(white paper) What to Do When the Telephone, Cellphone and Internet Fails in a Disaster?
  Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project | Ham Radio @ SAR City. | (white paper) What to Do When the Telephone, Cellphone and Internet Fails in a Disaster? | (option) Satellite Phones. | (option) MURS. | (option) FRS/GRMS Frequently Asked Questions | FRS/GMRS As Emergency Radios | FRS/GMRS Equipment. | Using FRS/GMRSs. | (option) CB. | (option) Ham Radio. | List:  Emergencies Hams Helped In | In Honor of Jerry Martin, W6TQF, and Reid Blackburn, KA7AMF | Ham Licensing. | Practice Ham Exams. | Ham Radio Classes. | Ham Exams. | Ham Radio in the Schools, Grants, and Emergency Communcations. | x | Legal Aspects of Emergency Communications | Links: Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Organizations | Volunteering, Legal Aspects and Pitfalls. | 2006, Ham Radio @ SoRo NC. | 2006, Ham Radio @ DONE Congress. | 2007, Ham Radio @ So. Central NC. | 2007, Ham Radio @ SAR City. | 2007, La Mirada Drill. | 2007, Culver City Drill. | Personal Preparedness. | Go-Kit. | Resources: Training for EmComm Operators. | Propagation.  | Antenna Restrictions and EmComm. | Understanding Antennas. | NVIS Antenna. | Unobstrusive Antennas. | Antennas Projects - HF. | Antenna Projects - VHF/UHF. | More Antenna Projects. | Safety and First Aid. | Mobile and Portable Stations. | Emergency Power. | Emergency Alerts. | Favorite Links  

White Paper 

What to Do When the Phone, Cellphone and Internet Fails in a Disaster?

(White Paper)

by Cliff Cheng, Ph.D., KI6CM  

Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project. 


Neighborhood Disaster Preparedness Ambassador. 

Red Cross Disaster Education Leader.


 (c) Cliff Cheng, Ph.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (2006).
commissionercheng@hotmail.com  or   ki6cm@arrl.net



(Please visit: Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/)





This white paper examines the solutions to problem the communications infrastructure failure which will occur after a major disaster.  The telephones, cell phones and internet will not work.  We will be out of communication with our family and potential rescuers. 


A test was done of FRS/GMRS walkie talkies.  The advertised claims of a few to several miles of range could not be verified under everyday conditions.  It was found the FRS had less range than the GMRS.  FRS and GMRS are viable options for communicating within immediate neighborhoods of a few to several blocks.  A recommendation was made neighbors and neighborhood organizations do their own tests under their actual conditions of use.


Citizen’s Band (CB) was found to have technical and operational drawbacks, but may be useful for communicating outside a neighborhood.  The Mulitple Use Radio Service (MURS) is too new a service with too few users which means the price of the equipment was high and the selection is limited.  A recommendation was made that MURS be revisited.  Satellite phones were found to be too expensive. 

Ham radio was found to be technically superior and had a higher cost benefit.  While the entry level Technician license was easily obtained, using the sophisticated ham radios, developing the competencies to be an effective emergency communicator took work most people were unwilling to do. 




(Please visit: Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/)





Full text follows







In September 2005, the power went out here in Los Angeles (LA) during the middle of the workday for several hours.  2 million Angelenos were impacted.  Traffic signals, computers, TVs, non-hardwired telephones, medical equipment did not work.  Commerce in LA came to a grinding halt.  We were told this was the result of a worker at the LA City Department of Water and Power cutting a wrong wire.  In October 2005, the phone and internet service for 150,000 people from Hermosa Beach to Newport Beach to Whittier to Garden Grove went out for 12 hours due to a software glitch (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 19, 2005).  9-1-1 emergency service was not available during this time.  If such mass disruption was caused by a common error what would an earthquake, sabotage, or a terrorist attack do? 


Let us set aside the cause and deal with how we are going to get through to the problem of not being able to communicate.  The problem is not knowing if your children are safe, if your spouse has survived, if your parents are alright?  After a disaster the power to go out, how will you coordinate with your spouse as to who will pick up the children from school?  How do you know if your parents are injured and need your help and 911 when they can not call you? 


You need a method of two-way to communication.  It is not just your cell phone battery will run out and there is no more power coming out of the wall to charge it.  The problem that the cell phone network does not have any power.  They are dependent on the commercial power mains.  Those cell sites which have generators will not operate for long for they require refueling.  In a major disaster fuel trucks may not be available.  If they are available the roads may be impassable or they might get hijacked.  The cell phone industry has successfully lobbied in many jurisdictions to prevent laws from being passed to require them to have a battery back-up and generator system.  They claim it will increase rates (read – cut into their profits). 

There are over 500 cell cites in the LA area.  If the problem is a major earthquake, it will likely have damaged or destroyed the antennas as the buildings they were affixed to were damaged or destroyed.  Most people are unaware that cell phones are dependent on the landlines for all they see is their battery powered cell phone.  When a cell tower receives your signal, it transmits the signal over landline to a central office which switches the signal to a cell tower nearest where you are calling.  In-between the two cell phones, the system depends on commercial power. 


Let us say it was a small to moderate earthquake or it was a disaster which did not disrupt power delivery and the cell phone network.  After a disaster any working means of commercial communication, i.e. cell phones, telephones, internet will be inundated with calls.  Your chances of getting through on a cell phone are not good unless you are cell phone company technician, a high government official key governmental employee or a first responder who have override codes which will let them place a call.  Most people will get busy signals.    


You next try the landline.  If you have a hardwire phone, what does not require an a/c adapter, that phone may work.  However most people have gotten rid of these kinds of phone decades ago.  Cordless and speakerphones will not work for they depend on commercial power mains.  In a major disaster even the hardwire landline will not work. 


Then you try the internet.  Cable, DSL and WiFi will likely not work for they require power.  If the hardwire landline phone works, you might be able to use a dial-up internet connection if you dial into a server located in a place which still has power.  During Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans was being run off a single dial-up connection.  Some of the newest computers do not have a (dial-up telephone) modem.  This is a big mistake.  At this point, most people will be out of solutions.  They are cut-off from police, fire, paramedics, family and friends. 



FRS and GMRS Walkie-Talkies



Some people have bought walkie-talkies as a means to solve their communication problems.  There are two kinds which are commonly available to the average person.   The first kind of walkie-talkie is a family radio service (FRS).  They are relatively inexpensive, about $10 to $20 a pair.  However, if you read the newspaper ads carefully, you may be able to find FRS walkie-talkies on-sale or even free-after-rebate.   FRSs do not require a permit. 


The more advanced version of the FRS called the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).   More recent models of GMRS walkie-talkie include FRS.  If the consumer uses the GMRS on FRS channels (462.5625-467.7125 mhz), then s/he can function under FRS rules, using 500 milliwatts (½ watt) of power.  No permit is required under this use.  


However, if you operate under GMRS rules the in the 462-467mhz band, your walkie talkie will probably put out between 1 to 5 watts with mobile radios putting out up to 50 watts.  If an external antenna is used, it must be no higher than 20 feet off the ground or structure on which the antenna is mounted.  As a GMRS user, you  are required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates telecommunication in the U.S. to have a permit.  At present a GMRS permit costs $80:


These permits are issued for five years and are renewable.  Members of the immediate family of a licensee may operate under the same license.  Those caught engaging in unlicensed transmissions, the fine is $10,000/ per transmission. 


GMRSs are intended to be used by families communicating inside their neighborhood or during recreational activities.  These entry-level radios typically cost about $30 to $60 a pair.  There are GMRS radios which are more expensive and less available to the average consumer, which are capable more power and can use detachable antenna.  For more information on GMRS try these sites (Note - this is not a recommendation or endorsement of these sites or their accuracy).  http://www.provide.net/~prsg/wi-gmrs.htm or http://www.popularwireless.com/gmrsfaqa.html or http://www.commtechreview.net/frsradio/


For product reviews see: http://www.gearreview.com/frsreview98.asp   Note the GMRS radios reviewed are as expensive as more powerful and sophisticated ham radios.    

Some GMRSs have more features, at additional cost.  Having a GPS and weather radio inside your GMRS is very useful in an emergency. 


The range of the more advanced GMRSs, not the walkie-talkies most consumers can buy at a mass discounter or electronics store, can be extended by a repeater, a station located on a mountain top, tower, or high building, which will receive one’s signal, boost the strength by re-transmitting out through an amplifier.  For information on repeaters see - http://www.g-m-r-s.org/  or http://www.provide.net/~prsg/guide.htm

However these repeaters typically require one subscribe and often pay a fee. 



Multiple User Radio Service (MURS).



There is also an option similar to FRS and GMRS called the Multiple User Radio Service (MURS).  It was created in 2000 out of the old Business Radio Service.  MURS is a kind of Citizen’s Band radio on 150mhz.  No licenses are required.  There are no call signs or identification requirements.  MURS is intended for short range business and personal communications. 


MURS has five channels: 151.820, 151.880, 151.940, 154.570, 154.600 MHz.  Voice and data may be transmitted but not images.  MURS is shared use which requires that one listen before transmitting and not cause interference to others. 


The power limit is 2 watts.  Antennas are limited to 20 feet above structure, and no higher than 60 feet above ground, whichever is less.  MURS does not have FRS’s external mobile antenna limitation which means greater range.  MURs may not be used on aircraft but may be used on boats with the Captain’s permission. 


Repeaters are not allowed on MURS.    Phone patches and continuous transmissions are not allowed.  MURS radios must be approved by the FCC. 


MURS is newer which means it is not as popular so the prices for this equipment is higher than FRSs or GMRSs.   MURS radios cost about $100 to $150.  For this reason they were not included in this test.  Be careful not to buy MURS radios which are not FCC type approved. 



Comparison Tests of  FRS and GMRS.



I have tested both FRSs and GMRSs under eight different common conditions: inside a small house, from the inside the top floor of an apartment down two stories to the car port, in a flat neighborhood of mostly apartment and one of houses, in a large warehouse store, its parking lot, and convoying.  


For use as an intercom inside a house, or for talking in-between cars following each other in a convoy both kinds of radios were adequate.   The GMRS provides a stronger signal – as it has more power.  However, the FRS signal as an inside to outside intercom in an apartment building was inadequate.  The signal was all static.  The GMRS was barely adequate. 


At the warehouse store (Home Depot), the FRS had trouble going through one aisle.  The GMRS went through two or three aisles.   In the store parking lot the test was done from one end to the other when the lot was full of cars and trucks.   The FRS could not go the span of about 2 blocks.   The GMRS signal was scratchy but intelligible.


The neighborhood tests were both done in a flat neighborhood that had no hills and in an apartment neighborhood.  The FRS barely reached the front door of a small apartment house when used from the interior of an apartment.  The GMRS got half-a-block when the first station was inside the middle of a small one story house.   This test was repeated on the sidewalk in the middle of a block.   The FRS reached only down the sidewalk half-a-block.  The FRS signal was not strong enough to be heard when the second station was placed on the block immediately behind it.  The GMRS reached one to two open blocks in the apartment neighborhood.   The reached through one house to the house behind it but the signal broke up when the second station was asked to walk across the street of the street-behind the first station. 


There are severe limitations for FRS walkie-talkies.  The range is too short!  They are advertised as having “up to two-miles range.”  The key term is – “up to.”  In an open field or on a boat in the ocean you might get this range.  These real world tests of FRS and GMRS walkie-talkies show their limits.  However if all you need is an inside intercom in your home, convoying with another car, hiking or doing search and rescue in close range, the FRS walkie-talkies may be useful.  The GMRS will give more range. 



FRS and GMRS and Neighborhood Disaster Preparedness. 




Both FRS and GMRS work on line of sight.  That is our two antennas must be able to “see” one another.   A tree, building, or obstacle between us, will diminish if not drown out our signal.   There are neighborhoods and cities such as Topanga or Washington D.C. which use FRS or GMRS as an intraneighborhood disaster communications network. 


Topanga is one of the best prepared neighborhoods in the United States – see www.t-cep.org   Almost every household has a FRS radio in Topanga.   In an emergency they are organized such that neighbors will volunteer and staff relay posts through out the canyon – to overcome FRS’ line-of-sight range limitations.   Most of the canyon is covered.  At the top of each hour Topanga volunteers who staff their own emergency operations center broadcast news which is in-turn relayed via relay stations to particular neighborhoods. 


These relay posts are line-of-sight to one another.  This method is very labor intensive.  If one relay operators does not show up at the appointed time, her/his radio is not functioning, or they key accidentally continuously depress their transmit button, or simply their batteries are dying, the rest of the neighbors who are listening for that relay station to rebroadcast the news from Topanga’s central community command post are out-of-communication.   It also was complicated to set-up this kind of system.  The Topanga system works at the neighborhood level due to a high level of participation.  However neither of these solutions works when families are separated by miles or even several cities or a county or two during the work and school day. 


In Washington D.C., as in Topanga, all residents are encouraged to buy FRSs or GMRSs

www.dcradio.org  In an emergency, all equipped residents are instructed to turn on channel 1 of their walkie talkies, the universal emergency channel - 462.5625 mhz.  There other neighbors with FRSs will listen for each other and communicate about the situation. 


The walkie-talikes are outgrowth of neighborhood email lists.  DC’ers recognize that in a major emergency they will not have internet access or even power to run their computers.  DCERN is very grassroots – created by Bill Adler, N3JAV, a ham and pilot who wanted to create emergency communications for everyone.  There are no government agencies, or even a centralized net control operator.  DCERN drills once a month to make sure everything works. 


DCERN is merging with the National SOS Radio Network founded by

Eric Knight, CEO of Up Aerospace, who is also a ham radio operator, KB1EHE, to plan and link neighborhood FRS/GMRS users to amateur radio operators and their more sophisticated and powerful networks.  Please visit: http://www.nationalsos.com and learn how to set up a neighborhood emergency communications network.  (An anticipated  future blog will address this issue). 


You should be aware that since FRSs and GMRSs are so inexpensive and readily available, that everyone may want to use it when you want to use it.  Trying using your walkie-talkie the next time you go to a major sports event, concert or go skiing or boating and if you think it too busy to then, it will be many times worse after a major disaster.  



Citizen’s Band (CB)



Citizen’s Band (CB) was not included in the study above for it is too technically dissimilar to FRS and GMRS (though legally in the same category).   FRS and GMRS are commonly walkie-talkies.   FRS walkie-talkies typically put out 1/10 or a 1/2 a watt.  Most GMRS walkie-talkies transmit 1 to 2 watts, with the more expensive one transmitting 5 watts.   FRS and GMRS users almost all use walkie-talkies rather than more powerful base stations and external antennas.  CB permits 5 watts, base stations and external antennas.   To get more range, having a higher antenna is more effective than solely focusing on transmitter power. 


FRS and GMRS are on a UHF band which is short-ranged.  CB is on a shortwave band, 26.965-27.405 mhz, which means the signal may skip.  The signal may pass over the more immediate area and bounce off the ionosphere enabling you to hear and talk to others who are further away but not hear and talk to those closer.  CB may not as good a choice for families to use in their neighborhoods or engaged in recreational activities for it is too powerful.  One using a CB for such close distances, will heard further away than intended and will tie up frequencies others could have otherwise used.  


FRS and GMRS transmit in FM.  The signal quality is more “natural” and similar to FM broadcast radio stations.  CB transmits in AM or sideband (SSB).  AM is a relatively inefficient use of both radio spectrum and of power.   SSB even more an efficient use of both radio spectrum and of power than FM.  However, some people find SSB hard to listen to. 


CB does not require a license so long as the CB radio is approved by the FCC and is not modified.  The FCC has no limits on mobile and walkie-talkie CB antennas.  There are limits on base antennas; no higher than 20 off the roof and no higher than a total of 60 feet off the ground. 


CB was popular in the 1970s due to movies such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and Songs like “Convoy.”  Truckers still use it today.  However, CB technology is vastly outdated for most of the CB radios sold today use designs from the 1970s.   These older designed means CB radios have receivers which are very vulnerable to adjacent channel interfere and overload; and often cause interference to other electrical devices. 


CB requires longer antennas which are ackward to carry and drive into parking structures with. 


What is more important is that CB often is a chaotic free-for-all with people intentionally transmitting on top of, if not deliberately jamming one another.  In the 1970s, less so today, CB’ers bought more powerful ham radios and amplifiers, some of them capable of 2,000 watts of power, and illegally had them modified to work on CB.  They did this because when they complied with the legal limit of 5 watts they were being intentionally transmitted over.   This is highly illegal for the FCC requires that each radio service uses only equipment its certifies for use on that band.  There also have been problems with false distress calls on CB. 


These days however, CB has fallen into disuse for the more sophisticated amateur radio service has decreased the requirements and standards of it licensing tests.  However, CB may be appropriate for those who do not have the technical aptitude to become a responsible radio amateur.  Note, if you buy a CB make sure it is a 40 channel one.  The 23 channel models were discontinued after 40 channels were authorized in 1977.  There are ads in the Recycler and on Craigslist selling 23 channel CBs as slightly used. 



Satellite Phones



There is another off-the-shelf option – satellite phones.  The line-of-sight problem is solved by space satellites.  However, satellite phones at present cost around $6,000; more than the value of the cars many people own.  Usage time costs about $10 per minute.  Satellite phones are clearly not an option for almost all individuals.  However there are affluent neighborhood associations which have/are buying satellite phones with their pooled resources.  Even with a satellite phone the basic problem of communicating between citizens is not solved.  If the families that could afford to outfit each member with satellite phones, it is unlikely that each family member will carry these bulky and heavy phones in addition to the cell phone they are probably already carrying. 


Even if one had a satellite phone, it still connects to the telephone system.  That system may either be down or clogged.  If it is working, those you want to call may not have a working phone.  Also keep in mind this is a technology which is behind cell phones in terms of having more dropped calls and bad signal quality. 



Amateur Radio’s Solution



Another solution to the problem of emergency communications is offered by the amateur radio service (ham).   In Westside Village, a community served by Mar Vista Community Council, and Palms-Westside Village Neighborhood Watch, two families, the Josephson-Goodkin, and Procenko families, are comprised of hams.  Immediately after the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, 6.7, both families got on the air and immediately knew their family members were safe. 


To find out more about ham radio visit the website of the Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/, click About Ham Radio. 


Communication Capability


The entry level Technician license, which is what most of the 30 hams in the Goodkin-Josephson family have, is presently structured as a VHF and UHF license.   Techs have privileges to use 17 bands, made up of a range of frequencies.  In contrast, FRS, GMRS, CB and MURS have only one band.  Techs can use up to 1,500 watts of power.  FRSs can use ½ watt.  GMRS walkie talkies are 5 watts with 50 watt mobiles.  CBs have a 5 watt limit.  MURS have 2 watts.  Hams have few antenna restrictions placed by the FCC, while the other services have severe restrictions. 


Techs can be used primarily for short ranged, line-of-sight (plus 15% over horizon) communications.  However through linking repeaters, cross-band repeaters, or the more exotic use of satellites or moon bounce - long range communication may be achieved.  Internet linking of repeaters even affords international communication.  Long range communication may be made through other hams relaying messages.   There is a proposal to give code-free Techs limited high frequency capability. 


On VHF and UHF, ham radio overcomes the limitation of line-of-sight plus 15% over horizon by the use of repeaters.  A repeater is often located on a mountain top or tall building.  (Visit: http://www.scrn.net/  and click Photos to see pictures of repeaters.  Note – these photos are of sites which contain multiple communication uses).   Its receiving antenna is within line-of-sight of hams who are walking around with their have handheld transceivers (the proper name for “walkie-talkies”), driving in their cars with their mobile transceivers or at home at their base stations.   The repeater’s receiver takes that relatively weak signal and then transmits it using a powerful amplifier and antenna thus overcoming the line-of-sight limitation. 


The Los Angeles basin has the highest concentration repeaters in the world http://rptrlist.w6jpl.ampr.org/   The basin is saturated with repeaters.  There is no room for more.  Some are “open repeaters” and may be used by any legally license amateur radio operators – for free.   Some repeaters are “closed,” meaning membership is required.  Membership dues pay for the costs to maintain and operate the repeater.  Any ham willing to pay dues can join.  Other repeaters are “private.”  These repeaters set membership criteria. 


Autopatch is a technology developed by ham radio predating the cellphone.  This technology enables a ham to make a phone call through a repeater.  Autopatch usage requires a membership fee, even on open repeaters.  Not every repeater has this feature.  It is more likely to be a feature of private and closed repeaters. 


Keep in mind, ham radio may not be used for commercial communications.   There are simplex frequencies in which people may have long conversations.  Ham radio is a “party line” so there is no privacy. 


Most repeaters have a battery backup and can run on emergency power.  If they become inoperative during a disaster there are remote control links in place that in some cases will enable operations to be resume without someone physically going to the repeater site and fixing it.  There are ham radio disaster communication organizations which have emergency mobile repeaters, antenna towers on trailers and generators which will be set up in an event of an emergency – usually for use of their members only.   In most cases when there is not official emergency traffic being passed through the repeater, other hams are usually able to send short health and welfare messages.  


Since the code-free Techs license is so easy to get most code-free Techs do not feel comfortable attempting to use more sophisticated equipment.   Code-free techs typically do not buy much more than a handheld(s) transceiver (HT) and/or a mobile radio for 2 meters, the most popular VHF band and for 450mhz (70cm), the most popular UHF band.  A 2 meter handheld can be bought for $100 and up; more for a 450mhz handheld.  The mobile radios start from about $130 and upwards.  Mobile antennas start from about $30 and up.  Extra battery packs and gel cells are a must – in case of a disaster.  (A handout on buying a handheld for disaster communication is available – just email me).   While there is more sophisticated equipment available, in the hands of skilled operator, this equipment is more than adequate for most purposes. 


Getting a License


Almost everyone takes an entry level ham license test passes.  Some people go on line and take the practice exams and pass them without having studied, read a book or taken a class.  Practice exam sites are listed at the website of the Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/, click Practice Ham Exams.  To pass all you only need to get right is 26 questions out of 35. 


The 510 question Tech test bank is broken into sections.  Each section has several question types.  If you learn the correct answer to a question type you can get several questions right.  Teachers who teach-to-the-test have come up with short cuts to all 510 questions.  On July 1, 2006, the test was made even easier.  What frequencies one may legally operate on - is no longer being asked for too many people were missing these questions. 


Many ham teachers organized their class so that you can take a review class in morning, have lunch, take the remainder of the review session, then take the actual exam and have a license by dinner time.   Some teachers break the class into two evenings with the third evening as the exam. 


Teach-to-the-test review sessions typically cost about $300.  There are free ones listed at the website of the Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/, click Ham Radio Classes.  Note that these are not really classes in the sense that they teach only the bare minimum needed to pass-the-test.  Of course one should keep in mind with the minimal knowledge required of a code-free Tech, in an emergency or some other problem arose to make one’s radio inoperable, one will likely lack sufficient knowledge to fix the problem (more on this problem later). 


Once you have taken a class, the next step is to take the exam.  LA area Exam sites are listed at the website of the Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/, click Ham Exams. 


After you pass the exam, you will probably need help getting on the air.  If you took a teach-to-the-test class, you were not taught how to use a radio.  You will need an “Elmer,” a ham who is a good Samaritan.   LA area Exam sites are listed at the website of the Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/, click Elmers. 


Once you have a license, it is good for 10 years.  There are no licensing fees for amateur radio for hams are regarded as a valuable national resource which is important in time of disaster. 






The success the two Westside Village families mentioned earlier had after the Northridge Earthquake can not be duplicated without deliberate effort.  While it is easy to get an entry level license, the serious responsibility of having the privilege to make radio frequency transmissions has not diminished.  The ever increasing sophistication of the technology has only made the responsibility greater.   In times of emergency, the privilege of making transmission is an extreme responsibility.  Ham radio will be the only surviving network.  Government networks will either be down or they will lack inoperability (people can not talk to each other if they are with different agencies).  A ham who is unskilled and inexperienced may sabotage the relief effort by tying up valuable frequencies or interfering with networks involved in the recovery. 


Merely getting a “one-day ham” license will not enable one to be as prepared for the failure in communications infrastructure as the Goodkin-Josephson and Procenko families are.  These families were successful because Norm Goodkin, K6YXH and Jay Procenko, NY6L worked hard to ensure an emergency communications links could be established for their families.  Both Norm and Jay start ham radio in junior high school.  Jay is a radio electronics professional.  They started in an era when 2/3 of test applicants failed.  Not only were the test questions and answers not published, it was a federal crime to divulge what was on the test. 


There was a Morse code requirement as well which was a very important requirement (which we will not get into in a later article).  There also was at the time an entry level license, called the Novice, which has since been eliminated. Experienced hams went out of their way to help Novices who had the purpose of and attitude that they wanted to learn.  Our research shows 37.9% (11) of respondent hams, all code-free Techs, complained that ham radio is “too hard,” “too technical.”  Some even expressed contempt towards learning how a radio works. 


Even if one takes a semester long licensing class, which is highly recommended that class will not be trained to a skill level equal to what Norm, Jay and other hams licensed in the 1970s and before were trained to.  Having published test questions and answers changes forever reduces competency.  People passing ham exams are factually passing vastly easier exams.  Most of them pass by memorizing the answers.  Even though the licenses they have say the same thing as pre-1984 licenses, no responsible emergency management executive should fail to have legitimate concerns about post-1984 hams’ ability to carry out ham radio’s emergency communications purpose. 


Our research shows that in a “Sample Neighborhood” in LA City, 55% (13) of respondents, all code-free Techs and 2 Generals, stated that they “did not know how to use their radio.”  They wanted ham radio to be “easy to use as a cell phone.”  It is very important when considering the ham radio option to know that ham radio is not a back-up 9-1-1 cell phone.  Many have made this mistake as our research indicates.  Typically, they have obtained an easy to get in one-day Tech license.  They bought a radio.  They were unable to program it.  No one taught them how top use a radio for they signed up for a teach-to-the-test class.  They passed.  Because they regard ham radio as an appliance, as some sort of cell phone, they never posses the technical aptitude that a competent and responsible radio amateur has.  They were not willing to learn what it takes to become competent and responsible.  They radio they spent $300 on sits in the drawer.  Even if the ham store salesperson programmed it for them, leaving it in the drawer will likely result in a battery malfunction and forgetting how to use the radio.  Even if these problems were overcome, such a person will not know what frequencies to use.  It is likely that if they got on a frequency being used for emergency operations, they will interfere with others.  Remember in such a scenario, ham radio is the only means of communication left. 


In an emergency, Murphy’s law is applicable, everything that can go wrong will.  It is doubtful these 13 hams can fix what goes wrong and improvise a communications solution.  In non-emergency times, these hams are dependent on ham radio store salesmen.  Not only will these stores be closed in a major disaster, they will likely be looted and burn.  They may not reopen for the ham market in LA is shrinking.  870 hams a year in LA die, move or do not renew their licenses. 


However, the clock can not be turned back.  We must rebuild with the human resources we have.  It is possible, but rare that someone will have the initiative to learn what they need to be able to independently establish a communications link when the equipment and resources they need are destroyed, damaged and in need to field repair.  The first step is to take a semester long licensing class, which can be found on the website of the Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/, click Ham Exams.  This class is only a starting point.  After one gets a license, follow the links on the

Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project’s site to develop and maintain competency. 






The problem of what to do when your cellphone, phone and internet fails after a major disaster must be addressed before hand.  Depending on your daily communications providers is shortsighted for in a major disaster they will be out of service.  FRS/GMRS walkie talkies have limited range – and usefulness.  They should be tested to see if they are sufficient for intraneighborhood communications.  If so, they may be sufficient to call for help inside your immediate neighborhood.  MURS does bear watching for eventually the prices will decreases and their will be greater availability and selection.   CB may be a free-for-all but it is still worthwhile to test to see if it is viable for interneighborhood communications.  Satellite phones are too expensive and feed into the phone system which may be overloaded or down.  Ham radio is a viable option so long as one is willing to develop and maintain the knowledge, skills and abilities required to become a proficient emergency communicator.  For neighborhoods, having a combination of FRS/GMRS which work with a neighbor ham is a viable option (which will be explored in a future blog).  Or, if no neighborhood ham can be found, then CB may be a possibility.  With emergency communications, one should have multiple options.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! 


If you like the entry level amateur radio license, the Technician as a solution to the problem of communicating after a major disaster, keep in mind this solution should only be undertaken by those willing to develop and maintain the knowledge, skills and abilities required to be an effective emergency communicator.  The Tech license test has been vastly watered down so it is no more difficult than a driver’s license test.  This solution is not just a personal one for yourself and your family, once you have a license and a radio, you can if you care to, become a neighborhood resource, for there are not as many hams as needed in a major disaster.  If you are a ham, you will be expected to, but not required, by the government and relief agencies, Red Cross, Salvation Army, hospitals, and your neighbors….to assist in  disaster recovery. 




Action Steps



1.         Get, if you do not have one, a hardwire phone which works without an a/c adapter. 


2.         Get dial-up internet access account from an internet service provider (ISP) which has servers located in multiple faraway locations that will not likely be effected by the same disaster as we are. 


3.         Get, if you do not have one, a dial-up modem for your computer.  Make sure it is working properly. 


4.         Know what the dial-up connection numbers are in different areas . 


5a.       Buy and learn how to use a FRS or GMRS radio.  Have one with each disaster preparedness kits.  Get a GRMS license.  For more info see - http://nerp.myeweb.net/. 



5b.       Obtain an amateur radio license either by either: a) taking practice exams (see above) and taking and passing the test, b)  taking a teach-to-the-test class and taking and passing the exam, c) taking a fundamentals class and then taking and passing the exam.  Purchase and install necessary equipment.   Join a ham radio emergency communications organization and learn how to use your license and equipment in an emergency (see: http://nerp.myeweb.net/. 



 (Please visit: Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/)



Cliff Cheng, Ph.D., KI6CM .  (Ph.D., Policy and Organization, University of Southern California).   As management professor, Dr. Cheng has taught at the University of California Irvine, University of Southern California, and University of California Los Angeles, teaching at every level from undergraduates, to MBAs, doctoral students, to executive programs.   As scholar, Dr. Cheng has published and/or presented over 140 papers.  His colleagues selected him as Ascendant Scholar, elected him to leadership posts in the Academy of Management, and appointed him to the editorial boards of five scholarly journals.  As consultants he has served a wide range of organizations from the start-ups, government, non-profits, and Fortune 100 companies.  He has served as advisor to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission.  He served in a policy maker as Los Angeles City Human Relations Commissioner.  He routinely applies his background to volunteer organizations and their problems with motivation, group dynamics, organizational culture, and leadership. 


Disaster preparation was taught to Dr. Cheng at an early age.   In elementary school he took part in the LA (City) Fire Department’s Junior Fire Department program and learned fire safety.   Later he participated in the Auto Club’s School Safety Patrol program.  In junior high school he earned an amateur radio license and has since done community service with the LA County Disaster Communications Service (DCS) and then Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) providing communications during emergencies.   He holds the advanced class license KI6CM.  He has served as President of five amateur radio clubs.  He is a lifetime member of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and served as its Assistant Director in its Southwest Division.   He also holds life membership in the Quarter Century Wireless Association (QCWA).  He is also an accredited Volunteer Examiner (VE) who gives amateur radio licensing examinations.  He is Chairman of the Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project, a nonprofit educational internet resource which teaches neighbors and neighborhood leaders how to prepare for the failure in communications infrastructure failure after a major disaster, http://nerp.myeweb.net/. 


Dr. Cheng has also taken several emergency management courses through the Emergency Management Institute of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and disaster relief courses from the American Red Cross.  Dr. Cheng graduated from the Neighborhood Disaster Preparedness Ambassador program offered by the LA City Emergency Preparedness Department and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the Red Cross’ Community Disaster Education leaders’ program, LA (City) Fire Department’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training program, and the Community Police Academy offered by the Los Angeles Police Department.   Dr. Cheng helped form the Palms Neighborhood Council, as well as the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Congress (LANCC).  He serves as President of the Palms-Westside Neighborhood Watch (14A27) which serves 40,000 people with public safety education, including disaster preparedness.   commissionercheng@hotmail.com or ki6cm@arrl.net  


Disaster Preparedness Blog

by Cliff Cheng, Ph.D., KI6CM 

Chaimanr, Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project


Neighborhood Disaster Preparedness Ambassador

Red Cross Disaster Education Leader.


(c) Cliff Cheng, Ph.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (2006).


(Please visit: Neighborhood Emergency Radio Project http://nerp.myeweb.net/)