Communications During Emergency Situations (Like WTSHTF)
Can you or any of your family members imagine a world without instant communications? Without cell phones, text messages, satellite or cable news? Without the internet? Well, my assumption is that if you’re reading this blog, you’re at least curious about what you should be doing to prepare for a WTSHTF (When The S%*t Hits The Fan, for the uninitiated) event, and having a plan which takes into account the two important types of emergency communications is an important part of those preparations.
In my earlier posts, I covered many of the ways the electrical grid and with it nearly all means of electronic communication and news dissemination can be shut down. Local TV and radio stations can probably continue to run for a few days or even weeks with back-up power generation, but in a true disaster situation, additional fuel for their generators, which requires it to be trucked in will probably not arrive before they run out of their stored fuel and fall silent. The government might be able to establish some sort of emergency radio broadcast system in the absence of local AM/FM stations, but you still need equipment to tune it in in the absence of electricity – and hence, the necessity of an Emergency Communication Plan or ECP.
“Ok, fine. I need an ECP. But what were those two important types of emergency communications you mentioned earlier?”
Oh yeah, one of those would be Outside World Communications, like news (both local and world news) and weather or .gov announcements and the other would be Group Communications, like neighborhood watch communication or the ability to alert you neighbor or other family members of an important bit of news or approaching danger. Let’s talk about Outside World Communications first.
1. Outside World Communications
Having lived through two major hurricanes in So. Florida (Andrew -’92 and Wilma -’05), I know a thing or two about how isolated you can feel when the television stations have gone silent and the electrical grid is a tangled, sparking mess of downed power poles, smoldering transformers and arcing wires. News was at a premium during both of those events. Imagine now that instead of a hurricane (a predictable storm whose path is known days in advance) causing the grid-down situation, it was a pandemic influenza, or terrorist attack, or a cyber-terrorism event aimed at our vulnerable electrical power generating and distributing infrastructure. The suddenness with which electrical means of news and information distribution would simply disappear would be stunning. All normal means of obtaining that desperately needed information will have ceased operation.
The best way to avoid total information blackout is to have a battery powered short wave radio and either enough batteries to run it for weeks and even months, or the ability to recharge a set of rechargeable batteries using solar power. [For more info on Solar Power, see my previous blog post on Perimeter Security.] A battery powered short wave receiver will allow you to tune into both domestic and world sources of news and information in the absence of local electrical power.
On the right, is a picture of one such radio, a C Crane and Co Pocket SW Radio. It’s one I’ve used for years and love it. There are other brands available, though like Sony, Grundig, and even Radio Shack. As stated, a SW radio is great for filling in missing information about the ‘big picture’ like world or national news, or even local news via AM/FM bands, but there are other important sources of information your SW radio is probably not capable of receiving like Police, Fire and EMT transmissions. One can gain valuable information about the state of lawlessness or peace in your neighborhood by monitoring these frequencies – which, by the way, is perfectly legal to do. If you believe, like I do, that monitoring Police, Fire, and EMT radio traffic could be a valuable source of information during emergencies, then you should look to purchase a Police Band scanner like the Uniden Trunktracker IV pictured on the left next to my Ham Band 2-Meter walkie-talkie (more on that later). Unlike less expensive police scanners, a ‘trunking’ scanner allows you to follow communications on modern trunked frequencies. Again, there are several brands of ‘trunking’ scanners; Bearcat, Radio Shack, and Uniden all make decent trunking models.
Rounding out the devices needed to keep you informed of what’s happening in the ‘outside world’, is a weather radio. But not just any weather radio. You should look for one with a feature called SAME, or Specific Area Message Encoding. SAME weather radios can be programmed with your postal code and thereby be able to receive emergency information aimed at your local area like the location of local water or food distribution centers, etc, in addition to their normal function of keeping you informed of severe weather in your area. A photo of the SAME Weather Radio in use at the PP house appears below in the next section.
2. Group Communications
OK, so you’ve got the equipment I recommended in the first part of this blog post and you’re informed about what caused the nationwide power blackouts, how do you get the information to your neighbors? Or how do you get word to them that your police scanner just reported that an armed gang of looters is roaming around our neighborhood. Here is where Group Communications or 2-Way Comms comes into play. There are several means of 2-Way comms available to the concerned prepper and most of them do not require an FCC license. Let’s talk about those means of 2-way comms from cheapest to most expensive.
First, though, a word or two about the philosophy behind keeping your neighbors and fellow-preppers ‘in-the-loop’ in terms of information and communication. In a Worst Case Scenario, you do not want to be in a position of having to defend your home or belongings or family alone against those that would do you harm. Your neighbors and fellow preppers are your best allies against that eventuality. Not only can they provide deterrence by their presence and show of force, but the additional sets of eyes and ears would have probably had time to alert the ‘group’ that danger was in the area and avoided a confrontation in the first place.
I. FRS (Family Radio Service)/GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios.
These are the walkie-talkie radios you’re likely to see at Wal-Mart or Bass Pro Shop in a plastic ‘blister pack’. They are small, light and reasonably priced; from thirty or so dollars up to near one hundred for a pair. First of all – DO NOT BELIEVE THE RANGE CLAIMS on the packaging. These radios are for short distance comms only – certainly not more than a block or two distance even under the best conditions. They utilize 22 channels for 2-way comms, but be advised: Only channels 8-14, the low-power FRS portion of the band, may be used without an FCC GMRS license. All 22 channels may be used by persons holding such a license. If interested, the license is easy to obtain. Just visit the FCC.gov website and look up GMRS. It will cost you a small fee to get a station license and call sign. Keep in mind that these radio frequencies will be pretty widely used in an emergency and nothing you say should be considered ‘private’, so you should never mention your address, or even street name. My advice is to develop code names for important local geographical points so as not to give your position away to any ‘undesirables’ who might be monitoring the FRS/GMRS frequencies. While certainly not the best option, these FMS/GMRS radios can be used by family members and/or small groups of neighbors to stay in touch and coordinate actions.
II. MURS (Multiple Use Radio Service) radios.
MURS radios are typically of the walkie-talkie variety and are more expensive than FRS/GMRS radios starting at around $70 or 80 apiece. They do not require an FCC license and broadcast an FM signal in a band that is much less populated than the FRS/GMRS bands. Also, their range is superior to that of FRS/GMRS radios. Because MURS radios are not as widely known as the other type, in a SHTF situation, I believe these radios to be your best means of 2-way comms. A MURS radio being monitored in each home of your group is an excellent way to stay in touch should an emergency arise.
III. CB (Citizens Band) radios.
The ubiquitous CB radio, so popularized in the ’70s is still around and can provide adequate 2-way comms in an emergency. However, their popularity is again, one of their most glaring weaknesses. In such an emergency, the entire CB band will be cluttered with all manner of conversations ranging from the life-and-death important kind to the utterly ridiculous nonsense that has turned lots of folks off to the Citizens Band. CB is also very sensitive to atmospheric conditions and electrical interference.
IV. Amateur Radio (Ham radios)
Amateur radio, or Ham radio as it has come to be known, is an excellent means of communication during an emergency as witnessed by the work done by thousands of Amateur operators around the world relaying messages in and out of disaster areas like Haiti and Chile after their massive earthquakes. In its HF form (high frequency) ham operators can communicate across oceans if the atmospheric conditions are right, but one of the most popular Ham radio bands is the 2-meter FM band. This band is used for local communications and has a range of several miles depending on antennae height and power output. Amateur radio requires an FCC license. To obtain a license, you must pass a test of basic radio knowledge and procedures. There are three levels of licensure in Amateur radio, but only the lowest level license, called a Technician license, is needed to utilize the 2-meter band.
While not practical as a group communications method, amateur radio is an excellent means of 2-way communications to the outside world and thus bridges the gap between outside world comms and group comms. It is only necessary for one person in your group to have amateur radio equipment and a license to use it. Other members may benefit from the information you can glean from talking with other hams. I would advise anyone serious about prepping for emergencies to consider getting an amateur radio license and a good 2-meter radio and base station antenna. It will prove invaluable if the SHTF.
Finally another word about operational security or OpSec. As I alluded to earlier, it is very important that your group and/or family learn and utilize code words for nearby places, persons, and things when talking on radios of any kind. Referring to the ‘traffic circle’ just down the street has pinpointed your position to anyone listening in on the frequency you use. Overhearing conversations and gleaning useful information from them is called SigInt for signals intelligence. Don’t victimize your group or jeopardize their safety by giving away your position or other useful information to the ‘undesirables’. You know what they say about loose lips…..
Be Safe. Be Prepared.