How to Use a Ham Radio When SHTF (With Pictures)

Phillip Wilkerson
By Phillip Wilkerson May 10, 2018 07:28

How to Use a Ham Radio When SHTF (With Pictures)

Types of ham radios

Ham radio is a diverse hobby that includes a wide variety of interests, and it’s also very useful for preppers. Shortwave and very high frequency (VHF) radios are very flexible communications systems, and unlike cell phones or anything to do with the internet, they don’t rely on any other infrastructure. It doesn’t matter what’s happened to the world; if you and the person you want to talk to both have a working radio, you can talk.

Ham radio is a licensed service and you’ll need to obtain a license to transmit on the amateur bands, though you can listen as much as you want without one. Fortunately for prospective hams, the FCC dropped the Morse code requirement for the license test several years ago and released the question bank. There are also many low-cost resources available to help you get your license, such as free flashcard banks for all three license classes at, available to you.

If the SHTF, obviously nobody’s going to be checking if you have a license or not, so buying a radio and storing it against the day it’s needed is an option. It isn’t one I’d recommend, though. The best way to ensure you know how to get the best from your radio when you need to is to use it regularly – so it’s better to get a license and put in some practice now, when it isn’t urgent.

Related: The Ten Cent Modification You Can Do to Double Your Radio’s Range

VHF/UHF handheld radios

The VHF/UHF bands consist of frequencies anywhere from 30 MHz to 3 GHz, primarily covering the 2m band from 144 – 148 MHz and the 70cm band from 420 MHz to 470 MHz, though some base station radios may also cover the 6m and a few handhelds cover the 1.25m band as well. Of all the ham bands, 2m is most popular, as it shares the reliability and ease of use of the nearby FM radio, aircraft, marine, and police/emergency bands. Handheld transceivers (HTs) like the ubiquitous Baofeng UV-5R are inexpensive and base stations that double as repeaters are easily set up. The popularity of these bands has resulted in several manufacturers offering base stations and handhelds at various price points and with various feature sets. After using radios like the UV-5R, you may find that you want to upgrade to a Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, or similar radio – just make sure to familiarize yourself with your equipment before a SHTF scenario occurs.

Much of VHF/UHF’s utility comes from the extensive repeater networks spread across North America and Europe, but don’t rely on that in a SHTF situation – assume you’ll only be able to communicate inside the range of your own radios.

For our purposes, I’ll assume you’re using a UV-5R and have access to a programming cable. You can program local repeaters.

Related: SHTF Survivalist Radio Lists

HF base station

For all their virtues, VHF/UHF radios are largely limited to line-of-sight propagation and extensive repeater networks need to be maintained to usefully extend low-power handhelds – this infrastructure, while somewhat more robust than phone lines and cell  towers, could still be damaged in a disaster and sever long distance communications essential for keeping in touch with other survivors who may be several states away. HF, also known as shortwave radio, is extremely wireless – used to communicate directly between original transmitting and receiving stations, it requires no fickle medium except for the ionosphere, used to reflect space-bound radio waves back to earth.

For getting started in HF/shortwave radio, it’s helpful to have a good shortwave receiver on hand for testing purposes.

To get started, turn the power supply, antenna tuner, and transceiver on with the power switch and observe the current band and frequency settings. Set the band and mode selector to the Adjust the volume, marked “AF-GAIN”, until you can clearly hear noise; then, simply listen for a few minutes. If you don’t hear anything, slowly turn the dial and continue to listen. Sometimes you will hear just one side of a conversation because the other station is too far away to hear under the current conditions; other times, far away stations have huge antennas and can hear each other (as well as anyone interrupting) even though you aren’t able to hear them. In either case, make sure your station is working before concluding that no one is talking on the radio.

Protecting your station

HF radios require more attention than VHF radios, needing an effective grounding system and a 50 ohm load to be able to transmit without damaging the final capacitors or other components. Never transmit without an antenna or dummy load to avoid overheating and damaging the transceiver’s final capacitors and other components. Large antenna systems can act like lightning rods and even RF and/or mains grounding rods near a lightning strike can bring damaging voltage spikes to radio communications equipment. Disconnect your antenna, power supply, AND grounding system when not in use to prevent lightning damage. It’s also a good idea to disconnect the microphone, CW key, and other input devices when you do this so that the transceiver does not transmit without a load.

Besides thunderstorms, damage to HF radios can also occur from geomagnetically induced currents following solar weather events like coronal mass ejections and electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Encapsulating the radio’s components within a metal enclosure goes a long way towards protecting equipment

HF Communications Techniques

The audio quality from a SSB radio is poor at best and can become unintelligible when conditions are degraded, so radio operators developed a phonetic alphabet to formalize the exchange of information. Hams call each other with the phrase “CQ”, which means “calling all stations” The exchange will look like this:

Station KM2XXA tunes to a frequency and listens for several seconds

KM2XXA: “Is the frequency in use?”

If no response:

KM2XXA: “CQ, CQ, CQ KM2XXA in New York. CQ, CQ, CQ KM2XXA in New York. CQ, CQ, CQ KM2XXA in New York”

KM2XXA waits for several seconds …

KM3XXB responds to the call:

KM3XXB: “KM2XXA, KM3XXB Pennsylvania, KM3XXB Pennsylvania, copy now?”

KM4XXA: “KM3XXB, I read you five-niner-niner. How are things in Pennsylvania?…”

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Phillip Wilkerson
By Phillip Wilkerson May 10, 2018 07:28
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  1. KQ2E May 10, 16:18

    You GREATLY simplify amateur radio as both a medium of communication and as a hobby. Your do the most service to the reader by suggesting getting licensed first, but fail to mention LOCAL AMATEUR RADIO CLUBS as a source of teachers (free ones, nicknamed “Elmers,” who will take the prospective ham into the hobby in style. Good luck to all.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Gorgo May 10, 17:19

    Your over simplification is appreciated. If SHTF I don’t believe the FCC will be monitoring for non licensed users. if the EMP hits, many HAM Stations may get fried if they don’t design a bypass for the voltage spike to go to ground. Even the FCC will be fried. I don’t believe there’llbe any inforcement. People will be overjoyed just to be able to call their family members on their handheld radios. You are correct when you mention using the highest point around to talk back and forth with is critical to making contact.

    Reply to this comment
    • wa2qcj May 11, 02:28

      Pardon me for being picky, but in the illustration, the upper right corner, for the AF gain, and with it, Power control, nope, NOT TRUE. Those radios are menu driven, and, if you do not know how to use it now, you’ll most likely turn it into a paper weight in short order if wait to “then” That RF gain associated with the AF gain is for audio use ONLY. RF gain sets a threshold for received RF signals. IT has NOTHING to do with RF power. RF power is controlled by a menu file in the radio micro-computer. An antenna is VITAL to the proper operation of such radios. Wrong antenna, mismatched antenna, and the final amplifiers in your radio go “POOF”. You might even get to see your very own mushroom cloud coming out of your radio. By ALL means, do know how to use your radio BEFORE you really need it. One last point, nuclear exchange, forget HF for a while. The atmosphere will be charged, that is, ionized, and RF is not going to get out to the Van Allen belts to be reflected back to earth. VHF, and UHF is all that will be useful, on short range.

      Reply to this comment
  3. Cobiacabana May 10, 20:29

    Just ordered a Baofeng BF-F8HP and a programming cable. Will take my Teck exam in July or August. Looking forward to getting into this pastime in my old age.

    Reply to this comment
    • K6PGN May 10, 21:56

      Sorry, Baufeng radios are cheap for a reason, I have yet to find one that meets specifications

      Reply to this comment
      • wa2qcj May 11, 02:46

        Very true. I was trying to be nice in my reply. There are vastly better radios available, if one knows where to look. HAMs are a great source of such information. Elmer’s, assemble, help the new guys, girls, and children. For others, yep, no age limit, to a point. They have to suffer the test alone, no coaching allowed.

        Reply to this comment
    • wa2qcj May 11, 02:40

      Forgive me OM, but don’t expect to much out of that radio. It is good for local repeater use, and that is about all. Do not forget to program in 146.52 MHz as a single frequency. It is recognized as a call frequency, and traffic there might surprise you. Beyond that, it is okay, and enjoy what you get out of it. I do not recall if the antenna is remove able. If it is, look into using it with better, higher gain antennas, and antennas that are higher off the ground. In VHF or UHF the higher you are, such as top of a building, tower, mountain, or whatever it is you climb, the further your radio will reach. This is all about “radio horizon”. The higher you are, the further out past the nominal 15 mile horizon your radio will reach. Get that little radio up in a Cessna 172, and you’ll light up the whole state. Antennas are top of the line in importance. Work on that, and enjoy that radio. By the way, there are contests for UHF, and VHF radio operation. I am an Extra class licensee. If you need help, look up my call sign. One last point, do you have a computer and internet? If so, you have the world at your finger tips. One common VOIP system is Echolink. Another is D-Star. Both are services open only to HAMs and with them, we talk to the whole world.

      Reply to this comment
      • RayK May 11, 08:31

        Hi Kerry

        Looking up your callsign doesn’t give contact info (email, address or phone). Contact me, please, at rkruse at johngalt dot biz.

        Ray KK4WPB

        Reply to this comment
    • KE0RHW May 12, 00:49

      I have a Baofeng ham radio. I know they are not the equal of a top of the line radio, but they cost under 100.00, instead of the cost of a nice Yaesu that carries the same bands. I would not have a radio if I had to spend between 300 and 1,200.00 for one. It would be out of my range. There are radios out there that are reasonable quality for little money.

      Used radio’s are a gamble a newbie can usually not afford to take, unless one of the club members can check it and be sure it is working correctly.

      I have a Yaesu 4200H that I downloaded service bulletins for and a schematic as well. I am going to take it apart and see if it is a mechanical issue (broken wire or some such non electronic error) and use it until I can get into other bands. If I find I can fix nonworking radios, I know I can get some off Ebay for cheap.

      Until then, my little handheld will do the job. I may still use it for field day and kicking the repeater to life. My goal is to have 6, 10, 20, and 40 meter radios, or one that has all of them in it. I do not have enough room for a 1/2 wave 80/75 meter antenna.

      I am going to play around with building portable antennas for several bands. I am a retired truck driver, some of us never quite get that traveling urge to go away. It is the people I miss. Short wave radio can help me meet new people without traveling across the interstate in the winter.

      Reply to this comment
  4. K6PGN May 10, 20:44

    Agree with both responses. And please correct call signs ( you use KM2XXA, KM3XXB and KM4XXB but the conversation is between 2 people). Nowadays CQ, CQ, CQ, and call are said once. Local ham groups are a great source of information advice, and training, knowing how to talk on the radio may make the difference between getting a response, and being shunned.
    NOTE: recently China is flooding the market with cheap ham radios, (like the UV5R), if you are going to trust your gear, do not buy cheap! As for EMP, I store a portable radio (walkie talkie) in a metal tin, if the EMP is strong enough to get through that you have much bigger problems.

    Reply to this comment
  5. LCDR JOHN May 10, 21:40

    Excellent Article. Assisted me in making important Emergency Communications Investments. Currently taking Ham Radio Training as per recommendation.
    Best Regards, LCDR John, USNR

    Reply to this comment
  6. K6PGN May 10, 22:18

    I BEG YOU… do not buy cheap radios, would you buy a knife for $2 and depend on it with your life???
    There is good, free radio advice from reliable sources like

    Reply to this comment
  7. Bill May 11, 00:45

    Don’t forget the lowly CB radio. It runs off your car battery, the antenna is easy to set up, and you can get an amplifier that will raise the transmitter power ( illegal ) but who worries.. Got my pickup set up for it, but the radio is in an emp bag unless I am using it.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jan May 11, 04:29

      Hi Bill, so is the CB radio as good as the ham if the SHTF? Seems to me that hams won’t be highly effective if it’s a EMP, because the repeaters may be down. Plus it’s a lot of trouble for licensing etc.

      Reply to this comment
      • Claude Davis May 11, 05:04

        Ham radio covers a lot of different technology. Repeaters are only necessary if you want to talk to distant stations using a line of sight set, like a UHF or VHF. If you have a HF radio you can talk to anywhere in the world with the right antenna. CB is a viable option, but it doesn’t have the range of most ham radios and it has a limited number of channels available.

        Reply to this comment
      • K6PGN May 11, 05:06

        Bottom line….NO
        Both are radios, both destroyed by EMP, unless stored in a faraday cage (a metal garbage can will work for this)
        A CB radio with its single band is usable locally or nationally (with an amplifier, which illegal if that is an issue, but also uses more power, and that would be battery power). Ham radio covered many radio bands, if you get the most common ham radios they have 2 bands and are good for local use (say within 30 miles, with repeaters that is extended to say 100 miles, with internet connections (which will not be around in an EMP situation) you have worldwide coverage.
        That said, if you are planning to outlive an EMP you will need to plan to communicate outside the effected area, that means a Ham HF (short wave radio), which can reach other countries

        Reply to this comment
      • KQ2E May 11, 18:05

        Jan, you are poorly informed and, unfortunately, people love simple answers such as, CB is JUST as good as the amateur radio service. So sad to see this. A good education is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

        Reply to this comment
  8. KE0RHW May 11, 10:02

    CB took the 11 meter band, which was used for DX by some. I seriously suggest that if someone is looking at communicating over the radio after a SHTF hits, they attend a field day for ham radio and look at the radio operators who are talking about RF linking instead of digital. Digital is not going to be reliable, neither is ROIP. because the Internet (the IP) will be unreliable. Get a tech, then study for the general, 20 meters is a strong DX day and night band, as is 40, but 40 is a bit more limited as to time of day.

    If you have the room for a large inverted “V” antenna, it can be seen easily by those who have not prepared. Use the internet programs for hams only, and make general frequency plans and time tables based on GMT for contact after the event. Learn CW, even at 5wpm, you can get a message through some really rough atmospheric conditions, and since CW is not commonly known, you can use it with less fear of being compromised. I use a cheap Chinese radio, but have been looking at some of the old “parts only” and “it worked when my grandfather put it away” estate sales for HF transceivers. Dont forget about SWR meters, antenna tuners and other related equipment that will help you stay on the air. I am planning to build antenas from plans and make them so they are not readily noticeable as what they really are.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Wannabe May 11, 13:47

    So what radios would you suggest? I’m seeing negative feed back concerning the baofeng.

    Reply to this comment
    • nitroxpro May 11, 18:13

      Dear Wannabe, stick to industry leaders and NEW equipment, not used. If it is used, you have NO idea how or by whom, even where it was used.
      If you get an older design, they require less talent to run, but do not work as well as a modern design. STAY CLEAR OF JUNK. If it seems expensive, there is a reason. It will probably work. Junk may LOOK good, but results will not match. If the radio maker is ICOM, Yeasu or is a similar brand, that is a good thing.

      Reply to this comment
    • JA## May 11, 19:02

      The Baofeng is a good beginners radio, use them in field operations for years, because they are cheap and made in China will not make them a bad radio a little hard to program until you get the hang of it. CBs are a joke and a waste of time and money, no mater what brand of radio you buy all will have parts from China,just because you buy a$ 200.00 hand held by no means makes it work any better then a $ 40.00 radio.
      I have HF as well CB and 2/70 CM meter base set up and a number of different makes of hand mobiles, do not let the negative feed back keep you away from the Baofeng good to start with and i have not had a bit of trouble with my, but do change the short rubber duck to a longer one.
      NUMBER ONE GET License,learn about the hobby, do not buy into the lie that you can just hop on a radio and start talking away.

      Reply to this comment
  10. K6CXF May 11, 19:35

    Regarding Baofeng hand held radios, I’ve found mine to be great for the price. Their biggest challenge in using, is that they are a very complex software driven device which takes time to learn and maybe impossible for a non-ham trying to figure out after the SHTF. There are many versions of the standard UV5R frame with slight differences. I bought three of the GT-3TP version which will output up to 8 watts (5 watts is the normal max), even though talk time is limited. So I also invested in the oversize battery. And one should have a computer to do the original set up / programming. Other than trying to get up to speed on the software, they appear to meet all the spec’s, and the antenna is removable. I was able to talk to a friend on 2 meters 5 miles away through dense forest. But a large tree 20 feet away will block communications when standing on the ground with the original antenna. Climbing 25 feet up on the roof yields solid communications to the same station.

    But, I agree, for serious ham radio work (and with more money) this is not the best choice. For portable emergency work this may be just fine. Unscrew the antennas and many of these can be stored in a new clean 1 gallon paint can for when the SHTF. But remember to occasionally charge the batteries.

    Reply to this comment
  11. BB May 11, 21:45

    I live in Maui, Hawaii in the middle of nowhere. I have never talked to anyone that is a ham operator. In case of a SHTF, would it be of any good to me? Ps..I am a 60ish woman living alone. I am smart but not technically.

    Reply to this comment
  12. BB May 11, 21:48

    I live in Maui, Hawaii. I have never talked to anyone that even knows a ham operator here. Would it be beneficial for me? I am a single, 68, living alone but prepared to a certain degree. I am not real techie so I would not know how to fix one.

    Reply to this comment
    • KE0RHW May 12, 00:57

      Ham radio is not a “magic bullet” that will save you if you have no support network. There are hams on Hawaii. Look for towers of medium height near a building that has no police cars nearby, lol. That may be a ham club house. In Hawaii, ham radio may not be as useful as it is on the mainland. Look around, or look online for a ham radio shop.

      Reply to this comment
  13. Travis May 11, 22:29

    Can the “powers that be”, or maybe ” will be”, figure out the location of a HAM operator using some technology, such as infrared, (I know probably not infrared), but some other technological way to find you, even if you hadn’t ever hinted at the whereabouts of your physical location?

    Reply to this comment
    • JA## May 12, 01:32

      Yes, we practice this with what is refer to as fox hunts ,
      but believed me the powers to be have state of the art equipment, any stationary stations would be useless even if you are on the move they can pinpoint your area, any communications would have to be very short , thats all i can say about the subject.

      Reply to this comment
  14. K6CXF May 12, 04:14

    The US and other countries certainly have the technology to pin point a ham transmitter via. their satellites to within a few yards. But how much of that ability has been applied or is operational is the question. But given the intense interest in surveillance around the world, it’s hard to imagine that anything less than some of that ability exists.

    On the high tech end, one cannot make their transmission short enough to avoid having their location pinpointed. I think the best one can do is to keep your transmissions short to avoid low tech detection, then immediately move out to a different location before anything incoming from high tech detection can get there. 🙂

    Reply to this comment
  15. K6CXF May 12, 04:55

    Interesting topic for when the SHTF.

    Ham radio is by far the best communications method along with all the technical knowledge required. But, there are many non-technical people wanting to communicate in an emergency. Here are some alternatives –

    Family Radio Service (FRS) radios operate in the 462 thru 467 MHz area with about 22 channels available and transmit 1/2 watt. No license required and can be purchased at many retail stores with 2 in a blister pack for about $50 (these may have fewer channel selections). They are good for maybe less than a mile through a forest with their rubber duck antenna. They are good for one wanting to talk to family or friends nearby. Simple push to talk with few other buttons. They are fairly bullet proof – and legal! Low power and small antenna would be harder to locate or even hear by non-desirables.

    More options later –

    Reply to this comment
  16. KE0RHW May 12, 09:41

    In a SHTF situation, the size and spacing of your support network is more important than being located by the authorities, assuming they are even looking for you.

    The type and power of the radio is not as important as knowing which frequencies or bands your support network had a greed to in advance. If your network is all in about 20 miles of each other, a vertical antenna will do the job quite well. If your net goes out to about 250K, a NVIS antenna for general use may be preferred. an inverted “V” antenna can be easily hidden, but a NVIS antenna is the style used in Vietnam for quick setup and difficulty of location. I would also suggest a beverage antenna for reception only. Wikipedia is a good resource for good basic information on how to make either of those types. beverage antennas have such signal loss, they are not good for transmitting, but as a receiving antenna, they can be laid out practically at ground level, so that you or your support network can listen in with less chance of discovery on either type of antenna. It is more important to decide on a band that will give adequate coverage of your network while minimizing the opportunity for “ad guys” or authorities to recognize and locate your antenna.

    The antenna, and a known set of bands and frequencies within the chosen bands are more important and more basic choices than a high or low powered radio. Hilly terrain favors the NVIS antenna and reduces skip. you do not want skip unless your support network is over several countries.

    The beverage antenna is good for all band receiving, depending on how long it is. available property length and having a good receiver hooked to it to monitor the long distance situation can be good to let you know when it is safe to return.

    Reply to this comment
  17. K6CXF May 12, 17:13

    Alternative radios for when the SHTF – continued from yesterday. (These are available in the United States)

    Multi-use Radio Service (MURS) operates in the 151 and 154 MHz area with 5 channels and transmits up to 2 watts. No license required and can be purchased at many retail stores in the 100-$300 range. They are similar to the FRS radios but with more range – and legal!

    General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) operates in the 462-467 MHz area with about 23 channels (among the FRS assigned frequencies) and transmit up to 50 watts. They do require a license which means filling out a form and mailing to the Federal Communications Commission with a check for about $100. But one license will cover a whole family or group. No test required. Hand held versions can be purchased at some retail stores for 100-$300 range. Similar to the FRS radios, but with much better performance / range and with external antenna options.

    The Baofeng radios will communicate with all the above radio bands. But they are not legal on the FRS frequencies because they have a detachable antenna and they will only dial down to 1 watt. FRS is 1/2 watt max. Might also note that they will receive on the US FM broadcast band, and the foreign FM broadcast band, plus weather channels.

    If I was only interested in emergency communications and had no interest in the technology, I would opt for one of these alternatives. The main reason for jumping through all the ham radio hoops would be to communicate long distances.

    Whatever you chose, one needs to study the finer details of the rules first. I’ve only covered the main points of interest here.

    Another note – here in the US it is generally accepted that one may violate any law to correct an emergency when no legal option is available. Particularly when no harm is done. One of the FAA’s flight rules specifically gives pilots that option. I know of no other place in our society that disagrees with that general concept. But, when the SHTF there probably won’t be anyone around to care what you do, as long as you’re not hurting them.

    Reply to this comment
  18. Steve May 12, 18:59

    A fair amount of sloppy info here. 1. Be serious about Faraday cages; you need nested cages and proper grounding. Study up. The Carrington Event was a natural EMP, a coronal mass ejection from the Sun and it caused wooden telegraph poles and some telegraph station buildings to burst into flames, like a lightening strike. Ready for your antenna to bring that energy into your home?

    Radio antennae not properly grounded are just lightening rods waiting to start a fire in your building. Know what you are doing before you start hanging wire.

    Get to your local ARRL group and work with them: you don’t want them coming after you as the renegade or dangerously ignorant wrecking ball in their area.

    Small handhelds are essential for linking family and network when there is no other comm available. Search and rescue missions, security patrols and hunting parties will want to coordinate with small handhelds. Have rechargeable batteries stored for standby charging with solar chargers in your F-cage. The whole theme is sustainable, renewable resources to help your family survive. Be sure to practice using your handhelds, bird watching reports from the kids who also will need compasses and maps and of the area.

    Having 3 ring notebooks of printed instructions and troubleshooting info etc is a smart resource that’s free now and priceless in some future bad day.

    Reply to this comment
  19. Buck k4ia May 14, 18:54

    Best bet is to study the material, get a license and then practice. You don’t want to be fooling around with a how-to manual when the SHTF. Besides, its fun and you might learn something.

    Try for license and operating manuals.

    Reply to this comment
    • K6CXF May 15, 01:12

      Yes, rather you choose one of the alternative communications types mentioned above, or go for a ham radio ticket, one needs to be using your radios now. Practice whatever with your friends or your kids to get well acquainted with your radios. In my younger days, we used to have great fun playing hide and seek after dark with handheld radios. When you go shopping at Walmart, give one to your wife or kid while you both shop in your favorite areas. Then find each other with the radios when your done shopping.

      Using them frequently or even occasionally, is also a good reminder to keep the batteries charged or new ones installed so they don’t leak with age and make the radios unworkable. When the SHTF it’s probably too late to make something operational.

      I remember a true story of a girl that was badly mauled by a bear. As the bear came after her she tried using her bear spray. She reported, she pressed and pressed on the button, but it would not work. I think if she had been taught to release the safety first, she would have been far better off.

      Reply to this comment
  20. dmhg7 May 16, 06:13

    Ham Radio is a more professional communication band than CB radios, etc. There are rules and protocol to be followed. Clean language is expected. I love this about HAM radio. Our family has been involved for 70 years now.

    Reply to this comment
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