ham and GMRS repeaters.

I say get your licenses, because there is much more to ham radio then Emcomm, it's a fun hobby with lots to offer and you will make some life-long friends all over the world!
Most amateur repeaters have some form of back-up power, but it's usually limited and designed only to cover short-duration power outages. Three years ago we had a protracted power outage that effected all of San Diego and Imperial Counties ( and parts of Riverside and Orange Counties) in Southern California. My electricity was out for nine hours, and the cell phone infrastructure failed as well.

Most of the amateur repeaters in San Diego were unable to operate for the full duration of the outage. Since then, many of the repeater operators have taken steps to improve their back-up power capabilities. My club took a different route. We converted our repeater to 100% solar power. It has been operating that way for almost a year now with no problems. The one downside to this is that as one of the few solar powered repeaters in the area, we will likely be overloaded in the event of another massive power outage.
 

PrimeNumber

Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2011
Messages
280
Location
MS Gulf Coast
That said, it is true as someone else posted here, that an HT, even with a gain antenna high up, is unlikely to reach your wife 22 miles north of NYC.
I've hit a repeater 25 miles away reliably with a hand-held Yagi and an HT. I was standing at ground level, the repeater's at 300'. I'm guessing that if nyFreq could get up in an office building, with a Yagi on each end this would stand a very good chance of working.

A way to ease into this project is to both of them to earn their Tech licenses, get a couple of HT's (Baofeng, $35 at Amazon), start using the local repeaters to get a little experience while times are good, then step up to trying to do simplex with Yagis. Not counting time invested, this could be done for under $150. If it works, it would make a practical, office-friendly setup.

And if that doesn't work...
Maybe a mobile rig with 6 meter capability at each end, putting out 50 watts or so and a good gain antenna might be able to go that distance (via simplex) , but that is not a guarantee! It's certainly worth trying.
This with PSK31 (use your iPhone) would almost definitely get through. But it would take a small backpack of gear.

Any way you cut it, this is not an easy problem with an off the shelf turnkey solution.
 

PrimeNumber

Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2011
Messages
280
Location
MS Gulf Coast
I have one more follow up question to this. I have read in several places that a ham radio is the best type of radio to have for emergencies or shtf scenarios. In a situation like this, what exactly is the ham radio good for and how would it be used? I can see how it would be especially helpful in more rural areas where it's impossible or hard to get in touch with others, but I'm trying to understand how I would be able to benefit from this technology.
That would depend a lot on your situation. If all you want to do is listen in, a shortwave receiver with SSB capabilities will do fine. Tecsun PL-660's, Sony ICF-SW7600GR's and the like can be had for ~$125. No license needed! And either would give you great long-distance news at night via AM skywave.

After that and to pick just one possible scenario for an example, if you want to contact friends and family a few hundreds of miles away, a General license and an $800 HF rig are what you need. Your needs may be very different, but that is one example.

At this stage I've got to recommend the book "Ham Radio for Dummies." It does a great job of describing ALL of the capabilities, without getting too far into the weeds. It's a really good place to start in trying to fit your specific needs with what's out there.
 

Jimru

Member
Premium Subscriber
Joined
Dec 19, 2002
Messages
1,345
Location
Henrico County, VA
Everyone else has covered the VHF/UHF radio situation in the scenario you envision. Getting your amateur radio licenses and moving up to general offers more possibilities, but with the greater capabilities, comes the need for more complicated infrastructure on your part and that means increased costs. You'll need a more expensive HF radio, a way to power it (batteries or solar—more equipment and headaches,) an antenna tuner if one isn't built into the radio, and a more sophisticated antenna. And you're going to need this at both ends. HF is not practical for SHTF situations for your scenario.



Most amateur repeaters have some form of back-up power, but it's usually limited and designed only to cover short-duration power outages. Three years ago we had a protracted power outage that effected all of San Diego and Imperial Counties ( and parts of Riverside and Orange Counties) in Southern California. My electricity was out for nine hours, and the cell phone infrastructure failed as well.

Most of the amateur repeaters in San Diego were unable to operate for the full duration of the outage. Since then, many of the repeater operators have taken steps to improve their back-up power capabilities. My club took a different route. We converted our repeater to 100% solar power. It has been operating that way for almost a year now with no problems. The one downside to this is that as one of the few solar powered repeaters in the area, we will likely be overloaded in the event of another massive power outage.

I hope all repeater owners/clubs will follow your lead!
 

Jimru

Member
Premium Subscriber
Joined
Dec 19, 2002
Messages
1,345
Location
Henrico County, VA
I've hit a repeater 25 miles away reliably with a hand-held Yagi and an HT. I was standing at ground level, the repeater's at 300'. I'm guessing that if nyFreq could get up in an office building, with a Yagi on each end this would stand a very good chance of working.

A way to ease into this project is to both of them to earn their Tech licenses, get a couple of HT's (Baofeng, $35 at Amazon), start using the local repeaters to get a little experience while times are good, then step up to trying to do simplex with Yagis. Not counting time invested, this could be done for under $150. If it works, it would make a practical, office-friendly setup.

And if that doesn't work...

This with PSK31 (use your iPhone) would almost definitely get through. But it would take a small backpack of gear.

Any way you cut it, this is not an easy problem with an off the shelf turnkey solution.

I didn't think of a Yagi!!

Yes, practicing during normal conditions is essential!
 

mirayge

Member
Joined
Nov 25, 2013
Messages
59
Location
Decatur, IL but my heart is from Bugtussle
Nobody else has touched on this, but what about the HUMAN powered relay? If you just want to tell your wife you are alive, or vice versa, contact a ham in between your locations. "I need to inform (call sign) that I am alright, can you relay to (location)?" After a few hops the message should get through and then you can monitor local traffic. Seriously, in a dire emergency everyone should sit at their radio with a pad of paper and pencil and maybe a recorder.
 

N0IU

Member
Joined
Sep 26, 2009
Messages
802
Location
Wentzville, Missouri
I have one more follow up question to this. I have read in several places that a ham radio is the best type of radio to have for emergencies or shtf scenarios.
With all due respect, it is the ARRL that created this state of affairs in the first place. For years, the ARRL has been promulgating their “When All Else Fails… Amateur Radio” campaign. One can purchase T-shirts, coffee mugs, pins, bumper stickers, window decals, banners and magnetic signs (two of which are recommended, one for each side of your vehicle) emblazoned with this phrase.

Take a look at the ARRL’s 4-page “When All Else Fails” (aka WAEF) brochure. (http://www.arrl.org/shop/files/pdfs/EMCOMM Broch ALL PAGES.pdf) The very first thing someone sees when they open it is, “Amateur Radio, often called “ham radio”, has consistently been the most reliable means of communications in emergencies when other systems failed or were overloaded.” Throughout the brochure, other phrases such as, “…ham radio has been called into action again and again to provide communications when it really matters.” and “Hams can operate just fine without other infrastructure.” And while this is true, it is immediately followed up with, “In an emergency, when your family’s lives may be at risk, which communications system would YOU want to have?” And all of this is just on Page 2!

According to the brochure, “…hams enjoy the security of knowing they can get a message through in almost any situation without depending on a fragile infrastructure that can fail or be overloaded.” All the brochure does is emphasize the “vulnerable choke points” of commercial communications systems and makes it appear as if Amateur Radio is virtually flawless, practically bullet proof and nearly impervious to the ravages of Mother Nature. On the other hand, it makes it sound as if our voice and data systems are cobbled out of tin cans and kite string and held together with baling wire and chewing gum that will be rendered totally useless under the slightest breeze. It even states that the need for electric power is a weak point of commercial telecommunications systems. Is the implication that Amateur Radio equipment is not crippled by the need for electricity in order to operate?

Now you take this brochure and put it in the hands of a well-intentioned ordinary citizen who takes all of this very literally and what happens? Their faith and trust in our commercial telecommunications infrastructure totally shattered, they rush right out and get their Technician license confident it its ability to get through when all else fails. There is no denying that our numbers have been bolstered by the addition of these well-meaning citizens into our ranks, but the problem is that some of them take this WAEF notion too far without looking at the big picture that is Amateur Radio.

Not only does the brochure present a gross oversimplification of the capabilities of Amateur Radio (“By selecting the right frequencies, hams can talk across town or around the world.”), it also over-exaggerates the frailties of our existing voice and data infrastructure. Telecommunications providers are constantly upgrading and hardening their systems so they will become even more reliable and be better enabled to withstand whatever situation comes its way.

No one is questioning the value of Amateur Radio in an emergency or disaster preparedness plan, but it is just one part of an overall plan and is not the “be all and end all” of emergency communications. I understand that this publication is just supposed to be a “teaser” to get people interested in Amateur Radio, but I think it is time for the brochure and perhaps the whole WAEF program needs to be re-evaluated so that it gives a more realistic picture of Amateur Radio’s role in disaster preparedness.
 

KF5YDR

Member
Premium Subscriber
Joined
Jul 24, 2014
Messages
176
The ARRL reacted to the market. Old hams are dying, new ones weren't being brought in. Some of that was the code requirement, some of it was the decline of electronics hobbying, a lot of it was cellphones and the internet. They had to do something.

Some of those SHTF hams will discover the rest of amateur radio and enjoy and contribute to it. Many of the ones who don't wouldn't have been interested anyway; there have always been more Techs than the other license classes.

People get into amateur radio for a number of different reasons. It doesn't matter why; once they're here, it's our job to tell them about all the other things they can do. The attitude that we only want one kind of person is what keeps people away from amateur radio, and we don't have the luxury of being picky about who swells the numbers and keeps the FCC's paws off our spectrum.
 

nyFreq

Member
Joined
Sep 24, 2013
Messages
6
Thanks everyone. A lot of good information here and a lot of food for thought.
 

PrimeNumber

Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2011
Messages
280
Location
MS Gulf Coast
Keep us posted on your progress!
Yes, good luck and let us know how you go on this project, whether by ham or otherwise. The "I work 20+ miles from home and want some kind of reliable comms" problem is a common one. Let us know what you get working, even if it involves kites and skyrockets or something else unconventional.
 

scannermanner1

Member
Premium Subscriber
Joined
Mar 14, 2014
Messages
459
Location
In the Western US Mountains :)
With all due respect, it is the ARRL that created this state of affairs in the first place. For years, the ARRL has been promulgating their “When All Else Fails… Amateur Radio” campaign. One can purchase T-shirts, coffee mugs, pins, bumper stickers, window decals, banners and magnetic signs (two of which are recommended, one for each side of your vehicle) emblazoned with this phrase .
do you have a link to where we can buy this stuff?
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top