Ham Radio Communication and Horses
- May 4, 2006
To successfully manage and recover from terrorist attacks, medical emergencies, accidents, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, floods, blizzards, etc., reliable communications are absolutely necessary. A relatively simple way to vastly increase your communication potential during emergency circumstances--as well as during normal day-to-day horse activities--is through amateur radio, also known as "ham" radio.
On the trail with "Junior" and keeping in touch.
The entry cost is small, the effort is minimal, and the rewards are great. You can add more fun and safety to those long rides (especially when by yourself), trailering, horse camping, in your car, or at home. No matter where you are, the time of day, weather, etc., you will be able to communicate with other people locally, across the country, or around the world. You might even be able to chat with an astronaut in space (many astronauts have their ham license).
Following are some tips on how to get started.
Means of Communications
Cell Phones: Most of us have cell phones and know what a blessing they can be when we need them. We also know there are many times when cell phones don't work, especially when we are away from populated areas or interstate highways. It seems this is especially true under emergency conditions when we need to report an accident or injury. Few sensations are worse than the hollow feeling in your stomach when you need to report an emergency and there is no cell phone reception or all circuits are busy. Also, cell phones are tethered to a monthly bill. Amateur radio has no billing department or minutes to count.
Citizens band (CB) radio CB has its place, but the allotted frequencies, necessary equipment, and power limitations make it a cumbersome tool for horse owners. Furthermore, the language, behavior, and content of CB messages leaves a lot to be desired, especially around the family. Sharing a small number of "channels" with thousands of other people doesn't help the communication picture, either. No special license is required, but the usefulness of a CB is limited.
Along Comes Amateur Radio
Amateur radio is a broad term for our government (and the governments of most foreign countries) allowing citizens to use various portions of the radio spectrum. The government issues licenses to qualifying people. Governments regulate the use of the radio spectrum allocations. These regulations include conduct over the air, types of transmissions, and power levels. Amateur radio operators in the United States receive their licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
"Junior's" opinion of Morse code. He doesn't know the entry level license does not require the code.
Mike Fonda Photos
To be issued the license, the applicant must pass a written test. The FCC then issues the individual a "call sign." This call sign is a unique group of letters and a number that identifies you, your country, and the part of the country you lived in at the time of licensing.
Our government calls amateur radio a "service," and for good reason.
Amateur radio is a service to others, especially in time of need. Even new licensees can offer their services when there is an emergency. Amateur operators are always there to donate their time and expertise to their community and country when necessary.
The radio waves upon which amateurs communicate come in all sizes. There are the 550-foot-long radio waves that roll along the ground like barrels off the back of a truck. There are shorter radio waves that not only "roll" along the ground, but "bounce" off the Earth's atmosphere. There are tiny radio waves (cell phones use these) that usually travel in a straight line and can be blocked or reflected by objects they hit. All of these radio waves travel at about the speed of light.
The advantage you will have with your amateur license is that even at the entry level, you will be able to use many of these different portions of the radio spectrum. This privilege is not available to the general public. This opens up a whole new world of communication options that can be invaluable in an emergency, and a fascinating hobby under normal conditions.
As those different-sized radio waves have different characteristics, so do their uses. The smaller radio waves are a natural for handie-talkies (HTs), the horse owner's best friend.
HTs and their antennas are small. Much of the time HT messages are relayed through "repeaters" (more on this later) to increase the range of the transmission. At other times HTs are used to talk directly to another ham operator with an HT. Most HT communications are voice-type transmissions.
The longer radio waves are great for long distance as well as some local communications. The equipment is somewhat larger and requires more power. Because this type of gear uses longer radio waves, longer antennas are needed. This pretty much rules out using this type of gear from the back of your horse, although many hams pack this type of gear into remote locations and enjoy the subsequent communication with other hams around the world. Many hams use this type of gear in their cars, trucks, planes, and boats.
There are some times when wireless communication is disrupted by nature. Solar storms can disrupt even commercial and military communications. But there are other times when nature smiles on us and just a few watts of power can result in communication over a many, many miles, with no long distance charges!What are Repeaters?
Repeaters are electronic devices, often powered by batteries and solar power, that are placed atop peaks or high structures. These repeaters pick up your transmitted signal and relay it over long distances. Those listening do the same. Sometimes, repeaters are "linked" together to cover great distances. Some repeaters provide a connection that allows you to communicate across the country or abroad.
There are thousands of these repeaters scattered across the country and around the world. Their frequencies and other pertinent information can be found in books known as "repeater guides" and on the Internet. Most repeaters are free for the public to use.
For Horse Owners?
Don't throw away that cell phone yet! You can still use it for business (business calls are not allowed over amateur radio) and routine phone conversations. But with an amateur radio license, you and your family (kids, too) will have more communications options.
Considering disasters and how our families and animals would fare, an entry level amateur license (called the "Technician" license) is invaluable. This license will allow you to operate in portions of the amateur bands that allow for direct amateur to amateur contacts as well as contacts via "repeaters." This is most often done with those easy-to-use and inexpensive HTs mentioned earlier. Many repeaters have what is called an "autopatch." This allows you to make local phone calls through your HT, even to non-amateurs (this is legal). This option makes a good thing even better.
The obvious top benefit is while on rides, you have an increased safety net. Even more important is that during emergencies, you have communication with other licensed amateurs. You can also chat your heart out during non-emergency conditions.
A mobile unit in your vehicle allows for more power than an HT. Having the amateur radio allows you extra security for those long trailer trips in the event of breakdown or accident. Running off the vehicle battery, you need not worry about power outages associated with disasters. If many or all of the family members (kids, too) are licensed, your family's security increases even more.
Since amateur equipment has been miniaturized like most other electronic equipment, an HT with a freshly charged battery can be a wonderful companion on the trail, especially when riding by yourself. In case of injury or other emergency, there is usually another amateur monitoring the local repeater. Even if you are using the Internet link and chatting with someone across country, you will find amateurs to be helpful no matter where they are located. (I know of one ham operator that reported an avalanche in Alaska via a ham in Panama)
Most of the newer HTs are of very rugged construction (some are advertised as being submersible) and can really take a beating under trail conditions. A simple HT works very well; a more sophisticated unit even better.
There are emergency "nets" in amateur radio. A "net" is made up of a group of amateurs who meet regularly on the air for various reasons. Emergency "nets" go into action during and after a disaster to provide communication for amateurs and the public. The nets provide up-to-date information, welfare checks, and general communication in and out of the disaster area. These nets have proven themselves during Katrina, 911, tornadoes, fires, floods, earthquakes, and other calamities.
Many of these nets work directly with local law enforcement or other public agencies. Some nets are made of specially trained members who are affiliated with groups such as The Salvation Army or other charities. They are all there to serve the public in time of need. Belonging to a net is an option that is available to any amateur operator, even those at the entry level.
What Do You Have To Do?
A little work is all that is necessary. Any citizen can become licensed to operate a ham radio. There is no age minimum or maximum. Ham radio is really great for retired and handicapped individuals. The study guides and materials are readily available. Men, women, and children can all be taught. (I have taught licensing classes to kids, including two sharp third graders.) If no classes are available in your area, the necessary material can be learned at your own pace via written materials and/or the Internet.
Study materials are available through the "Amateur Radio Relay League" (ARRL.org) and several other groups. Sample tests can be found on the Internet. Amateur radio supply stores carry these materials, and the hams that work there will be more than happy to help you select the right package.
Some supermarket magazine displays include amateur radio publications. These are good to browse through for further information. A search under "amateur radio" on Internet will bring up many sources and give you an idea of where to start. Try "hello-radio.org" for even more information. There is also a "Dummy" series paperback entitled Ham Radio For Dummies.
The entry level "technician" license is designed for the newcomer. You do not have to be an electronics guru to pass this test. Just be sure the publication is current as the FCC changes the question pool from time to time.
The tests are given by a select group of amateurs called "VEs" or volunteer examiners. Working under the supervision of the FCC, these VEs are found all over our country and administer the test many times during the year. The best way to locate your nearest VE is to check with a local amateur operator, call an amateur radio supply store, or check with ARRL.org or hello-radio.org.
The VE will give you the current written quiz for a few dollars to cover costs. Otherwise, there is no charge for the Technician entry level license, and it is good for 10 years before it has to be renewed. You make take the test as often as the VEs will give it. In today's electronic filing world, you will be allowed on the air shortly after passing the test.
Licensed; Now What?
With your new license, you are now ready to operate on the air. Start out small with a HT that covers ham bands popular in your area (the ham radio stores are a big help here). If you decide to upgrade your equipment later, there is a huge variety to select from. Remember, most of the HTs are very small (some actually the size of a credit card) and easy to clip to your belt when on a ride. You will find that beginners are welcomed over the air. Don't be afraid to make a mistake! We all have! You will be "coached" regarding protocol, etc., and in no time sound like an "old salt."
There is more to amateur radio than an HT, although it's not required. Don't forget that even with an entry level license, radio gear is available that allows you to communicate all over the world in many different ways. There are satellite communications (some available to HT users), high-frequency communications (allowing for longer distance communications), the new digital voice mode, printed text digital modes (usually using a computer, often a laptop), Morse code, amateur television, remote control of a station, GPS-involved amateur communication, Internet-assisted communications, remote control of hobby aircraft and boats, and even "moon bounce" (radio waves are "bounced" or reflected off the moon for long distance communication). There is something for almost any interest.
You can operate 24/7 from your horse, horse vehicle, campsite, motorcycle, bicycle, boat (ham radio has helped during pirate attacks at sea), airplane (not commercial flights), or on foot. Some chat while jogging or walking the dog. Battery power (perhaps with solar panels for recharging) makes it feasible. Remember, there is an excellent chance that if you need help, it is a close as the microphone.
Mention "Morse Code" and many people feel faint. Even among ham operators, the need for the code is a hot subject. Several countries have dropped the code as a requirement for any ham license. The code requirement in this country for the more advanced licenses has been reduced. There is no code requirement for the entry level license. You can use a huge chunk of the radio spectrum at the Technician level. Some people go no further.
Basically, the code has an advantage over any other form of communication in that it requires very simple equipment and is very effective. But, the code takes extra effort to learn and relies greatly on operator skill. Some people (kids especially) pick it up faster than others.
Again, you do not have to worry about the code for your entry level license. Down the road you might be interested; one thing at a time. Get the written test out of the way, and worry about the code later. For emergency preparedness, it is not an issue.
The Ultimate Disaster Kit
Include better communication in your disaster kit. In anticipation of an emergency, we keep the trailer and tow vehicle in good condition. We make sure we always have extra feed, water, lead ropes, halters, and a first aid kit. Our family and neighbors know emergency routes and procedures that will insure our survival. When you make amateur radio part of this plan, you will greatly increase your ability to handle emergency situations. As a giant bonus, you can have a lot of fun. I hope to hear you on the air.
Editor's Note: Michael Fonda has had an amateur radio license (WA6JJM) for 47 years. He normally works CW (Morse code) on several amateur bands. He has taught amateur radio licensing courses to adults and licensed about 30 elementary school children. He currently owns two mustangs and one fine Prunty Ranch pinto gelding. He usually trains and rides western daily. His license has been invaluable during earthquakes, fires, and severe storms in the Southern California mountains and deserts. You may contact the author at: email@example.com.
About the Author
POLL: Managing Working Horses