CW or Voice During an Emergency?

On the ARRL PR Mailing List, someone wrote that he had been approached by a relatively new ham and was asked, “What percentage of hams do you think use CW on a regular basis?” The reason that the new ham asked this question was that he wondered if more people would be monitoring phone frequencies or CW frequencies during an emergency. That is to say, would he “have a better shot of getting in touch with someone on CW or phone”?

Here was my reply:

I am going to hazard a guess and say that less than 10% of licensed amateur radio operators are regular CW users. Having said that, a couple of thoughts occur to me:

  1. The type of emergency will dictate where one should be listening and/or transmitting. For example, here in the summer, we sometimes have tornado watches. For the most up-to-date information on this situation, I listen to the local SkyWarn net, which takes place on one of the 2m repeaters. It’s all voice communication.
  2. On the other hand, if I’m out on a boat in the middle of the ocean with no satellite phone, I’d want to be able to send out a CW signal. The CW signal will get out farther, and if you can’t be heard, it doesn’t matter how many people are listening. There are enough hams monitoring the HF CW bands that you should be heard.
  3. If you can operate both voice and CW, you’ll have more chance of getting in touch with someone than if you can only operate one of those modes.

Any other thoughts?


  1. I expect you’d have a the best shot at being heard if you get on a local 2m repeater or your CERT group’s simplex frequency.

    But if you’re out of range of a repeater, then I’d think you’d have the best chance of being heard using PSK31 – I’ve found it easier to make a QSO on PSK31 than anything, ever! I can even get someone to come back to me on PSK31 when my calls on the local repeaters don’t get a response.

    Perhaps the subject of another blog, but if you’ve got a lot to say, like a status report for a hospital, and it’s an emergency, you’re probably better off using a digital mode, like packet radio – it’s just not as likely as PSK31 that anyone will answer you.

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