There’s No Better Time to Be an Amateur Radio Geek

Haggerty-Sollars and her neighbor, Judy, were never far from each other, but first Judy lost her cellphone signal and then Haggerty-Sollars lost hers when she drove through flames—despite being in a rag-top convertible—because at that point there was no turning back. It’s not surprising they lost service. Seventeen cell towers burned the first day of the fire, which became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record in California.

Two-way handheld radios could have provided a backup option, and some GMRS radios can transmit text messages and GPS locations, though only to other GMRS radios, not to cellphones or computers.

If Martin and I have to evacuate, we’ll each have a walkie-talkie in our car in case we lose cell service. Evacuating is a realistic possibility as the worst of fire season hasn’t even started in California. Even so, between August 15 and 26, 1.3 million acres have already burned, which is two-thirds as much as what burned in 2018, the worst year to date.

On the other side of the United States, East Coast residents brace for what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) anticipates to be a more active hurricane season than usual. Forecasters predict the number of named storms to almost double this year, and they may extend into the Greek alphabet.

Martin and I have been practicing using the radios room-to-room within the house and around the neighborhood, which is not exactly fun, because aren’t we already close enough during quarantine?

How About The Cannonball Run?

Another option for two-way radio communication is Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS), which you may know as CB radio. Films like The Cannonball Run and Smokey and The Bandit popularized CB radios in the 1970s and 1980s. Since most new cars come hardwired with modern technology, it’s unlikely those devices will once again be mounted inside passenger vehicles (though truckers keep the CB dream alive), but they are an option for those living in high-risk areas who want to stay connected.

People from coast to coast use dozens of apps, all dedicated to emergency preparedness. When hurricanes churn in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, apps can help with navigating evacuation routes, locating temporary shelters, finding gas stations, and tracking the storms themselves. A phone full of apps feels like security, but when cellphone signals are spotty or lost entirely, they’re more like a debit card without a PIN.

That’s where CB radios come in. While they seem like a dated form of communication, knowing that channels 9 and 19 are dedicated to relaying emergency information and traffic/road conditions boost their utility. Despite having a Subaru equipped with Starlink, I want one and Martin is down to install it.

Do Regular People Use Scanners?

Celine Negrete, of Grass Valley, California, recently bought a couple of police scanners for her six-person household. Negrete’s family doesn’t have a landline or cellular service inside their home, but thanks to a tree climber willing to shimmy up a 150-foot Ponderosa pine, they do have internet access. Celine can get a cell signal outside, but in the middle of the night she can’t receive alerts.

Because Negrete’s house has internet, they can check social media groups for emergency information, but when the electricity goes out, the internet goes too. Their house is built from straw bales and the walls are thick, so they don’t receive a clear radio signal inside the house. During times of high fire risk, the family takes shifts going out to the car to listen to the radio, but now that they have scanners, they can monitor local emergency channels from bed. They just have to remember to keep plenty of batteries on hand.

A Revved Up Form of Communication

For someone wanting a more complete package, amateur radio (a k a ham radio) is the way to go, although it involves a bit more planning and preparation before you can start using it. Before legally getting on the air, users must pass a 35-question written exam in order to receive their technician license and unique call sign from the FCC. After that there are two more levels—General and Amateur Extra—which require additional exams. Licenses are good for 10 years and almost anyone can hold one, with the exception of representatives of a foreign government.

Leave a Reply