I really enjoyed reading the great novel "Patriots". In reading it, I picked up lots of good tips along the way. But I felt it really had very little contemporary information about communications, other than the chapter "Radio Ranch" which finally touched on an individual with a serious interest in radio communications. The use of Single Sideband (SSB), Citizens Band (CB) 27 Mhz radios, along with slightly modified "old" style low cost hand held "cheapo" radios really leaves a lot to be desired regarding how it could be done, on a fairly low budget.
It is my sincere belief that anyone even remotely interested in being prepared for what may come should obtain a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Amateur, or "ham" radio license.
While years ago, It was difficult to learn Morse code and pass the written exam for such a license, the code requirement has now been totally eliminated from all classes of amateur radio licenses.
These days, several companies sell printed books that contain the entire question pool (along with the answers) that will be on the written exams. Simply "highlighting" the correct answer to each question only, And then reading the question along with the highlighted Correct answer (only) After a few short weeks of about 10 minutes per day of such reading will easily allow most anyone to pass the written exam. Sample test runs are available online, free of charge.
The "Technician" class test is very easy to pass, which allows unrestricted operations on VHF and UHF). But I suggest spending the extra effort to get the "General" class license which also permits HF (High Frequency) world-wide communications. For general background on licensing see this site, and this one.
The main "bands", or [ranges of] frequencies that can be used by a ham operator range all the way from 160 meters (1.8 MHz) Up through 1.2 GHz and above. For more information about ham radio operation, A simple Google search will bring lots of results and information about this neat hobby, That could very well turn out to be a life saver in times of disaster. (In fact, Amateur radio does provide the main links in and out of disaster areas when normal modes like cell phones fail. This is proven time and time again. Most every large hurricane in the U.S. finds ham operators being the only means of communications in and out of the hard hit areas until normal services are restored.)
Once a person has talked halfway around the world with nothing but a radio, A piece of wire strung in the trees for an antenna, and a 12 volt car battery, with no infrastructure. (Like the commercial cellular or land line phone, Internet, etc systems that WILL fail at the worst possible time.) They will be "hooked" on the newfound ability to communicate without any outside help whatsoever (The commercial cellular and land line telephone systems fail during times of disaster as much because of simple "overload" (everyone trying to call someone at the same time) as the do because of infrastructure failure.
Many modern-day amateur radios are now designed to receive not only the "ham" band frequencies, But a wide range of other frequencies. So a VHF/UHF mobile type radio is also capable of receiving the AM aircraft band, FM Police, Fire, Ambulance, Business bands, Marine band, Including the NOAA "Weather" channels, etc etc. (But they may not decode some "big city" police trunked, and or encrypted communications) The lower frequency ham grade radios (HF) will also receive most everything from the AM broadcast band right up through VHF low band radio. This includes the international short wave broadcast stations like BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.), etc.
What many do not know is that with the simple "snip" of a diode or resistor inside these radios, They can be made to also transmit over that very wide frequency range! (This is the so-called MARS Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) or Civil Air Patrol (CAP) modifications, and is public knowledge all over the Internet. It is not illegal to thus modify these radios. It is illegal to use them to transmit outside of the ham bands unless you hold a valid MARS license, and then only on authorized frequencies for that use. (I have used old dental "pick" type tools to do this modification. (BTW, when you go to a dentist, ask for old used dental tools, Usually they are happy to give them to you.) to remove the [transmission mode blocking] resistor or diode mentioned. (The online sites will provide nice photos, I suggest a very bright light and a big magnifying lens. However, in a life-threatening emergency, FCC rules provide that pretty much "anything" goes........ So even though your radio that can now also operate on the 27Mhz CB band, it would not be legal to use it for that under normal circumstances, unless a genuine emergency exists.
There are a few radios that I have owned and experimented with and can confirm such operations. One of the very best mobile radios available is a Yaesu FT 8800 "dual band" VHF/UHF. This radio, After the simple snip of the diode can transmit all over the VHF and UHF band. This includes the business band portion (Which also includes such services as MURS (Multi Use Radio System), a license-free system on VHF FM, the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS),and Family Radio Service (FRS). It is really neat to have but one radio that can do all these things, Even though you cannot legally transmit on those other frequencies under normal circumstances.
The Yaesu FT 8800 radio will also "Cross Band" repeat, Right out of the box with no modifications. This means a person can set up two channels and talk through the radio from a small low power hand held radio, At the full power of the mobile radio. (Cross band repeat means to talk to the radio on one band, VHF for example, and the radio will automatically retransmit your signal on another band, For instance UHF, and vice-versa)
Speaking of hand held radios, My current favorite is the little micro size Yaesu VX 3. A tiny radio that can receive a very wide range of services, including commercial AM and FM broadcast. The simple snip of one little diode allows it to transmit on the GMRS band, Marine band, etc. A major advantage to the little micro size VX 3 is that it uses very common digital camera batteries that are available everywhere for a very low cost. (less than 5 bucks each for a nice Lithium ion battery including shipping!)
For a few dollars more, The Yaesu FT 60 has the full 5 watt power of larger hand held radios, Along with the full touch tone pad, (But is slightly harder to "snip" that diode..... The radio needs to be taken apart to get at it....)
Other good hand held radios include the Yaesu VX 7, VX 8, And the Icom T 90. These are all proven workhorse radios that will do the job.
For a base station type HF radio, The very best "Do it All" radio is the Kenwood TS 2000. The TS 2000 covers 160 meters through 440Mhz UHF, And even goes up to 1.2Ghz with an optional module. The same simple modification will allow the TS 2000 to operate all over, and the TS 2000 can "Cross Band Repeat" from not only VHF to UHF, But from HF to UHF! This means a person can monitor (And or also talk back) on HF through the TS 2000 from out in the field with the small hand held radio! Really neat to not being "stuck" indoors in front of the radio. You can be out in the garden monitoring your HF (or VHF) frequencies from the tall base station antennas, With nothing but the little shirt pocket size hand held radio! The TS 2000 is selling brand new right now for under $1,500.00 if you shop around. (Yes, Such radios after the aforementioned snip of the diode ARE capable of talking on 27Mhz CB etc in the event of a true disaster)
If a "better" quality HF radio is desired, Check out the Icom 756PRO series (PRO II, PRO III) The original PRO sells good used for $900 and up. These are high quality radios with a wide range "spectrum scope" that shows other signals on the band. But the Icom 756PRO series is HF only, no VHF/UHF, and it cannot crossband repeat.
There are lots of other radios that can operate on a wide range of frequencies, And have certain advantages (Along with disadvantages) For example, the Icom 706 series will do HF through UHF, And is a small light radio very capable of mobile operation. (The Icom 706 series is also a proven good radio). However, such radios cannot dual receive like the TS 2000 (Ability to monitor two frequencies at the same time, or cross band repeat) There are many others, such as the Yaesu FT 857, et cetera.. They all mostly operate from "menu" driven operation. (Not nearly as easy to operate for old timers like myself as a radio with more "knobs and buttons" Maybe younger computer types would enjoy them more.)
It is possible to operate on both the ham bands and your business band with one radio and not violate the law on a daily basis, but t needs to be done the "other way around" . You could take a commercial radio certified for the business band in question and simply program in the ham frequencies you want. This is 100% legal to do and operate on a daily basis. The drawbacks are that commercial radios are single band only. So if you wanted to have one on the two meter ham band and your VHF business band, And you also wanted to operate on UHF, then would need to have a second radio.
(All of these base or mobile radios operate from 12 volts DC (or 13.6 VDC) So will work fine from your solar panel battery bank) Speaking of which, I have been running all of my radios for many years now on just a single 12 volt "Marine" Deep Cycle type battery, Kept on a fully automatic 10 amp charger connected to commercial power--- In the event of a widespread and long term "power grid failure" that same battery can be kept charged with a solar panel. (I have several panels and have experimented with them, They do work well, But I have not resolved the overcharge regulation problem yet. (I have not yet spent the money for a commercial grade voltage regulator ["charge controller"] that will work with solar panels. Quality ones are expensive. Of course wind generators and other means of producing 12 volt power will work as well.
I suggest LED (Light Emitting Diodes) If electric light is desired, for their very low current consumption, to save precious battery power.
All radios need an antenna to be effective. All that is really needed to operate on the HF bands is some wire and some simple plans to cut dipole antennas. Stock up on electric fence wire and insulators from your local farm supply store for cheap antennas for the low HF bands! Although copper wire will work better than galvanized steel or aluminum fence wire, it costs lots more. And the cheap stuff will do the job.
For VHF and UHF radio operations, It is also possible to build your own antenna from scratch, But in most cases it is lots easier to just buy a decent VHF/UHF dual band antenna along with some good quality coax feed line cable. (For VHF/UHF, Keep the coax length as short as possible. TIMES LMR 400 is the coax of choice by the professionals for shorter runs of less than 70 or so feet)
For those on a real budget, It is possible to ask for "spool ends" of cable television "drop wire" from your local friendly cable TV guy. (Offer him a bag of donuts.). Even though that coax is 75 ohm and not the 50 ohm suggested for ham use, In most all cases it will work just fine, especially when you consider the very low cost! (On the lower HF frequencies, Coax cable "loss" is not really a [significant] factor or problem. Most any skinny cheap coax should work just fine. But as you move higher in frequency, coax feed line loss becomes critical- Use only short lengths of the very best at VHF and UHF.)
All antennas should be installed as high as possible. Which of course kind of makes them a lightning target. There is an article in the May 2009 issue of Popular Communications magazine on how to protect from lightning on a low budget.
You may have read or heard about the threat of EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) from a nuclear event. This is a real threat. However, not nearly as much of a threat to most of us that many would have you believe. If your radio station is well protected from lightning, and you are more than a few hundred miles away from the nuclear event, unless that is a special high intensity EMP device then you should have
no problems. (EMP acts like lightning, with a faster rise time). I plan to address EMP and lightning more fully in a future article.
Like owning a firearm and lots of other things, It is not enough to just buy the above mentioned radios and equipment and leave them in a box. It is important to use them on a day to day basis to really learn how they operate, And all that they are capable of.
Amateur radio is a fun hobby, and it provides you with some real communications when the other services fail.
Get yourself a license and enjoy it today!
Besides the advantages of being able to talk with friends, neighbors, your [preparedness] "group" if you have one, And other "ham" operators, Just think of the ability to also be able to talk to others on the marine band, Business bands, GMRS, etc with the same radio if TSHTF!
In addition to ham radio, I suggest getting a number of GMRS small hand held radios (UHF FM) for all unlicensed family members and friends and neighbors. I got a number of "store return" Motorola 9500 series GMRS hand held radios on Ebay for just over $20 per pair, complete with drop-in chargers! Do monitor the channels in your neighborhood and choose a channel with little activity, And then also change the "privacy code" (Which is actually a subaudible tone) to something other than what they came programmed for to
further make your system a little more private. While I would never consider any of the GMRS frequencies of much value for "tactical" use, These little radios do work very well,
And can provide good communications and teach youngsters (And oldsters alike) the ins and outs of radio communications on a very low budget.