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Amateur Radio: Providing Emergency Communications

Amateur (ham) radio is a reliable alternate means of communications in disasters or other emergencies. Many ham radio operators ("hams") go to great lengths to be prepared to assist during and after such events. But what is considered necessary and what is optional in terms of what you should have on hand for such events?

You should consider a number of things when preparing a grab-and-go bag or kit, not the least of which is the amateur radio license class you hold. For example, if you hold a Technician license, you should prepare to operate on VHF and UHF bands, since these frequencies are the focus of legal operation with a Technician license.

Ham radio equipment selection is largely subjective. If you are unsure of the types of features a radio should have for emergency communications, ask other hams what they recommend. Generally, for VHF/UHF operation, a dual-band radio with CTCSS encode and decode capabilities is ideal. A 50-watt mobile radio is superior to a 5-watt hand held ('handy-talkie,' or HT") for reaching other hams assisting in an event, and is ideal for use in a vehicle or at a communications post. A handy-talkie often lacks the power necessary to push signals through a dense metropolitan area with tall buildings, but it can be the best choice in other situations if you are asked to "shadow" an official managing response efforts in a disaster.

Regardless of radio choice, you should program your radio with relevant ham radio emergency frequencies so reprogramming is held to a minimum during a crisis.

Antenna choice is critical, and depends on how and where you will use the radio. You should use a high-gain design for better coverage.

Powering Your Radio

When it comes to how you will power your radio, there are numerous possibilities. You will need to consider factors such as cost, portability, and compatibility. For an HT, you should keep extra batteries on hand. If you use rechargeable batteries, recharge them regularly even if you don't use them often. If possible, establish a way to recharge these batteries in the field.

A portable 12V battery, of the kind used to jump start vehicles, is useful for powering an HT or mobile unit being used at a stationary location. A deep-cycle 12V battery is also commonly used in these situations.

A generator is also useful for stationary use, especially if your radio uses a lot of power. However, noise and fuel supplies become important considerations.

Other Considerations

Below are other items you should consider keeping on hand.

Radio Equipment/Setup

  • Antenna adaptors for connecting to a variety of antennas
  • Power adaptors for connecting to available emergency power sources
  • Extra antenna coax
  • Extra wire
  • Electrical tools
  • Electrical tape

Supplemental Communication

  • Police scanner for monitoring response by official agencies
  • Portable AM/FM radio for additional monitoring, especially during breaks
  • Cell phone, especially if you anticipate being in range of an operational cell tower


  • Water - at least one gallon per day of emergency assistance
  • Food/snacks
  • Games or reading material to use during breaks
  • Toiletries
  • Extra change of clothing
  • Extra eyeglasses, if applicable
  • Suntan lotion, if applicable


  • ARES Field Resources Manual (available from the American Radio Relay League)
  • Public Service Communications Manual (available from the American Radio Relay League)
  • User manual(s) for the radio equipment you carry
  • Note pad
  • Several pens
  • Flashlight
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