Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Ham Radio: An Emergency Lifeline


Last updated 8/28/2020 at 12:22pm

My truck thermometer was reading 115 degrees at 5 p.m. and I was buried to my axles in soft sand.

I was 17 hard miles from the nearest road by four-wheel drive and walking that distance for help could have been a deadly mission. Cell phone coverage was a mirage in this remote corner of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where I had been doing research work for the state park.

Instead, I reached for a small, handheld ham radio and contacted a friend in Oceanside. He made a phone call to Mark Jorgensen who was the park superintendent then and several hours later he arrived with a tow strap to pull me out.

Yes, there are many places in the vast expanse of Anza-Borrego where communications may be non-existent. That could also happen right here in Borrego Springs if severe weather or a major earthquake impacts vital communication links.

I often have this discussion with off roaders while I admire their $60,000 vehicles equipped with another $40,000 in accessories. Sadly, they often lack the $200 (or less) item that might actually save their lives in case of a remote breakdown or medical emergency.

Some off roaders have discovered the value of ham radio and its ability to communicate over long distances, in addition to being handy for keeping contact with everyone in a cavalcade.

Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, is an activity licensed by the Federal Communication Commission that allows the public access to a broad array of communications options. It's a hobby offering everything from long-distance, worldwide communications, local communications, satellite communications, to amateur television and most importantly, emergency communications.

In many isolated corners of the globe, ham radio is a lifeline when hurricanes, volcanoes or earthquakes cut off the outside world. Even in high-technology areas, amateur radio can provide a valuable service as a source for routine radio traffic, connecting families, or getting message to our military personnel serving in remote places.

A ham radio license is free, you simply have to study, pass a short exam and you can be on the air in a few days.

Once licensed, hams can purchase inexpensive handheld radios that are ideal for a backpack, or invest in more powerful and expensive mobile or base stations for even more reliable communications. Of course, base station radios will require an external antenna, but the better antenna and additional power will improve your ability to reach distant stations.

In case of an emergency, amateur radio operators in Borrego Springs would have the ability to communicate through radio repeaters located on Toro Peak, Laguna Mountain and Superstition Mountain in Brawley.

Toro Peak, in particular offers access to a system of linked amateur repeaters that connect radio operators as far north as San Luis Obispo County. The robust system is all maintained by the PAPA System, a group of radio operators who contribute through annual dues to maintain and expand the network. While any licensed ham can use the network, membership is encouraged.

Toro Peak also hosts a relatively new amateur radio technology known as DMR, short for Digital Mobile Radio. This technology combines radio and the internet to relay radio messages to any place in the world. I've sat in my vehicle at Font's Point and talked to a friend in Hungry using a small handheld radio.

If you have an interest in becoming an amateur radio operator, visit, click on the Visitor Forums tab and scroll down to licensing. There are also several online sites that explain how to become a ham or offer tutorials to help you study for the exam.

Many Borrego residents who serve as CERT volunteers (Community Emergency Response Team) have obtained their licenses, but not many are active on a regular basis. It would be nice to have a local repeater in place and an organized group to encourage new hams, regularly check radios and be better prepared for a time when they may be needed.

My wife and I are both hams and that can be great when we are out hiking. I tend to move faster, while she often likes to stop and take photos. With our radios, we can stay in touch. If I head out for the day someplace, she can also call to check on me. That's often not possible by cellphone in the places I go.

Amateur radio can be an exciting hobby if you get bit by the electronics bug. There is always new equipment or upgrades you can do to improve your transmitted signals or reception.

Hams are always on the lookout for antenna towers, so if you happen to have an old, unused radio mast or tower hanging around and want to get rid of it, just let me know. I can be reached at

In the meantime, if you are active outdoors, especially in places beyond cell coverage, consider becoming radio active. It could save your life.