Emergency Communications–The Basics

Greetings all.  My wife is the blogger for the site, but she wanted me to to an entry talking about emergency communications.

 

When trouble strikes, after you have your family safe, and food and water are available, then the next issue is finding out what is going on.  Cell phones are a good place to start.  Most people today have a phone of one sort or another.

 

One thing to note is that by federal law in the US, every modern digital cell phone has access to 911 service, even without a carrier.  I know several people who keep old cell phones with a car charger for it in their 72 hour kits or their cars.  You do not have to pay a monthly fee to be able to use it.  Without a carrier service, all it can call is 911, but if you are stuck somewhere and need help, 911 is likely all you need.  Most people will have an old cell phone laying around their house from when they last upgraded.  You can also find cheap old cell phones in places like Goodwill or the Salvation Army.  Car chargers are cheap.  You can usually find them for $15 or less new.

 

Most people will simply say that they have their cell and that is enough, right?  Not always.  Don’t get me wrong.  Cell phones are great, but they do have limits as to what they can do.  You have to have service, you have to a service provider, and cell phones are dependent on the cell network.  If that network goes down, loses power, or get overloaded, then your phone is useless.

 

Additionally, cell phone networks can go down in large emergencies due to being overloaded with calls.  Sometimes they will be shutdown intentionally for public safety reasons.

 

Planning for emergencies all about having backup plans.  So what do you do if the cell phone doesn’t work?  Emergency communications comes in 2 parts.  Receiving and transmitting or in other works, getting information in and then getting out.

 

Most important is being able to find out what is going on.  This includes things like road closures, or where shelters or evacuation centers are.  First place to go is the radio.  Since almost every car on the road as an AM/FM radio, you have a good place to start already.  AM radio typically has more news and information programming, and due to the nature of AM radio, it can be heard a long way from where the transmitter is.  FM tends to be more popular and is easier to find local stations.

 

One of the best sources of information is NOAA Weather Radio.  In the US, there are 7 frequencies that are managed by the National Weather Service.  They are all FM stations at 162.400, 162.425, 162.450, 162.475, 162.500, 162.525, and 162.550 MHz.  There a usually one or two stations in any given area of the country.  Weather Radio operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  It is an invaluable source of information.  Normally they will broadcast regional weather observations and forecasts.  So you can tune in any time and find out the weather for your area. One really nice feature is that they will broadcast alerts of hazardous weather in their area.  In addition, they will broadcast non-weather related information in the event of emergencies, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks.  They even broadcast local AMBER Alerts.  Because they are run by the federal government, there are no commercials.

 

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To any readers up north, Canada operates Weather Radio Canada, which is very similar to the US system, and they even use the same frequencies so weather radios will operate in both the US and Canada without a problem.

 

Bermuda operates their own weather radio service that transmits on 162.550 MHz as well.

 

Unfortunately, most cars do not have the ability to receive Weather Radio channels.  So you will probably need a separate radio.  They make emergency radios that have AM, FM and Weather Radio tuners.  These include multiple options to power them.  They commonly have solar cells, hand cranks, wall adapters, and the ability to run off of batteries.  Many of the newer ones even include the ability to use them to charge small USB devices like a cell phone and have built in lights.  You can find these radios at amazon.com, redcrossstore.org, or at your local Radio Shack.  Target and Walmart sometimes carry these in store.  These emergency radios start at around $30.  There are also home weather radios that can turn themselves on automatically in the event of a hazardous weather alert and will display information on the alert.  These home stations start around $50.   These can be very useful for people living in areas prone to severe weather.

 

Shortwave radio is radio that is transmitted on lower frequencies usually 1.7 to 30 MHz.  Due to the way that these frequencies can be reflected off the earth’s atmosphere, these signals can travel for thousands of miles.  Several companies and organizations operate radio stations that can be heard around the world.  Ever want to listen to Radio Moscow or the BBC live from London?  This is how it is done. Due to the way the signals propagate, they are great for long distances, but not that great for local communication.  Shortwave is best for getting information from outside your local area.  Shortwave radios are available online and at your local radio retailers.  Prices usually start at $50, but you can find cheaper ones.

 

The final concern with emergency communications is getting in touch with other people.  There are several ways of doing so with varying degrees of effectiveness and price.

 

The first option is FRS (Family Radio Service).  These are hand held walkie-talkie style radios.  You can find these radios online, at Walmart, electronics stores like Best Buy, even many sporting goods stores carry them in a variety of styles with prices starting around $35 for a pair.  FRS is not the most reliable system due to its limited range.  Hand held ones are usually only good for communication up to a mile or two.  Most FRS radios even include NOAA Weather Radio.  One thing to be careful of is that most FRS radios also can transmit on GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) frequencies.  Some frequencies are shared by both FRS and GMRS, but some are limited to GMRS only.  Read the manual for your radio to make sure you know what frequencies you are using.

 

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GMRS radio have better signal coverage than FRS because they are allowed to use better removable antennas and have a higher power limit.  1 to 5 watts is radios are the most common, but licenses to be able to use up to 50 watts of power are available.  GMRS is commonly used by businesses.  Repeaters to extend coverage are in many areas, buy many are privately owned and operated and require special settings on the radio to use. Talking on GMRS frequencies requires a license from the FCC.  That license costs $85, is good for 5 years, and will cover you and your immediate family.

 

One suggestion for people who want to have FRS radios in their 72-hour kit:  consider the batteries that the radio needs and what batteries you want to keep in your kit.  Some small radios use AAA batteries.  If everything else in your kit runs off of AA’s, that can lead to a headache having to keep more battery types on hand.  Look at what you keep in your kit, and then get the radio that take the batteries that you stock.

 

Also be aware that the metal structure of a car will absorb radio signals.  So a radio with its antenna inside the car will have much less range than a radio outside.  FRS radios are required that the antenna be fixed to the unit, so they will perform poorly inside a car.

 

The next option is a CB (Citizen’s Band) radio.  CB radios have been around since the late 40’s and have long been associated with truckers.  They are still widely used today.  CB radios commonly go 5 miles, with 25 miles not being uncommon.  CB channel #9 is reserved for emergencies and in many places is monitored by police.  Using atmospheric skip to bounce the signal off the ionosphere, signal can go several hundred miles to thousands of miles, although clarity suffers greatly.  CB radios come in both hand held and vehicle mounted versions.  Vehicle mounted setups are the most common.  They run of the car’s power and require an antenna mounted to the car.  For a kit, you can get a radio that will run off a car’s cigarette lighter and an antenna that mounts to the car with a magnet.  These mag-mount antennas can be rather long, ranging between 4 to 9 feet in length.  Keep that in mind when you store it.  Additionally, CB in many areas has a reputation as having a lot of people that have less than family friendly conversations, so be careful around your kids.

 

Finally, there is Amateur (Ham) Radio.  Ham radio requires that you take a test to get a license from the FCC.  The license itself does not have a cost, but some areas will charge a small fee (up to $15) to take the test.  License is good for 10 years and is free to renew.  There are three levels of license: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra, each with additional operating privileges as you move up.  Ham radio is a very broad topic.  Most people think of guys in their basement talking to people in Europe.  There certainly is a lot of that, but there are plenty more, like transmitting a form of TV, radio based e-mail, computer communication, community service groups, just to name a few.  And no, you do not need to learn Morse code to get licensed, but it is still used quite a bit.

 

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To give you an idea about the difference between the various type of radio.  By law, FRS radios are limited to ½ a watt.  CB is limited to 4 watts.  Ham radio operators can use as much as 1,500 watts of power under certain circumstances.  Even low powered hand held and car mounted radios a can use repeater systems to extend their range.

 

To keep it to emergency prep, the easiest radios to use are for the 144 and 440 MHz FM frequency bands, also known as 2 meters and 70 centimeters.  Hand held radios can be had for less than $50 and car setups can be had starting around $300-400 for a dual band system, including antenna.  For our 72-hour kit, I have a hand held radio that I have programed for the local repeaters as well as the repeaters for several neighboring areas that we visit on a regular basis that I keep in our kit.  I have car power adaptors and a mag mount antenna for my normal hand held ham radio.  I plan on getting an additional car power adapter as well as a mag-mount antenna for the radio that I store in my 72 hour kit.

 

One thing I will add on ham radio is that I do not recommend if your only interest is emergency communication.  Due to the many options and technologies used, ham radio is something that takes regular practice to keep proficient on.  The last thing you want in an emergency is to pull out a radio that has been sitting on a shelf for several years and have no idea how set it up, what frequencies to use, who you need to talk to, or how to talk to them.  If you are interested in radio theory and what you can do with them, by all means, get a ham radio license.  I am just saying that if your only interest is emergency communications, then ham radio really isn’t for you.

 

 

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Communication should be part of any emergency plan and with emergency planning, the time to be trying to figure out how to use whatever method you have planned for is not when you need it.  Plan ahead and know how to use your equipment and who to contact before you need it.  Study the user’s manuals and practice with your equipment when it is calm so you are not trying to figure out how to use it in the middle of a crisis.

 

Hopefully you will never have to use this, but it better to have the equipment and ability and not need it, than need it and not have it.

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2 thoughts on “Emergency Communications–The Basics

  1. Pingback: Going Radio Active: Amateur Radio (USA) | W3JFO

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