Answers to a Reader’s Questions/Suggestions on Emergency Radio Communications

AM radio stations require very large antennas.
AM radio stations require very large antennas.

We received an interesting email from reader Phil today, and on the basis of ‘If one person asks a question, probably a thousand others are wondering the same thing’ we thought we’d quote his email and our replies and share it with all.

Not to rain unduly on Phil’s parade, because the questions he asks are sensible and his hoped for answers seem to be intuitive and easy, but unfortunately, that is not the case in the real world.  These things are all more complicated than they seem.

We show Phil’s questions in italics and our responses in normal type.

1. Citizen’s Band Extended Area Communications

Go to Google and type: “CB Channel 6 illegal power” (or just click the link).

According to these results-pages, CB channel 6 (27.025 mhz AM) is commonly used by certain CB broadcasters using illegal amplifiers and transmission-power levels.  I’ve heard these guys myself.  The broadcasters claim to live in Jamaica, Barbados, Tijuana and Hawaii. Sometimes they have conversations with each other.  They can broadcast Continentally.

Here is an idea—In darker times, these CB owners could broadcast news and information across the entire North American continent. Such a broadcaster would need the equipment already in place before darkness fell, and they would need the willingness to break any laws restricting free press broadcasts of truth.  These guys already have all of that.  Has anyone contacted them and attempted to recruit them? How hard would it be for patriots to acquire, secure, and set up the same equipment?  A patriot in a downtown big-city apartment probably couldn’t do it, but there are plenty of patriots in the rural areas and Redoubt who might be able to.

Could you write an article about setting up and running such an amplified CB transmitter?  It’s not illegal to tell people where to buy the equipment and how to set up everything.  It’s illegal to key the microphone once everything is connected and running—but on the day when these stations will start broadcasting, we *won’t care* about Big Brother’s laws anymore.

In the absence of a free press, word about a news broadcaster on the CB will spread like wildfire and people will start digging up those old CB radios out of their garages and attics.

The long distance CB broadcasts you hear are produced by what is called ‘skip’ propagation.  Although an essential part of radio communications at some frequencies, it is unreliable and random at CB frequencies.

Skip is an atmospheric phenomenon, and is not a function of the power of the transmitter.  Sure, more power is usually a good thing, but skip is totally dependent on when the atmospheric conditions are in place to allow the radio waves to bounce back down to the ground again rather than just being absorbed or shooting into space, never to be heard from again.

By reaching into the dregs of distant memory, I vaguely recall working skip on 2W, too many decades ago, myself.  Skip doesn’t need high power, just good fortune with the atmospheric conditions – google ‘CB skip‘ for lots of info.

And therein lies one of the problems with skip.  The likelihood of a skip ‘window’ for CB frequencies opening up is difficult to predict, and ultimately is linked in with sunspot activity (which goes through an 11 year cycle), and in the US seems to be seasonally better from late spring through early summer than at other times of year (and that’s a very short season, isn’t it).

CB skip is patchy – it doesn’t blanket an area consistently, but comes and goes depending on which bounce angles will cause the radio waves to be refracted back from the ionosphere, and there will be dead zones – for example, you might have direct communications with someone a few miles away, then nothing for 100 or even 1000 miles, then a skip zone, then again nothing (then maybe a second skip zone).

CB skip (and indeed much of the rest of CB too!) is also a bit chaotic.  Again, reaching into the dregs of memory, as I vaguely recall, there would be dozens of signals all piling on top of each other, and no type of organization or orderly sequencing of who was to speak next.  Indeed, the ‘free for all’ nature of CB radio in general and the congested channels and the idiots who delighted in blocking channels or sending extended offensive or nonsense transmissions was a significant part of why CB radio ceased to be a popular thing back in the late 1970s.

One more thing – although this is widely ignored, the FCC says it is illegal to work skip with a CB radio, because CB is designed for only local communications.

Because skip for CB purposes is unreliable and unpredictable, and because CB radio in general lacks quality control and reliability, it would not be a good base for any sort of emergency or essential communication.

Lastly, I’m not sure how many people have CB radios in an attic or basement, and even if they did, do they still have an antenna?  Will the radio still work (electrolytic capacitors in particular have a finite life of 20 – 30 years)?

2.  AM and Shortwave Radio

How hard is it to set up and maintain a shortwave station?  Lots of shortwave stations are run by cash-strapped religious organizations, poor third world governments, and communist nations like Cuba that have strangled economies—yet they have shortwave stations.  How do patriots put one of these stations together and get them broadcasting in a crisis?

I saw the movie “2012” recently.  Woody Harrelson played a conspiracy-theorist shortwave broadcaster in the show.  He died while broadcasting from his backpack as Yellowstone exploded around him.  Is that backpack for real or is it fiction?

Can a patriot broadcast news and events on shortwave using equipment that be stuffed inside a large backpack with a couple of antennas?  Such a setup would be perfect to broadcast news, events, instructions, and coded messages from a mobile broadcaster that might never be tracked down and captured by enemy forces during darker times.  Could you write an article about setting up a shortwave station and/or one of these broadcasting backpacks, and how to avoid capture while using it? Rather than a backpack, maybe put everything in a car?

Most cities and even large tracts of rural areas already have local AM radio talk show hosts breathing fire into their microphones each day.  Has anyone tried to recruit these guys?  The radio stations are already in place and operational, and nearly every house and car already have an AM radio somewhere inside them.  The bad guys might capture the stations in the cities, but there are hundreds of stations in the rural areas that would be out of reach.  Plus, the owners and operators of those super-power CB stations could donate their amplifiers to the rural AM stations so that people across the nation could be reached.

Even broadcasting inspirational, patriotic, or uplifting sermons and masses would be valuable during dark times.

Let’s look at your second comment in two parts.  First, the ability to broadcast AM transmissions from a backpack.

AM Broadcasting

Unfortunately, the backpack radio concept (or even car radio concept) suffers from two very big problems.

The first problem is power.  Broadcast stations transmit using many thousands of watts of power, sometimes 50kW or more.  A heavy (ie approx. 50lb) golf cart type battery would support a 10kW transmitter for maybe five minutes of operation (or a 1kW transmitter for about an hour, if you prefer).  You can’t carry enough power in your backpack to run a transmitter for any appreciable length of time.

In a car, maybe you could get a super-sized alternator that might put out 300 amps, and that would give you 4kW of power, probably enabling you to run perhaps a 2kW transmitter.  Or it would be easy enough to load a 10kW or thereabouts generator into the back of a pickup and then you could power a 5kW transmitter – that is starting to become workable.  So this part of the concept could be feasible for a larger vehicle, but not for a car and definitely not for a backpack.

The second problem is antenna size.  You need an enormous antenna to transmit on an AM broadcast frequency.  An AM radio signal requires, well, lots of possibilities, but let’s just say ideally a 500 ft antenna.  Shorter antennas will work, but need more power.  You’re not going to have that sort of antenna stuffed in your backpack, either, or mounted on your vehicle roof (the weight of the antenna would be too much for the roof, the whole vehicle might topple over, and so on).

There would be one interesting possibility.  You could attach an antenna wire to a hydrogen filled balloon and have the balloon lift the antenna wire up the 500 ft or whatever it was.  If you used perhaps 18 AWG wire, 500 ft would only weigh about 3 pounds, so that is a possibility with a big enough a balloon, but you’d not want there to be much wind, so it would be weather limited.

This type of setup could work and from a suitable location would give you reasonable regional (but not national) coverage.  A problem is that it is not legal, and getting an FCC permit would be close to impossible.

As for co-opting existing AM stations (and it isn’t the hosts as much as the station owners who would have to sign off on the deal), a couple of thoughts.

First, it is reasonable to assume that in any sort of regional or national emergency, all broadcasting outlets will be doing whatever they can to reasonably add value and assist with the situation already, and will be answerable to FEMA and Presidential command notices.

Second, depending on the nature of the emergency, will regular AM broadcast stations be able to transmit?  To transmit they need power in their studio, an intact communication link to the transmitter, power for the transmitter, and then the antenna tower still standing.  If any one of those four things fail, there’s a problem.

Smaller regional stations are – well, smaller and regional, and perhaps less likely to be fully disaster resilient.

Oh – the ‘super-power CB amplifiers’ that you are suggesting could help out?  They probably would not work on broadcast radio frequencies (AM radio is from 0.5MHz – 1.7MHz, CB is around 27 MHz, and their ‘super power’ is typically less than 1kW.  That’s comparatively super when you think the maximum permitted power on CB is 4W, but when you compare it to a radio station that normally transmits at 10kW or even 100kW, it isn’t quite so super.

Shortwave Broadcasting

Now for the second part of your suggestion.

Shortwave broadcasting is great, because it truly can circle the globe.  Indeed, sometimes it does do exactly that (‘long path propagation’) where you can get a better signal from a transmitter by pointing your antenna in the opposite direction and getting the signal ‘the long way round’ the world.

Shortwave broadcasting need not be unduly expensive (the biggest cost is the cost of employing staff and developing programming) and even the poorest countries seem able to lavishly spend on their elected or unelected leaders, etc.  It is also more practical, requiring shorter antennas and allowing for less transmitter power, too (we know hams who have successfully spoken to other hams, many thousands of miles away, using only 10 or 20 watts of power using directional sending and receiving antennas, but national shortwave radio stations are generally very much more powerful).

How would patriots put a shortwave radio station together?  That’s the comparatively easy part of the equation; the harder part is how would other patriots receive the station’s broadcasts?  How would they know what frequency to listen on?  Would they have a suitable shortwave radio and antenna?

There just aren’t all that many people with shortwave radios out there, and even fewer with good ones capable of picking up weak distant signals.  For those who are out there, how would they know which frequency to listen on and when to listen on it?

Even the comparatively easy part is not all that easy either.  The FCC forbids ham/amateur radio operators from ‘broadcasting’.  We hams are only allowed to have direct person to person type communications, we are not allowed to broadcast content to many people.

A General Comment About Obeying FCC Regulations

You’ll see we’ve used the FCC restrictions as one (of usually several) reasons why neither CB, AM, or shortwave broadcasting would be practical.  Okay, so for sure, in a major collapse of society, an FCC regulation will be the least of anyone’s worries (including those of FCC staffers!), but prior to that time, how can you set up, test, and get fully operational a system that contravenes FCC regulations?

And after that time, when things hopefully return to normal, do you want FCC officials knocking on your door, handing out $10,000 fines and possibly imprisonment terms (the FCC can be very severe in enforcing its regulations)?

One more thing – radio communications are considered as a strategic and military resource, and as a key part of any emergency response coordination.  One of the first controls put in place in World War 2 was a blanket ban on ham radio throughout the US, for fear that enemy spies would sneak transmissions unnoticed into the general cacophony of other transmissions.

So even during an emergency, it is possible that some remaining shreds of federal, state, county and local government might be focused on policing the airwaves, and the last thing you want to do is to call attention to yourself any which way in such situations.

We consistently urge people to plan their prepping based on compliance with as many – and hopefully all – currently in place laws, regulations, and other requirements and constraints as is possible.

Failure to do so exposes you to liability before, during and after any emergency situation, and we’ve seen way too many examples of enforcement agencies of all types choosing to blindly enforce the extreme letter of the law, no matter what common sense and fairness might suggest to the contrary.

3.  Personal Messages

How about a communications network of individual operators comprised of volunteer ham and CB users?

The network would be like an underground railroad for personal messages. It could be organized like a Neighborhood Watch phone tree—except that it’s state wide. It might take two weeks to get message from California to Maine, but at least a system would be in place. Such a network could help reunite families, spread news and coded messages, and return freedom fighters who were separated during missions and are presumed to be dead or captured.

If a nightmare ever happens to the United States, these ideas could have an alternative media and communications network already in place and ready to go into operation immediately.

This is a moderately good idea, and is sort of in place at present.

Indeed, the oldest ham organization in the country (if not the world), is the ARRL – those letters stand for the American Radio Relay League.  The concept of using a network of ham operators to relay messages from somewhere to somewhere else was one of the originating purposes of ham radio.

It was a viable and valuable service back when not everyone had land-line telephones (and no-one had cell phones), and when long distance calling was many dollars a minute.  But nowadays it has largely died out, due to the ubiquity of cell phones.  In normal times, no-one needs to relay a message because they can do it directly.  There used to be a time when ham clubs would have booths at county fairs, offering to relay messages to friends and relatives in other parts of the country or world, and there was a certain amount of ‘gee whizz, isn’t that amazing’ to the concept, both for the people at the fair and the people who subsequently received the brief telegraphic type messages.

But these days, people at the fair are realtime sending text, pictures, tweets, updating Facebook, and so on.  A ham radio relay service seems slow, clumsy, limited in scope, and every way ‘old fashioned’.  Ham radio as a whole is in a strange sort of no-man’s land at present; a lot of people who a decade or two ago would have been hams are now enjoying all sorts of other internet based communication concepts instead.

This might be changing – new low-priced radios like the Baofeng UV-5R might be creating a resurgence of interest on the VHF and UHF frequencies (but these are essentially local rather than long distance services), and new interfaces between the internet and radios are allowing for hybrid half-internet and half-wireless type communications too, although of course in an emergency, the dependence on the internet would probably see such activities fail.

For wireless-only long-range work and relaying, you still need expensive HF radios and large-sized antennas, and you need a more difficult to obtain General ham license rather than the easy to pass Technician license.

There are two more issues about using a relay of ham operators to send messages across the country.  The first is that this would be a very limited service – how many messages a day could be sent across the country?  We don’t know, but we’ll guess maybe 10,000 maximum, and probably many fewer (depends on the number of hams participating).  That’s not a lot in a country of 300+ million people.

The second is the ‘last mile’ challenge.  How does the originator of a message first get it to a ham operator who will then wirelessly transmit it on to the next ham and so on across the country?  And, at the other end, how does the last ham in the chain get the message to its intended recipient?  Clearly, the phone would not be working or else there’d be no need for the radio relay.  And probably cars would be not working either due to gas shortages.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are some existing organizations that coordinate ham radio operators into emergency response plans.  The leading two are the ARES program coordinated by the ARRL and the RACES program coordinated by FEMA (and, more generally, their CERT program).

In addition, there is a prepper type radio network of sorts, Radio Free Redoubt.

So there are some services and coordinating groups who are already working to provide some types of emergency radio services.

Now – may we offer a gentle observation?  Your suggestions are interesting and creative, but they all embody the concept of someone else doing these things, for you and for others.  Why not become part of the solution, rather than remain part of the problem!

Become a ham operator yourself, and then get some HF radio gear so you can send and receive across the country and world.

Encourage your friends and family, wherever they are, to do the same, so that you don’t need to rely on ‘last mile’ relay challenges, but can instead directly contact the people you wish to remain in contact with.

We have a page telling more about ham radio and why you should become a ham, and a two-part article that helps you to pass the ham tests.  If I can manage to pass all three ham tests (and getting either all correct or only one wrong in each test), then for sure you can too!

4 Replies to “Answers to a Reader’s Questions/Suggestions on Emergency Radio Communications”

  1. Womanof theWoods

    Where I live, the local broadcast radio stations still put out messages at certain times of the day, everyday.

    They are messages for people without phones. “Will John Smith please contact Dr. White’s office.” “Bob, we will be there a day later than planned”; things like that. Many people are out on the land or in areas without any services. Radio is still King out here in the remote Canadian wilderness.

    Thanks for the article. Very informative.

    • David Spero

      Thanks for your comments. It brings about a wave of nostalgia – decades ago I have lived in small communities with only one local radio station too, and life was very different in such places.

      With only one radio station, one newspaper, and even only one television channel, there was more a sense of integrated community and less a sense of fractured disjoint disconnect. People knew that everyone would be listening to the same programs, reading the same newspaper, and tuned to the same channel, and so it was possible to have the media more effectively serve the entire community.

      Sure, it is wonderful that now everyone can find exactly the programming they want, no matter how tiny a market niche they might be seeking, but we’ve lost a lot of the community cohesion as a result of that. We’ve also lost an ability to quickly and conveniently reach most/all people in a community in cases when that is needed, too.

      Progress. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it. 🙂

  2. Samuel

    Can you provide any links to FCC enforcement actions taken against unlicensed operators in the amateur or commercial bands where the individual wasn’t transmitting regularly for days and/or causing repeated interference with licensed operators? All the violations / forfeitures I see take hours or days of DF’ing after the FCC is finally contacted, and it decides to send a field team out to investigate.

    I always hear about the 10k fines and imprisonment, but I’ve never seen one where the individuals weren’t creating a nuisance of themselves on a regular basis. If there’s any cases where a 10 second QSL between unlicensed operators (or using borrowed callsigns), once every couple weeks or so, on a irregular schedule and in the amateur bands I’d like to read about it.

    • David Spero

      Hi, Samuel

      I don’t roam through the FCC site seeking details of everything they do, and in turn, they don’t usually ‘open the bidding’ with a $10k fine, jail sentence, and equipment forfeiture. Yes, they do sometimes do such things, and yes, there’s a certain amount they ignore as well.

      You are correct – there is a certain ‘threshold of pain’ below which a person’s unapproved actions are ignored by all, but above which, the wheels start to slowly grind into action. What that level of pain is probably varies depending on the band, the actions of the offender, and the complaints they receive.

      The thing to appreciate is that it isn’t just the FCC that has to do all this. All the regions of the country have teams of ‘Official Observers’ – groups of vigilante ham operators who report what seem to be contravening uses to the ARRL and which are in turn passed on to the FCC for action.

      But the bottom line is simple – it is enormously easier to just go and get licensed than it is to operate unlawfully.

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