Amateur (Ham) Radio
Amateur (ham) radio is both a hobby and a public service. It’s most notable for being available as a form of communication when other terrestrial communications systems have failed. Ham radio operators have provided a plethora of emergency and disaster communications assistance, most recently in events such as Hurricane Katrina and September 11th. There are endless uses for ham radio, both as a voice and a digital from of communications. For purposes of storm chasing, we’ll take a look at how amateur radio can assist you in the field.
Many chasers utilize amateur radio to communicate with other chasers; others have little or no use for amateur radio. In the era of cellular technology, especially data cards from major cellular providers (e.g. Sprint, Verizon, etc.), the necessity for two-way communications in the field has lessened for many chasers. Nevertheless, ham radio arguably provides the largest network of two-way communications with both the chasing and the non-chasing world, for the lowest cost, over the greatest distances.
The vast majority of chasers utilize repeater and simplex frequencies in the VHF and UHF amateur radio spectrum. In order to utilize ham radio in the field, you must obtain at least a Level 1: Technician Class Amateur Radio License, which consists of a 35-question multiple-choice exam. More information on licensing processes and study materials are available at the ARRL/VEC website. Also, information on where to find the nearest testing sessions can be found on the ARRL’s Exam Session Search page. The process to obtain an amateur radio license is relatively straightforward and uncomplicated.
What uses does amateur radio afford for the chaser? A vast network of National Weather Service offices maintain an amateur radio station, which is staffed by amateur radio operators, some of whom are NWS personnel themselves, during sever weather situations. This network allows amateur radio operators to relay their severe weather reports directly to the NWS personnel and also to receive timely severe weather updates. This mode of communication is also vital when other terrestrial communications are disrupted. Many SKYWARN nets, staffed by a variety of spotters and other hams, will gladly facilitate reports from chasers if you need something relayed to the NWS via ham radio. Even if you choose not to participate in a SKYWARN net, having access to receiving and being able to interconnect with other spotters on various angles of a storm oftentimes makes chasing less cumbersome.
Given the excellent range of amateur radio in the VHF and UHF spectrum, many chasers enjoy using the ham radio bands to intercommunicate with fellow chasers in the field. Depending on the antenna, radio, power output of the radio and the physical terrain of the region, chasers can intercommunicate between each other, while mobile, for distances of greater than 10 miles. The use of extensive amateur radio repeater networks, which receive ham radio transmissions over a wide geographic area (i.e. 30-40 miles) and retransmit these signals at a higher power level, can allow for even greater communication ranges for chasers so that the signal can traverse greater distances without significant degradation in quality.
An exhaustive list of amateur radio repeaters by state can be found on the artsci website. Also, an extensive list of SKYWARN repeaters and other frequencies can be found on kBrews website, scrolling down to the lower half of the page. The most popular simplex (direct, transceiver to transceiver, no repeater) frequencies are 146.550 MHz (unofficial national chaser frequency) and 146.520 MHz (national calling frequency).
There are a variety of amateur radio equipment applications available. Whether or not you will want a mobile rig or a portable HT is a personal choice, though a mobile radio is recommended due to higher power output and greater flexibility of range. Some popular equipment dealers include, but are not limited to, the following: The Ham Station, Ham Radio Outlet (HRO), Universal Radio, Amateur Electronics Supply (AES).
As a chaser, should you find a necessity for two-way communications with other chasers, spotters and/or the NWS, whether as a backup to cellular/data communications or otherwise, ham radio is probably your best choice. However, if you need instant communications with other chasers in a team or nearby vehicle, the one downside is that anyone utilizing ham radio must be licensed. Therefore, if you’re in the market for something very inexpensive and license-free, and you don’t need to instantly communicate with persons outside of your immediate network, you may want to consider Citizen’s Band (CB) or Family Service (FRS) radios.
Jesse L. Risley, K9JLR