Identifying Equipment Requirements

toomanyradiosAs with firearms, all too often Survivalists/Militia folks have a hard time separating what they need from what they want, or try to cover way too many bases, resulting in cutting off the nose in spite of the face. Communications are no different. Do you think the guy in the picture is effective with all this? (I know it’s meant to be a joke, but we all know THAT guy.)

For those who’ve been in the game a while, a few questions always seem to come up among new folks, along with the most common answer:

  1. How much range will I get with this? Well, that depends.
  2. I like the looks of this one radio- Can I do everything I want to do with this? Well, that depends.
  3. Once I buy this, is it all I’ll ever need? Well…that depends.

I get it. We’re all human, this stuff can get expensive in a hurry, and like most of y’all reading there’s little disposable income every month. After all, time is short, and getting shorter, and there’s more to building a resilient (or as resilient as possible) infrastructure than just communications.

Taking the Group Approach

Count all the things this guy is doing wrong. He is in severe need of guidance, as likely is his group. Don’t be this guy, he’s going to get himself and others killed.

Lone wolves die; they’ve been cast from the fold for a variety of reasons- they’re old, sick, or challenged authority and lost. As pack hunters, and humans are as well, the loner cannot last long. If you’ve not at least on some level networked with other like-minded folk, you’re woefully behind, Shirley. Each person brings a skill to the table, and the more versatile the skillset, the better. This does not however mean anyone is specialized, because after all we know that’s for insects. As the signal guy, or at least learning to be the signal guy, the first mission is recognizing what the individual requirements are and build your way up to regional and further. Once done, get your folks together at your meetings/training sessions/beerfests and go over what those are. Communications needs are different for just the group of Survivalists trying to make it through unpleasant times versus the Militia group planning to work in the Light Infantry paradigm. A resilient community must be established before anyone thinks about writing a Patrol OPORD. That being said, in this sequence:

  • Take out a map and plot where each of you live. map.jpegThe first requirement is communications between group members at their locations. Figure out how far the distance between your points are, and identify what may work best for your needs. This includes what equipment is required, what the minimum power levels are to maintain communications, and what possible alternates exist if need be. Hopefully your group is within a half hour of each other, possibly allowing use of Line of Sight communications without the use of a repeater. The person at the highest point should serve as net control or the primary relay. If you’re extremely close, you may get away with running license-free stuff, although I don’t recommend it as your sole means to communicate.  Check this post out from a while ago.
  • Standardize your equipment. This is a critical requirement for a couple of reasons. First, if everyone is running the same piece of equipment, it becomes a known quantity. For radios, everyone over time becomes familiar with all of the basic controls and know their functions. They’ll know and recognize when it’s malfunctioning, and repairing equipment off of one set standard is pretty simple. With HTs, battery commonality is an issue. Being able to build a common charger rack and stocking up on extra batteries is smart, and also enables you to stock caches simpler than if the group is using 12 different types of stuff. Most of this is the same for weapons and ammo.
  • Figure out what you need to maximize your capability. When establishing a relay network, as the designated signal guy, you now become the net control or at least you’re teaching the guy on the high ground how to fill that role. Signals come in from group members, and signals go out from you. Ideally,they’ll want Yagi antennas pointed towards net control, with you having a omni-directional antenna such as a 292 groundplane or a J-pole. Doing this, your group will minimize it’s signature using directional communications, but most importantly you’ll efficiently transmit, allowing for lower power consumption. If you’re new, QRP can have a steep but rewarding learning curve. Running kit in the field is also very different than doing it in the shack, and doing it in a tactical environment, more akin to SOTA activations, is nothing like the annual ARRL Field Day. Like any other skill, to be most effective you have to get out and do it to remain proficient.
  • Get on the air. Your group should hold practice nets every so often, it’s the only way you’ll know if your equipment works. Things often happen without you knowing it; feedlines crack, water gets in them, switches go bad, etc.  If you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, do like every other normal person does and call it “My XXXX local simplex net”.
  • Identify Personnel Roles. Not everyone needs a radio on a patrol, but should be proficient in its use. Not everyone needs to patrol either, but should be able to stand in the gap if need be. You serve a purpose inside your group, and your gear does too. If you’re looking to be in the field as an RTO, you need to study up on QRP, read about the options out there, make a selection and get to work. If that doesn’t interest you, and in the meantime you’re interested in just being a Ham till the good ‘ol bad days get here, obtaining a 100w set will be more your flavor, along with a setup more suited to a TOC or BDOC. Just know…should the grid become more 3rd worldish, we’ll all be running QRP.

It’s logical to first address why you’re justifying the expense of the equipment before you jump in with both feet, especially if you’re on a budget like most of us. But understand that cheap gear usually always gets expensive down the road, so buying a name brand for something you’re depending upon is pretty important. Taking a shortcut and settling for license-free solutions is also a bad idea- it limits options and teaches nothing. (it’s license free, after all…so just think about why that might be.) In following the aforementioned steps, you and your group will greater be able to recognize your needs and begin to build a procurement list from that. Signal is but one part of the equation, albeit a critical one, and most of the same principles can be applied to almost all of your other equipment.

It’s time to get organized, it’s time to get serious.

34 thoughts on “Identifying Equipment Requirements

  1. Brad in TX

    Outstanding info, as always.
    As a ham, when asked I advise obtaining comms capability in this order:
    1. Personal/retreat comms; vhf/uhf handhelds with mars/cap modification. Also, a scanner or three for early warning of trouble.
    2. County-wide comms; vhf/uhf base with mars/cap modification for simplex or, best-case, repeater use.
    3. State-wide/regional comms; hf with NVIS antenna.
    I couldn’t agree with you more that every serious group need a designated signals guy.

    1. Stewie

      Im a new ham and the group’s signals guy. Starting from scratch with alot and on tight budgets. I agree with why you said and am already moving in said direction.

  2. “Just know…should the grid become more 3rd worldish, we’ll all be running QRP.”

    You couldn’t sum up the mitigating operational procedures and suitable infrastructure for comms any better than with that one pithy statement of the facts.

    1. idahobob

      When the grid goes 3rd world, you need to be off grid. In fact you should be now or preparing to be off grid.


      1. mtnforge

        Got the off grid part squared away whiles back, working on the off grid QRP end. Before finding out what the comms community was up to, kind of figured shortwave and such would end up being the after-shtf grapevine of sorts, never did I know the scope of what everyone was up to. It is really awesome. It is a serious game changer. If you are coming from a direction where you are getting into it cold, it takes a spell to begin to grasp the myriad of benefits, the applications of this outstanding resource, and how they dovetail into so much of what and will is happening. I’m not taking anything for granted on that score, it is like how you learn and train and apply small infantry into your operations. They become organic resources, operating processes and procedures, you just keep adding to the whole entire kit. That is one way in which I find the resources and knowledge you guys pass on to a guy like me priceless, lot of it is the seeming little details and nuances the make this journey successful.
        NCScout when you wrote “Just know…should the grid become more 3rd worldish, we’ll all be running QRP.” That’s a defining statement my friend, that puts it all in proper and practical perspective, if your listening and reading into things, that is a realistic leap of faith you can bank on and structure your operations upon. I caught on right away when you talked about QRP, the why of it, but the context I didn’t fully appreciate till your QRP axiom. That’s a dandy right there.

    2. I really liked the idea of yagi antennas for LOS comms. Just wondering if using a slanted wire directionally oriented might help in regional qrp not so much voice as digital comms.

      1. Yes! It absolutely will. The Sloping Vee antenna, simply a wire dipole with ends sloping towards the ground, can be folded for directionality.

        Typical dipoles radiate broadside to the wire. In folding it, you direct the pattern in a direction of the angle you’ve created. Think of it how I remember it…the gator’s mouth opens in the direction he wants to eat.

        One other way is to string up a single wire with ground counterpoise, and place a resistor on the end to force the current to flow in one direction, creating a conical radiation pattern end-fire from the direction the antenna is pointed.

        It works just as well for digi as for any other mode because the radiation characteristics are the same.

  3. Phenomenal post.

    I cannot stress the importance of standardized equipment enough. Oftentimes, standardization is a byproduct of a plan. It goes beyond Comms related hardware as well, but…herding cats.

    Not standardizing leads to be a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s like trying to scrape a pea-sized portion of butter over an entire loaf of bread.

    1. It is indeed cat herding…especially if you have a crew who each think they’re right.

      I’ve found the best way to counter this is to have a couple spares of something as a handout if need be. Then folks start to like it or see the logic in it, and get persuaded to purchase that particular widget.

  4. Thanks for this post, and for all the effort you put into helping and educating others.
    Reinforcing the concept that we can’t be all/do all and need to find like-minded groups that can parcel out specialization of core tasks is essential – building on the need to start developing shadow states within your AO now.

  5. Just a REMF

    I would make an exception to the license free admonition in favor of Motorola DTR/DTL series transceivers. The FHSS, private group security and low power make them ideal squad xceivers.

    1. Well, the truth is that if you’re willing to go those lengths, you’re likely to be a bit above average anyway. They’re far from ideal however- in my experience, simplicity and versatility is most reliable.

      And while they have a few strengths, they have some serious drawbacks. First, while good at the team/local level, being digital once you’re out of range, forget it. You have little warning either. At least with analog you can cut the squelch and attempt to listen to anything just barely above the noise floor. Not so with digital. In addition, if once receiver craps the bed, you may not get it squared away in the field.

      The DTRs I’ve used in the past were heavily reliant on repeaters and aside from the bomb-proof build and encryption, left a lot to be desired for actual communications reliability. This doesn’t mean they can’t work; just that in my own experience, I wouldn’t rely on them. Then again, my professional experience emphasized paramount redundancy in all areas, which has caused me to dump anything I may, mistakenly or not, deem unreliable.

      Communications are an area frequently misunderstood, most often ending with those three questions I listed at the beginning. Isolating your capabilities to simply the local level is cutting yourself short- an effective SOI plan goes beyond simply the local level. And the advantage of taking your time to get licensed and putting some work into developing those skills will go far further than buying a few sets and calling it good.

      1. Just a REMF

        These are all valid, and previously considered, points. I share your opinion.

      2. Agreed.

        While there are centainly benefits to the low transmit power and FHSS, these radios also have serious shortcomings, range being the biggest, and a lack of flexibility being the second.

        I’ve been able to get, roughly, two miles TOPS out of these in good terrain. In bad terrain, I’m lucky to get 2,000 feet.

        They’re certainly well-built, suitable radios, but their utility is in extremely localized settings.

        In my opinion, their best application would be for stationary, dedicated Comms at one’s ranch or retreat.

    2. ApoloDoc

      I picked up some old Nextel flip phones for a song that use the same technology. As a licensed ham, my motive is portable (not field telephones), secure short-range (retreat) comms. They are good except that my terrain is so hilly, it would be best to have someone on high ground acting as a human repeater. Same problem w/ 2m out there.

    1. Little blips turning into bigger ones.

      All the while some folks are more focused on potential riots and other “obvious” ruses. But that’s another topic.

      1. mtnforge

        It’s like the wild pig trap writ large. Incremental. One feather at a time, one day the goose notices it doesn’t have any any longer.

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  8. dangero

    Great post! I have no patience for anyone who doesn’t take comms seriously because it isn’t sexy like buying another AR (they’ll never invest in training to shoot properly anyway). The VERY most money you would have to spend to get at least your Technician’s class AND a radio is $45 ($10 for the exam fee and $35 for a Baofeng). However, many exams are only $5 or FREE like the exam session I sat to get my Extra class because a generous local club covered the cost and Boafengs often go for less than $35 not to mention used equipment online and at hamfests in the $10 range. If you study 45 minutes a night (lots of free online material and practice test) for 2 weeks you will pass. So let’s see, money no matter how tight your budget isn’t an issue and it requires less time a day than arguing with people on your favorite prepper forums…it sounds like YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE for not getting licensed.
    Also it’s not just talking to your group members (though this article is spot on in saying after a disaster that should be your first priority to get accountability and coordinate next steps) it is also knowing what the hell is going on around you. This hit home for me in 2012, I had just returned from Afghanistan weeks earlier and despite knowing after 15 years in the army that radios are kind of super f-ing important while deployed I hadn’t wrapped my head around the use of them in everyday life.
    Well I was working many late nights and not watching the news so when something I had never heard of called a Derecho blew through at 10PM while I was still at the office I was caught off guard. Despite lasting only maybe 30 minutes ands bringing very little rain the DC/Virginia area infrastructure was wrecked. I drove home in complete darkness with trees and power lines down in the road (a very main 4 lane road). Power was out everywhere and my cellphone said “no service”. No problem I thought, I’ll go home, go to bed and things will be fine tomorrow. The morning came and while we still didn’t have power despite being only 4 miles from downtown DC but I wasn’t shocked…what I was shocked about was that my phone still said “no service” as in NONE, don’t even try to text, nothing.
    It dawned on me then with no power to run TV or internet I literally knew nothing about what was going on in the world beyond what I could see outside my windows. California could have been nuked and I was only in the know as to what the squirrels were up to in my neighbor’s tree. That was a scary feeling, I pulled out the trusty windup FM radio and was treated to local stations playing music and giving celebrity gossip updates as if nothing at all was wrong in any way.
    After that day I vowed never to be in that situation again because getting in my car and driving around to see what was going on did little more than tell me people were idiots. I saw cars out of gas being pushed into gas stations…after only having no power for 12 hours!!!!!!!! People were fighting over people cutting in line and the Home Depot had to bring in police to calm the crowd upset over generators being sold out. Not only did this not tell me how widespread the damage was but it put me in unnecessary risk from people growing violent and at a minimum a traffic accident from people that don’t know to treat a traffic light that is out as a 4-way stop.
    I’ll end my rant here seriously folks get your comms straight, it is too easy and too cheap and too important not to.

  9. Snow Man

    Another great article. Thank you many times over. You Sir, are the one who got me started.

    Deer season last year, 6 hunters on 200 acres and we lost comms with each other. 3 of the little FRS rigs stopped working. EVERYONE went super-safe and we all met at the farm house that evening.

    I vowed to NEVER let this happen again. Read up on GMRS and bought 2. Found your blog and REALLY started reading and educating my OLD self. Now I’ve got my “general ticket”, 3 Ham H/Ts, dual-band and a quad-band mobile rigs and 4 GOOD GMRS handhelds and 2 GOOD programmable UHF handhelds. Multiple over-lapping comm settings for the H/Ts as well as the UHF handhelds. All of our hunting party has been educated on and practiced with all the handhelds. Each handheld has a lamented pocket-sized copy of the freq’s programmed into them and their “nick-name”.

    I haven’t seen 19 in over 4 decades. Can’t run much of anywhere and when I do it IS MUCH SLOWER. BUT, I can “ring steel” at 1k yds, knock the nuts off a squirrel at 50yds and talk with people from 1 mile away to 400 miles. Thank you for your great dedication to the art of communication. I’ll keep working at it and learning more and trying to “catch up”.

    Snow Man

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