I’ve been reading a fair bit about emergency communications (EMCOMM) and amateur radio. Nominally, EMCOMM is why amateur radio exists – the service is there, hypothetically, to be able to provide backup communication paths when infrastructure fails. Certainly, for many years, that was a pretty valid position and amateur radio filled that niche very well.
But time has marched on, and with it has marched both requirements and technology. In my considered opinion, amateur radio EMCOMM is likely to come up short when the situation is dire. This is something amateur radio can overcome, but getting past the shortcomings is going to require a new way of thinking for a lot of amateur radio EMCOMM enthusiasts.
The Use Case
It is first necessary to consider what role amateur radio is going to fill in an emergency situation.
The goal of EMCOMM is to get timely, accurate communication outside of the disaster zone to a place where the regular communications infrastructure is not damaged. Barring an asteroid strike that makes a crater the size of Texas and destroys an entire continent, that communication is not going to need to be more than tens of kilometers, maybe small hundreds.
That brings about my first EMCOMM observation: HF is probably not going to factor in an EMCOMM situation because it’s awkward and unnecessary. Awkward because it needs long, difficult antennas, and propagation is unreliable. In the event of a very wide-scale disaster, then perhaps, but generally, it will be quicker, easier, and more reliable to use VHF and UHF radio to get messages out of a disaster zone because the equipment is small and much easier to come by.
Modern “first responders” – police, fire, military, para-military and medical all have reliable, effective short-range communication technology and infrastructure. Their comms channels are robust and intended to work in adverse situations. For the most part, amateur radio will play almost no part in assisting these people. It’s worth noting that, military notwithstanding, none of these essential services uses HF radio much or at all.
Secondary assistance services are much more likely to require amateur radio assistance: Red Cross, various “civilian” disaster relief agencies and so on. These are important people in any disaster, but they’re likely not well equipped in the communications department and could benefit greatly from amateur radio help. Again, however, they’re going to want to move information outside the disaster zone, and that distance is not likely to be “around the world” because there are many better ways to do that than HF radio.
I’ve tried to figure out what sort of info these agencies might want to send, and the most obvious one I can come up with is a casualty list. This is a good one because it seems both likely, and highly useful to an agency like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders, or some similar group. There might also be traditional short “Hi Mom! We’re OK!” messages, but those are generally easy to send by any convenient means.
So what does a casualty list take? Let’s consider a short list: 1500 people are at a shelter inside a disaster zone, and the Red Cross needs to send that list 75 km away to the coordination centre. The list contains “phone book” info: name, (former) address, plus gender and date of birth. If we figure the name field at 20 characters, address at 20 characters, gender as 1 character and birth date as 6 characters, and an indicator for unharmed/deceased/injured/missing of a single character, a list of 1500 people is about 72000 characters, or 70 kB, or in CW terms, 14400 words.
Right off the bat, you can see one problem. That short casualty list, using 4 operators blasting CW at 30 WPM non-stop, will take a full 2 hours to send and still require coordinating the output of the 4 CW streams at the far end. That is not acceptable in 2015. That same list, sent by D-Star at 9600 bps, takes less than 90 seconds. Even at 1200 bps D-Star it will clock in less than 10 minutes. This brings me to the second observation about EMCOMM: Morse Code is not going to be used very much if at all in an EMCOMM situation because it is too slow to carry any significant amount of useful information.
What does this mean?
The general use case of casualty lists, supply requisitions and similar information simply can’t be sent by morse code or even by voice. Modern EMCOMM needs to move small and medium amounts of data over those tens of kilometers. Possibly even image data. This simply cannot be done with traditional “Morse Code and HF” thinking, and not even with “packet” thinking.
EMCOMM groups have to start thinking about the objective, and they have to start acquiring the infrastructure and training to be able to provide useful communications. This is what I think all EMCOMM groups need to have as a capability:
1. Enough available equipment to set up a VHF and/or UHF data link that can cover a distance of about 100 km, AND link to the neighbouring EMCOMM group – effectively able to form cells of about 50-100 km in radius to be able to get communications away from the disaster zone.
2. Enough man-portable (i.e. HT or similar) equipment to be able to deploy operators quickly and keep them highly mobile. This would include easily erected directional antenna equipment.
3. The ability to move data with a speed of at least 9600 bps over the coverage area. Even faster would be better. That may mean we all have to start thinking of better ways of moving data. Guys, it’s not 1980 any more. Even 9600 is glacially slow by modern standards, and information is king in a disaster situation, but at that speed you can move decent sized text blocks around. If amateur radio can’t move enough good quality information quickly and accurately, amateur radio will be bypassed.
4. The ability to interface with existing communications channels (e.g. the internet). I assure you, the guys who can get internet connectivity into a disaster area are going to be viewed as heroes of communications because internet is *THE* communication channel used by every organization everywhere. Also, being able to patch into other networks like the phone system and drag a level of that connectivity into a disaster zone would be really helpful.
5. This is a pie-in-the-sky thing, but I’ll put it out there: The ability to assist with, organize, and direct the communications infrastructure of others – in short: trained operators who can free up firefighters, police, and maybe even soldiers by operating THEIR communications infrastructure while they go out and do the nasty work.
EMCOMM needs to look at the now and forward, not back in history. It’s time to drop HF and morse, and build up robust, portable digital communications for emergencies. That is what will be needed when the worst happens, and that’s where the expertise of highly trained radio amateurs is going to be most effectively deployed.
[This article was originally published 20 Nov, 2011. I have recently updated it for 2015]
I get asked this a lot, particularly when I’m working at VE3JW. New and prospective radio amateurs want to know what equipment they need to start off. Since I’ve never really written about that, and it seemed like good article material, I figured I’d give it a go.
Built or Bought?
Unless you are already an avid builder, I suggest buying your first radio(s). Building can be fun, and if you already have the skills, it’s a great way to participate in the hobby. But if you don’t have the skills, it can be a frustrating way to start.
Nobody should take this to mean that I don’t respect building/tinkering skills. Quite the opposite actually, I think every radio amateur should develop such skills… but I don’t think it’s a good place for the new amateur to start unless he’s already into that sort of thing.
New or Used?
Here’s something controversial… the new/used question. I’ll state right up front, that I think a new or prospective amateur should be buying new, not used. That’s a generalization, of course, and here’s the exception: Buy used if you know the seller well and have great trust for the seller. By “know the seller well” I don’t mean “some dude at the local club meeting”… I mean “this is the guy who personally mentored me through the process and has been a close personal friend for many years.”
There are two reasons I recommend buying new:
So you’ve decided to buy a new radio!
Good for you. You need to look at what you want to do with it and how much you want to spend. There are two general classes of radio: VHF / UHF, and HF, and I’ll look at them separately. I’ll use Radioworld as the reference for prices, because I have the most experience with them, but there are many fine vendors of equipment, both online and with store-fronts.
VHF and UHF
When you think about VHF and UHF equipment, you’re generally thinking about access to the local repeaters, or perhaps satellite work if you’re going to jump right into that. You’re probably looking for an FM set with various features. If you want to do APRS, that’s something else to consider: does the radio support it natively or will you have to acquire/build a TNC?
So how much do you want to spend to get on VHF and UHF?
Lots of people have had good experiences with inexpensive handheld radios from China, acquired over eBay. The radios come fully equipped and the prices are usually below $100 per set. There are many band configurations, and the new amateur can get 2m, 220 MHz, 70 cm, and more. For the most part, these are straight FM radios, so if you wanted to use them for APRS, you’ll need to build or acquire your own interface. If you want to get on the air inexpensively, this is a way to go.
It’s also a good way to get into satellite work cheaply. A pair of these (one for VHF, one for UHF) and an antenna you can build for a few dollars and you can work the FM birds, including the International Space Station.
$150 – $300
This is a low-mid price for a name-brand handheld radio, and a low-end for some mobile sets. The Yaesu FT-60, VX-3, VX-6 and the Alinco DJ-V57 are fine radios. I lean toward dual-band handhelds because limiting yourself to 2 meters is, well, limiting. Depending where you live there may well be plenty of good repeaters on UHF, and if you just like to chat among friends, UHF has a lot less interference from commercial services. There are Luddites who will say 2m is all you need, but in my experience, those are people who don’t actually use the radio much.
In this price range you’re getting into the high-end handhelds and low-end mobile rigs. If you plan to drive around a lot, a mobile rig is probably a good call. You can mount it on a quick-disconnect mount and move it in the house and use it like a base-station, thereby saving the cost of having a house rig and a car rig. Mobiles generally have more power since they are intended to be used on the road/outside and that may be an important feature if you wish to get into some kinds of VHF and UHF work. Again, I recommend dual-band because 2 meters simply doesn’t cut it in an urban area due to interference.
For handhelds, take a look at the Kenwood TH-D72, and Yaesu VX-8 series. Both are full-featured, multi-band handhelds with APRS capability. Before anyone writes a comment, I do not recommend blowing the money on an Icom D-Star handheld. For what they cost, frankly, you can get a better handheld, or the Icom mobile D-Star radio. I consider the D-Star handheld a waste of money… there are simply better deals out there.
For mobiles, there’s many good choices in this price range. My personal favourite is the Kenwood D-710 and I have used this family of radios for a long time. The 710 supports packet and APRS natively, which is a real bonus. It also is full duplex, meaning that you can operate FM satellites with it without having to buy a second radio. Other good mobile sets are: Kenwood TM-V71, Yaesu FT-7900, FT-8800 and the Icom ID-880H which has D-Star capability (and is cheaper than the previously mentioned Icom handheld).
If you have over $600 to spend on a starter radio, I suggest looking at mobiles and bases with greater features, particularly if you also have HF privileges (Canadian Basic + or Advanced).
If you want an HF rig, you’re going to need more than $1000 to spend, and your best bet, in my opinion, is the Yaesu FT-857. It is an all-band, all-mode mobile radio, up to 100 watts output. It’s small, it can be mounted for quick moving between your car and your house, does HF, VHF and UHF in all modes, and costs around $1000. It’s not as awesome as some $13000 uber-HF set, but it’s a good starter radio, it’s pretty durable and it does have some advanced features. No other major vendor has a comparable radio for a comparable price.
Some people may tell you that the FT-817 is as good a deal because it’s cheaper. That’s true, it is cheaper, but it’s only 5 watts. And while it’s true that 5 watts is enough to work the world, if you’re a new amateur, the 13 dB of extra power in the 857 is going to make your early experiences better. There’s nothing wrong with QRP, but I think that’s a place to go AFTER you’ve got experience and have a good idea what you’re doing, and have established good, effective antennas.
If you get the 857, you may not need to buy a handheld, so there’s some potential cost-offset there.
You’ll need to set money aside for accessories (yes, hams accessorize) for your radio, be it a handheld or a base station. You’ll need to have money aside for antenna(s), cabling and possibly power supply.
Money spent on good antennas is better than money spent on extra power. Don’t pay extra for a 200W radio when there’s a cheaper model with 100W. The extra 3 dB won’t make a difference in most situations.
How you spend your first few amateur radio dollars is going to give you the taste experience with amateur radio that will determine whether this is the hobby for you. Don’t overspend, but don’t go on the cheap. Buying crappy equipment will discourage you, so try to stick to vendors who back their products up (or in the case of the Chinese handhelds, sell them so inexpensively that it doesn’t matter so much). Once you have some experience under your belt, you can upgrade your equipment to better suit your need and desires.
I read a blog posting (archive of that blog post) recently that was discussing the relevance of Morse Code / CW in modern amateur radio. The gist of it was that Morse code is relevant because it is felt by many to be the “essence of amateur radio”.
While I don’t doubt that many old-timers actually feel that Morse code is the essence of amateur radio, I am forced to suggest that those same people are selling amateur radio short with that feeling. In fact, they’re denying the whole POINT of why amateur radio came into existence, and what amateur radio needs to continue forward. That is why Morse code is still relevant, but not nearly as relevant as some people believe.
It is my understanding (feel free to correct me in comments) that amateur radio came about through experimentation and learning. That is to say that people so inclined to learn about the then-new-fangled radio medium for communication started making projects on their own. Eventually, the government stepped in to control it and what we now know as amateur radio was born.
The people who started amateur radio DID NOT sit around thinking “wow, this Morse code is really cool, I’ve done it with a light, and I’ve done it on a wire, I wonder if I can do it some other way?” No, they wanted to experiment with the new wireless communication technology and Morse code was close to the only efficient way to use radio at the time. Morse was a tool that fit the job requirements of the era. The essence of amateur radio was the gaining of knowledge, the advancement and exploitation of new technology and communication. It is my belief that this definition of the essence of amateur radio still applies today.
Today, the modern amateur radio enthusiast has a much larger box of communications tools to choose from. Advances in technology have given us voice and image modes. Computer advancement has given us digital modes. And, of course, there is also the venerable Morse code. Every mode has its unique advantages and disadvantages that make it appropriate for some situations and conditions, and inappropriate for others… and that includes Morse code.
The radio amateur who gets stuck on Morse code is like the old buggy driver after the advent of the automobile: sure, he can still do a job, but by not embracing the new technology he’s missing out on the richness of the activity and the expansion of his horizons that come with advancement. I’m sure that buggy driver got annoyed by all those young’ns and their fancy horseless carriages too… but that didn’t change the fact that time was marching on and the buggy driver was a quaint reminder of the past and not embracing the modern reality of transportation technology. Like that buggy driver, the radio amateur who overstates the importance of morse code misses out on the learning and new experience of other communications methods. That learning and new experience IS the essence of amateur radio.
It works the other way as well. The amateur that doesn’t pick up at least rudimentary Morse code skills is choosing the short-end of a stick – unable to operate effectively with simplistic equipment in bad conditions as Morse code permits better than almost any other mode, the completely code-free amateur’s communications toolbox is left wanting (but not empty!). On the flip side, the amateur who sticks to Morse code is left communicating in a mode that is, at common speeds of experienced operators, painfully slow for communication, requires a great amount of practice to use at those speeds, and which, in a non-disaster situation, is easily equalled in power density and propagation by inexpensive and readily available digital equipment. [edit: 3 jan 2015] Realistically, digital equipment is available in a disaster too. With computers becoming small and portable, there should be a laptop in any go-pack, and if if there isn’t, computers will be around and available in anything short of a nuclear blast.
If Morse code is your favourite thing in amateur radio, that’s fine. But to tell others that it is the essence of amateur radio is hubris in the extreme, and it’s living in the past. History is a great thing to learn from, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Morse code is not what defines a real radio amateur now, nor has it ever been. The ability to employ communication technology in an effective and appropriate manner under an assortment of conditions, and to be driven to learn constantly is what defines a radio amateur for the 21st century.
Let’s put Morse code in the communications tool box where it belongs and leave it there, to be used when required, and not used when there are better ways. And let’s embrace the essence of amateur radio and learn something new. If you’re a Morse enthusiast, how about learning and using a different digital mode like PSK or RTTY? If you’re a digital enthusiast, how about learning to send your Morse by hand or picking up a microphone? If you’re a phone enthusiast, how about hanging up the mic for a while and trying something different? Experimenting and learning new things, that is the essence of amateur radio.