2. Personal-Safety Radio: The Overall Picture

If you follow this series of P-S Radio articles to the end and adopt its suggestions, what should you expect to achieve?  Let’s look at a typical situation.  Ignore any terms you don’t understand, because they will all be explained later in the series. 

Suppose you live on a hilltop with limited road access, or in a canyon, or in any area with limited access.  You will have spent about $60 on a cigarette-pack-size two-way radio transceiver (called an HT, for Handheld Transceiver) and accessories.  Next, you spent an hour or two learning how to operate it, because every model is a little different.  That was no problem, though, because you had already reviewed some radio basics for your license exam (which was surprisingly easy, mostly common-sense stuff and learning a few new terms – and no Morse code).    

The HT has internal batteries; but unless you are carrying it with you it remains always on a shelf, plugged into house power.  Anytime there is any suggestion of emergency conditions (hot weather, high winds, fire warning, flood warning, etc) it is left switched on; it could even be left on all the time.  It will usually be silent, because the squelch control will be set to keep the sound off unless there is a signal coming in; but if there is a signal, the volume is left fairly loud so you can hear the voice anywhere in the house. 

That HT remains set to your area-specific channel, assigned according to your general location and posted on a local notice board and in the newspaper.  There was only one bit of organizational activity you needed, and it did not even require leaving home — just tuning in to one “radio ranging event”.   Those events were posted and published locally so everyone in the area in knew in advance, because the more radios on the air at once, the greater the success.  Its purpose was to see how many could connect on that frequency and how far a message could be passed.  The whole exercise took under half an hour, and it was another way to get to know your neighbors, those who might be in the same situation as you in case of a disaster of any kind. 

You find that the HT is really a local resource.  Anyone transmitting on theirs will have you in their audience; it is actually broadcasting, in a way cellphones and the internet cannot really do easily.  Once in a while you hear a notice about an expected power shutoff in your area, so you know to keep the freezer shut.  Another time a neighbor down the road beyond cell service suddenly had the wires cut by a falling tree – she radioed for someone to call her husband in town and tell him not to worry, but bring batteries.  In January a washout near the 4-mile point on the road isolated 5 homes beyond it, but the whole area heard about that via the HT and soon notified the authorities. 

But the real reason you got the radio in the first place, preparing for a life-threatening disaster, suddenly becomes real.  There was a warning in the afternoon about fire danger.  Suddenly a voice on your HT wakes you from a sound sleep to say there is smoke drifting down the canyon and fire appearing in inaccessible spots on the hillside.  It is time to flee.

This scenario is not in any way unreal.  We have a multitude of such areas in Napa County.  Imagine the difficulty of spreading an alarm by phone and by knocking on doors.  With the HT, everyone gets the message at once, can answer, and then leave — so no time is wasted sending resources to the wrong places, and those at most risk can get out of harm’s way sooner.  Another advantage is that the area HT network is sufficiently local that alarms are not being passed where they are not needed.  If a repeater channel is used (see below), the alarm goes all over the County, and that might cause new problems of confusion and panic. 

In better times, it turns out that your HT has some other uses.  Radio hams use repeaters to get much wider coverage from their small radios.  Repeaters are located on high exposed spots, visible by near line of sight from far away; so they are in a good position to both hear and be heard by transceivers that are down in the valley.  They operate automatically and repeat what they hear (using separate channels).  If you do want to contact someone way outside your area with no cell coverage, using a repeater is the way to do it, and repeater access is usually freely available to everyone.  But given their isolated positions, they may fail in times of disaster.

Also, you are free to use any of the other 20 or so 2-meter channels available, in case you would like to arrange conversations with a friend within a few miles – such as on hikes in the hills or anywhere else with no cell coverage.  The more you use your HT, the more uses you will find for it!


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