If Sherlock Holmes Stared at a Ham Radio Scanner, What Could He See?

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By the author of The Prepper’s Guide to Post-Disaster Communications.

Let’s say the poopy has hit the fan, and you’re now living in a post-collapse society. Every man is for himself, and there is no resupply. You already know that information is key to survival, and a large part of that information is gathering as much news on your region as possible. That’s why you’ve been using your scanner.

Thankfully, Sherlock Holmes is living with you.

The only problem is that something has happened to Sherlock’s ears, making it so that he can’t hear a thing. He still wants to help you out at your house, though. He sits in front of a scanner watching for when a radio frequency pops up on the display, telling you what he thinks he can deduce from nothing more than the frequency alone.

Here is some of what he may find…

What can you deduce if you pick up an FRS/GMRS frequency? 

There are a number of frequencies that fall within the FRS part of the radio spectrum. Those frequencies are listed below:

radio scanner
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

If you are listening to your scanner (and you should have one) and you hear one of these frequencies, there are a few things that you can deduce with a relatively high degree of certainty.

For starters, whoever is transmitting is close. We’re talking about maybe within half a mile or so. The reason for this is that most FRS radios are the walkie-talkies that people pick up at Big Box Store. They say they transmit for 30+ miles. They lie. If you pick up one of these frequencies, somebody is almost right on top of you.

Those little walkie-talkies don’t transmit very far at all, and they’re virtually all programmed for FRS/GMRS.

If you’re bugging out, you may want to move camp or stay extra vigilant. If you’re at home, you may potentially have visitors in the next 30 minutes. If you’re traveling, you may want to head in a different direction.

There are GMRS repeaters out there, but in my experience, they are few and far between. Most likely, you’re dealing with a bunch of bubbas – rednecks out there with their radios and rifles. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous, but it does help you to have something of a deduction as to who you are dealing with.

Whether the people you are close to are organized will depend on a few factors. They’re most certainly more organized than the gang of people you can see with your binoculars off in the distance without ANY radios, but are they ORGANIZED organized?

You’re going to have to listen to how they use the radio and what they say here to get a better picture.

What can you deduce if you pick up an amateur radio frequency? 

In particular, let’s examine the 2m, 70cm, and 1.25-meter bands. If you pick up people talking on one of those frequencies, then you’re likely listening to somebody with a good deal of radio experience. If this is the case, I would make the case that you can at least assume that the person has better radio gear than the majority of people out there.

And if they have better comms gear than a lot of the other people out there, what else may they have that others do not? Are they headed your way armed for bear? You don’t really know, but you do know that these people are likely more serious of a problem.

When it comes to the distance, you mainly just know that these people are within your geographical region. Maybe they’re within 5 miles; maybe 30. It’s really kind of hard to tell with nothing other than the “Hey, look. Somebody is on 146.500” data point.

What can you deduce if you pick up a marine band frequency? 

For starters, you may be near a body of water. If you’re on The Long Walk Home after an EMP strike forces you to trek back to your house, this may be information of interest.

Of course, there are guys out there who use marine band frequencies in the woods away from any body of water. It’s something that people get in trouble for in a functioning society, but there are guys that do this.

So picking up one of these frequencies isn’t an automatic indicator of water, but you generally will find a lot more radios using marine band frequencies when you’re close to a lake, ocean, or river.

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What can you deduce if you pick up a CB frequency? 

Most likely, the person you are listening to is in a vehicle. There’s a chance that they’ve set up a rig in a house, and there’s a chance that they have a handheld, but the majority of CB rigs that I both see and hear are coming from those who are on the road – specifically from truckers.

There are CB handheld rigs out there like the President Randy, but I don’t personally know of a lot of people out there with them.

While it is possible to get sporadic long-range contacts with a CB radio, the general rule of thumb is that you can reach out a mile for every foot-long your antenna is. So, a truck may have a 4’ long antenna, meaning they would generally have a four-mile range.

What can you deduce if you’re picking up weird buzzing noises and on a frequency outside of the ham radio spectrum? 

Sherlock would need working ears here, but there’s still something to be learned.

We’ll assume that you’re picking up something on the 2-meter band that is outside of where ham radio operators normally would talk. If this is the case, you’re hearing a digital mode.

Let’s say that you keep hearing this type of noise on 154.3475 MHz. You’re hearing P25 – a digital mode. (You can find other great audio examples of various digital modes HERE.) Considering that it’s outside of the typical ham radio spectrum, you’re likely listening to a police officer or other emergency responder.

If you’re in a grid-down environment – let’s say a hurricane just hit – that could be welcome news. You now will know that there is somebody within your region.

What if you’re picking up buzzy noises within the ham radio spectrum? 

These people are still using a digital mode radio. If this is the case, there are two things you’ll know off the bat: these people are serious about their comms gear, and they likely have very good training with their comms gear as well. For what it’s worth, you also know that they were likely hams.

Digital radios are both expensive and difficult to operate. Analog radios are cheap and relatively easy to operate. For as apples-to-apples of a comparison as is likely possible, you’re likely to see a $200 price difference between a high-end analog handy-talky and a solid, digital handy-talky.

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Alright, Sherlock Holmes. What do you deduce?

There’s got to be more possible deductions here that I’m missing. Are there others that you know about that I don’t? Do you agree with the above deductions more or less? Are you potentially giving away more information than you realized? Let’s investigate together. Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.

About Aden

Aden Tate is a regular contributor to TheOrganicPrepper.com and TheFrugalite.com. Aden runs a micro-farm where he raises dairy goats, a pig, honeybees, meat chickens, laying chickens, tomatoes, mushrooms, and greens. Aden has four published books, What School Should Have Taught You, The Faithful Prepper An Arm and a Leg, The Prepper’s Guide to Post-Disaster Communications, and Zombie Choices. You can find his podcast The Last American on Preppers’ Broadcasting Network.

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Aden Tate

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  • Interesting insights. I’m new to HAM, only getting my Tech license a year ago, so I haven’t been on much and monitor more than transmit.
    Where I’m at, I’m not picking up very much traffic, but I’m still relying on a high power hand held, and haven’t had the funds to upgrade to a more powerful transmitter and antennae (priorities).

    Lots to think about.
    Thanks Aden

  • While HAMs are better equipped than most, I wouldn’t view the HAMs I know as part of the “problem.” Generally, HAMS are folks that do things the right way, study, take exams, get licenses, and prepare. Not normally people you need to worry about any more than concealed carry license holders (which have a felony rate LOWER than law enforcement officers).

    • In ” normal ” times what you are thinking would be safe to assume … BUT … in a real SHTF scenario that assumption could get you killed. Aden is right , you should assume the worst and hope for the best.

  • Anyone interested in the signals intelligence end of radio may check out S2 Underground on YT for a wealth of info on this topic. Example: although FCC and ham operators are continuously monitoring the radio spectrum, they can only pick up signals that are strong enough to receive. Remote, directed, low power transmissions can slide right under the radar of surveillance parties.

    I’m a fan of CB radio: cheap, easy to obtain and use, is legal and license free for public use, and is massively underutilized these days – 40 channels of silence. And it bounces; I’ve listened to signals from Mexico, Nova Scotia and California on days with suitable atmospheric conditions.

    Don’t have a ham license yet, that’s a winter project.

  • In a SHTF situation, information is vital. A scanner would be a valuable piece of equipment. A lot of information from emergency services will be digital. There is a difference between analog and digital receivers. Learn now.

    Radios will need to be utilized in order to communicate with like minded individuals. Possibly necessary for protection and a rescue, but a case can be made that information, just from monitoring radio frequencies, can be invaluable.

    There are many degrees of severity in a SHTF scenario. In the worst situations, transmit as little as possible (preferably never). If you must communicate, with foresight and planning, there are ways to do so without talking. Remember, the longer you transmit, the easier it is for someone to narrow down your location. Do you want to be found?

    If you have the resources, invest in encrypted communications. A very inexpensive and practical communication method could be utilized with old Nextel cellphones that have the “Direct Talk” feature. These phones do not need cell service to operate. They use a frequency hopping digital signal. Drawback…the distance is not great unless you have an in impeded line-of-sight. I have several I576’s in my SHTF gear. They work outstanding.

    Knowledge is power. You will have the ability to gain much information in a SHTF scenario if you can hear what others are communicating.

    Nice article. Thank you.

    • I read a few years ago how a direct system not relying on cellphone towers was being developed in a South American country because of poverty stricken areas that don’t have cellphone towers coverage. Because the reach of cellphones was poor they planned to allow attaching some sort of amplifier.

      Recently within a month ago I read of a system similar to this. Name slips my mind.

  • Great article and info. and I would like to read more. Thanks Aden. This is very useful info. one doesn’t find easily out there. I have had a General license for some years now but have had too little air-time. I have radios that are still in the box even after a few years! My kingdom for a patient elmer!

    I bought your online book.

    As someone explained to me pointing first to the radio in his other hand and then to the handgun on his waist,” This is more important than this.”

    I’ve been thinking for years about getting a scanner and will likely get the Bearcat you recommended via one of your links above. I checked eham reviews. There’s one review and it’s a good one. I carefully looked over the eham list for other affordable, portable scanners. Amazon reviews overall shows this Bearcat below my standards and explains why I don’t have one. However, as far as affordable portable scanners go I wasn’t able to find better. Digital and encrypted models muddies the waters further. The affordable price of just over $100 leaves me with no further excuses to not buy! Thanks again Elmer, I mean, Aden.

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