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

 wired.com  09/16/2020 11:00:00   Jaime Stathis

The most important component of staying safe during an emergency is the ability to give and receive information. When the power goes outwhich it often does, not only during wildfires but also during hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and tornadosthe internet doesnt work and cellular networks crash with increased demand. In Northern California, we often have our electricity cut to prevent fire during high-risk times, leaving millions of customers in both metaphorical and actual dark.

When people need information the most, they cant get to it. So whats the solution?

Shortly after I started dating my boyfriend, Martin, a windstorm knocked out power in my Missoula, Montana, neighborhood. The electricity was only out for the night, and the contents of my refrigerator survived. I had a backup battery charger for my phone, and thanks to zero internet distractions and a fully charged Kindle, I read an entire book in a sitting, which I hadnt done since the iPhone took up residence on my nightstand.

The next time Martin came over, he asked what felt like a personal question, considering we were just getting to know each other. What kind of emergency supplies do you have?

I was 41 years old and had kept myself alive thus far, so with moderate confidence I opened my pantry and revealed my full cache of emergency suppliesa box of Kind bars and a 12-pack of La Croix. I soon became the owner of a Lifestraw, headlamp, and list of things to consider.

A couple of years later, we moved from Montana to Northern California. When the Camp Fire blazed through Paradise in November 2018just 50 miles northwest of uswe felt the potential consequences of being cut off from information. The following spring, Martin got his amateur radio technician license, creating a lifeline for us independent of infrastructure.

When preparing for a natural disaster, most people think of the basicsfood and waterbut those are only two pieces of a more complex puzzle, and Im not talking about toilet paper.

Do You Remember Walkie-Talkies?

My best friend and I received a set of walkie-talkies in the fourth grade. The range was short, but because we lived across the street from each other and werent exchanging life-saving information, we were able to share facts such as my mom is making cinnamon rolls.

Two-way handheld radios have evolved. In 1996 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized the Family Radio Service (FRS), which designated special radio frequencies for walkie-talkies so users can communicate without interference from radio stations or cordless phones. Bets of all, theres no license required to operate.

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is similar to FRS, though it requires licensing through the FCC. The GMRS license costs $70 and lasts for 10 years, but doesnt require an exam. One license covers an entire family, though operators must be over 18.

FRS and GMRS are both walkie-talkies, but GMRS radios have the potential for increased range and clarity due to better antennas, higher transmit power, and access to repeaters. (Repeaters are basically relay stations that allow amateur radio operators to reach further than they can radio to radio.) FRS and GMRS dont transmit information to or from non-paired devices, but theyre a great way to stay in touch with people you know, either in your home or around your neighborhood.

Patsy Haggerty-Sollars, formerly of Paradise and now of Auburn, California, only knew to evacuate during the Camp Fire because a neighbor knocked on her door. Patsy left her mobile-home court with a friendeach in their own vehiclebut they got separated at the main road where police diverted traffic in multiple directions. They weren't even trying to put the fire out, Patsy said. They were just trying to get the people out.

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