The communications infrastructure on which we all depend in the course of our normal lives is fragile at best. It can be rendered completely ineffective by natural and man-made causes in a matter of minutes. Natural events can include severe storms, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and solar flares. Man-made causes can range from sabotaged telecommunications centers to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events hundreds of miles above the earth, triggered by our country’s enemies.
It would not take very much at all to bring our phone lines, cell phones, TVs, AM/FM radios, Internet, cable and fiber connections to a silent halt.
So what can we do to communicate with our neighbors and loved ones when all conventional means of contact disappear on short order? What if you can’t receive any news about what is going on and can’t send any notice that you or one or more family members need urgent help? What if utility power also disappears? And what if the situation is not remedied for days, weeks, or even months?
There is a simple solution but, like most things, its implementation requires some knowledge and some work. If you have the appropriate technical skills and are comfortable with things electronic, you’re half-way there. Fortunately, what you don’t know can be learned easily enough by Googling around the Internet. Everything you need can be purchased readily and is relatively inexpensive. It can be replicated by (or for) friends and relatives who live within a hundred miles or so and you and yours can remain connected no matter what happens. Probably the hardest part will be convincing them that what you’re doing is worth the effort!
So what do you need? The first thing you need is a Technician class FCC amateur radio license. It’s simple: all you have to do is take a 35-question multiple-choice test that any ten-year old can pass. You are actually given the questions and answers before you take the test! Just Google around and visit ham radio Web sites. Then you just wait a month or so and get your license in the mail. There’s nothing to it. In fact, it’s much easier than a typical driver’s license exam.
While you’re waiting for your license to arrive and know something about electronics, build yourself a simple dual-band, low-power (what hams call QRP) transmitter and receiver for CW (Morse code) operation. There is a huge number of schematics and other construction details on the Web. Or you can simply buy one all built and tested. Make sure the output power is about a couple of watts in the 40 and 80 meter HF (high frequency) bands.
The most reliable way to communicate up to a couple of hundred miles at HF is by using the NVIS (Near Vertical Incidence Skywave) mode of propagation. This mode has been used by the military for tactical radio communications since WWII. Luckily, it turns out that it’s easy to build NVIS antennas: just lengths of wire placed horizontally 10-15 feet off the ground. The simplest scheme is to use two antennas: one cut for the 40-meter band, and one for 80.
The NVIS mode depends on propagation of the radio signal straight up to the ionosphere (a couple of hundred miles up), wherein it is reflected back down to earth to cover a circular area with a radius of 100-200 miles, depending on conditions. Because of the way the upper ionosphere works and its dependence on daytime solar radiation, you use the 40-meter band during the day and 80 meters at night. Does it work all the time? No, but does most more often than not.
Because you can’t depend on the electric utility, provision must be made for rechargeable battery power. The simplest solution is a 12-volt car battery with a solar charger and solar photovoltaic panel. The battery will store enough energy to power your communications rig over several days of cloudy weather.
Do you need anything else? Yes, you need to learn Morse code because voice communications require way too much power and can’t punch through natural and man-made interference, e.g., jamming, the way code does. A fun way to learn is on my web site, http://morsefusion.com where you listen to novels initially spelled in English and gradually converted to Morse code, one character at a time. And an interactive code training program will test you, find your problem characters, and provide the appropriate drills.
So, there you have it: A complete emergency communications system that you can even safeguard against EMP effects (search the Web on how) at a total cost of a few hundred dollars. Convince several of your like-minded friends and relatives to follow suit and you’ll not only have peace of mind but also a lot of fun in the process!
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