I want to start off and say that I am not a prepper. If the end of the world were to arrive, I would not be prepared. If a natural disaster were to occur in my area, I could probably handle that. I do not stockpile or panic buy. I have enough supplies for about a week, which is normal for me since I don’t like to go shopping. I do not have a “go bag” or anything similar. I have my normal stuff and that is how it works. All of the “off-the-grid” things I do is to be more environmentally friendly or as an experiment to see what is possible. When I selected my amateur radio equipment, I picked it based off features and not off what would happen when I’m surrounded by zombies or whatever else. I use a Yaesu FT3DR for my HT, an FTM-400XDR for mobile, and an FT-991A for my base station. These are not rugged, backpacking style radios.
Recent events with COVID-19 has had me thinking about emergency preparedness. Looking at it from an objective standpoint, amateur radio doesn’t really serve much of a purpose now, outside of testing equipment. I know that I have a bunch of people ready to send me angry tweets and comments, but I will explain my thoughts as we go. I did say it doesn’t serve a purpose now, and I truly mean now. This could change in the future, but right now, we still have power, running water, and communications. It is best that we stay at home and follow social distancing policies rather than getting in the way with what we think is helping. Staying at home is helping, but there are things you can do. Watching Julian’s videos (OH8STN) demonstrates many aspects of emergency preparedness that are vital. Yes, he does talk about amateur radio, but he also talks about other aspects that are important. When I was learning the menu items and how to program a radio I had, I stumbled across a YouTube channel, which I will not name, that made the following comment. “When your life is on the line, when you are in a flash flood, when there is an earthquake, when you are holding onto a tree…” The comment continues from there. In all of those situations, there are things much more important than knowing how to operate a radio.
The Purpose of Radio
As I said before, radio isn’t important now, and I really mean now. We still have powers, water, and our communications infrastructure. This could obviously change. For now, your average radio operator would just be getting in the way. The best thing we can do is to practice social distancing. I know it seems like we aren’t helping, but we are. We are slowing the spread and allowing health care professionals to do their job.
So what can we do? That is easy. Test your equipment. In my post about my first POTA activation, I showed many of the flaws in my equipment setup. Those have been corrected. I still need to do another run to check for more holes. Right now, the trucks are running and your favorite ham radio supplier is still shipping items. This is the time to order anything you may need. Then, do another run to check for holes. Once you think your equipment is ready, practice setting up and tearing down your equipment. How are you going to transport equipment if you have to leave your house? Does your radio take a spot for another piece of vital equipment? I operate an FT-991A, which isn’t the most portable radio, but I don’t have to take a tuner or sound card for digital operations. I can also operate on HF, VHF, and UHF from the same radio. On the downside, if my touchscreen gets damaged, my radio will no longer function. This leads into the next topic.
What do you need from your radio?
As stated above, I operate an FT-991A. This is a “shack in a box” radio, meaning I don’t need a bunch of extra equipment like a sound card or tuner. Let’s step back and take an objective look. Do you run a resonate antenna? If yes, then you do not need a tuner. Do you need multiple bands? If no, you don’t need a tuner, given your antenna is resonate for the band you with to operate. Do you plan to operate digital or packet radio? If no, you do not need a sound card. Do you need to operate on VHF/UHF? If no, you don’t need a radio that can do everything. Do you need 100 W? If no, you can do with a QRP radio. Right there, I just slimmed down your radio and made the FT-991A useless. Originally, I planned to get an Icom IC-7300 but went with the FT-991A instead because it include VHF/UHF. This may not be necessary.
Using the above criteria, I would need a radio like the FT-991A. I would not want to compromise. If weight was an issue, I would slim down to something like the FT-891. Why the FT-891? Having 100 W is important to me. I do not have enough experience to operate QRP. I also like having a screen that I can read. I could operate with a resonate antenna, like a SOTABeams antenna. I would drop digital modes as I don’t know how to use many of the digital modes that are common for emergency communications, though I would like to learn them. There are compromises that you have to decide on. What is important? Right now, full features are important. Again, that could change.
Yes, VHF/UHF are important. Much of the communication happening is happening local. You will need to talk to people across town, which is done on VHF/UHF, possible through a repeater. Back to the previous example. I use an FT3DR for my HT. I have this HT because it does VHF and UHF (there are radios that are mono band), split modes, APRS, and can be used as a packet radio. Asking questions about the functions. Do you need APRS? Do you need dual bands? Do you need VHF/UHF packet functions? These are practical questions. When providing communications for an event, having APRS is important but may not be in emergency communications. *RANT* For some reason, Fort Wayne is a deadzone for APRS. We have one digipeater on the north end of town and one receive only iGate on the south end of town. APRS function is limited. Why, in a city of 200,000+ people, do you not have a better infrastructure for APRS? *END* Let’s say none of those functions are important, having a rugged radio would be a better option. Yaesu’s VX series is a good example of a rugged radio. The VX-6R does 2 m/ 1.25 m/70 cm and is water resistant and dust resistant. This would be a better radio.
Looking at a mobile radio, I use an FTM-400XDR. This is a full function mobile radio. A lot of operators use this as their VHF/UHF shack radio, which is awesome because it is a sick radio. Is this the best option for emergency communications? I would argue that out of all my radios, this probably has the best feature for emergency communications in cross-band repeat. Cross-band repeat allows you to talk into the radio on a UHF frequency and the radio will repeat it back out on your Band A frequency. You can park your car on a hill and have it rebroadcast your signal out, eliminating the difficulties associated with VHF/UHF.
The Ideal Radio
Julian, OH8STN, made an amazing comment when talking about the FT-818. I suggest you watch his video over the FT-818. The comment I’m focused on is when he talks about how companies do not take into account how radios will be used when designing them. I couldn’t agree with this statement more. While I’m not a prepper, there are features that I feel radios should have and manufacturers drop the ball when including these features. Look at the FT-818. It could have been the perfect radio.
Let me design the FT-819. While I’m not a massive QRP fan, I understand that less power means having more available time to operate. First, replace the battery with a lithium ion battery. Have you seen the size of the battery in the FT-818? It is a unit of a battery. Compare that to my cell phone battery, which is slim and double the capacity of the FT-818 battery. This is an easy fix. The battery exists to do all of this. “This will increase the price.” The radio is already expensive for what it offers. What is $50 or $100 extra to add a killer feature? How about the option to charge this battery using a USB battery bank? How about adding an antenna tuner to the FT-891? While I’m talking about this, Icom went and did it. The IC-705, while expensive, is a killer radio. Imagine the IC-7300 but QRP and with VHF/UHF. No compromise. I know they don’t have 100% identical features, but the only downside to the IC-705 is the price. At the same time, you can’t get a Rolls Royce for the price of a Ford Fiesta. The IC-705 is the perfect QRP radio. Yes, I did say perfect. Small, lightweight, full featured, and beautiful. Let’s be honest, if you have to look at this thing all day, you at least want it to look good.
What about a portable radio? It already exists. Yaesu had the VX-8DR. What did they replace it with? The VX-6R, a shameful radio. The VX-8DR was a full featured radio that did everything and was rugged. The VX-6R does 1.25 m and drops APRS. I understand there is a dedicated group of people that operate on 1.25 m, but those same people can also operate on 2 m and 70 cm. On the other hand, there are lots of people that can’t operate on 1.25 m. I, for example, don’t have a radio that can. I also have no desire to. We only have one repeater in town that operates on 1.25 m. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. The VX-6R could be a good radio. How? Add the ability to charge over USB. I would sell my FT3DR for an FT4DR if it could charge over USB. Same with the FT-70DR, my wife’s radio. The FT-70DR is one of the best radios that Yaesu makes. Why am I obsessed with USB charging? Because everything does it. There are USB chargers everywhere. I have a USB charger in my car. A car that doesn’t even have electric locks. I also carry a battery bank with me everywhere. It is 21,000 mAh, enough to charge the FT3DR battery around 9-10 times. Because this cannot be done, I carry around 2 FT3DR batteries and the optional accessory that allows me to function off AAA batteries, which can be charged using USB but limited the radio to low power. Hold on one moment. Does the IC-705 do VHF/UHF? Yes, it does. Just buy that.
For a mobile radio, make the FTM-400XDR from gold. It is already a good radio so having it in gold is the ultimate flex. The complaints I have about it have been explained in a previous post. Most of those do not ruin the emergency communications function of the radio, like having the speaker on the body rather than the head unit. Or having the mic plug into the body rather than the head unit.
While I’m not a prepper, communications is important. During the current stage of COVID-19, amateur radio operators are not important. This can change. Right now, it is important that we identify flaws in our equipment and move to correct those, so if the time comes, we are ready to go. Test your equipment. Practice setting up and tearing down your equipment. Familiarize yourself with the features and functions. This way you will be prepared, if the time comes. COVID-19 did a really good job of reminding us that threats are always looming. Diseases are slow moving and take their time, giving us more time to prepare. Not panicking, like the toilet paper buyers did, is priority. Keep a level head. Focus on the basics. Keep yourself healthy. Stay in good physical shape, so if there is an earthquake, or a flash flood, or you are stuck in a tree, that you will remember what power setting your radio is in, I mean so you can best handle the situation that you are in. You cannot operate your radio if you aren’t capable of overcoming the situation you are in.
Thank you for reading. I enjoyed writing this post as I feel it points out the flaws in the thinking of many radio preppers but also flaws in how our equipment isn’t designed to handle many of these situations. I would like to urge everyone to ask their favorite radio manufacturer to design a radio that is useful outside of their shack. Field day is a massive event for the amateur radio community. Why not have a radio that can handle it?