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Communication Methods and You

In this article I want to briefly talk about communications and some options you may consider when developing a primary and alternate means of communications in your Family Communications Plan. If you have followed this site, attended my classes or read my book, Hope For Survival, you know many of my personal theories on preparedness. Risk Management, Family Communications Plan, Food Plans, Security Plan, Bugging Out and Bugging In Plan, Emergency Plan, Emergency Evacuation Plan, 5-5-5- Plan, .......

I do believe if one can't communicate, and especially at night, A single belief I believe in Preparedness would be "if you can't see and communicate at night, the odds are not in your favor to survive long term." Especially if you have to go mobile or conduct security patrols during the hours of darkness. Think about it, in about every scenario one could face, communicating in some manner is required. Voice, sign language, smoke signals, Morse code, telephone, text messaging, CB, Ham radio, or any other device capable of communicating.

So how would you communicate with your family or get help if communications go down? If you failed to establish a plan in advance, who would know how to find you? Efforts would be based on assumptions of where you might be based on your habits and time of day. If you found yourself in the middle of a wide-scale disaster such as a hurricane or other catastrophe and you had no government coming to help for a while, how would you communicate with your family or others? What if the power grid went down? We often talk about having food, water, shelter, and security, but communications is often overlooked or gets minimal discussion. Think about it. If people get frustrated when they don't have a phone signal driving down the highway, imagine the frustration when thousands in your local area cannot communicate. They will curse and point their finger at their terrible phone carrier. But, if one is responsible they will have developed a Family Communication Plan and established secondary means to communicate as well as establish Rally Points to rally their family together.

The question is, if your primary communication device is your cell phone, what will you do and use once you lose your cell signal? Did I just hear someone say "call 911?" So in the remainder of this article I will offer you a few suggestions on other communication equipment to consider.

We can spend hours talking about natural and manmade disasters taking place in the US of A in the last 20 years. Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, Sandy and others, Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the downed flight in PA known as 911, Sandy Hook, the Las Vegas Shootings, numerous tornado outbreaks in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, TN and Virginia, Derechios, massive forrest fires in mulitple states, and the list goes on. In all of these events communication capabilites suffered or failed for first responders and the civilian populace in the impacted area also endured communication failures do to overloaded cell towers. On 911, the federal government shut down cell communications for a period of time in an attempt to block potential terrorist from using texting to send messages and/or detonate explosive devices through texting. So, we do know the loss of cell signal happens far more often than most would remember or believe. In the event of any future disaster of 911 magnitude, it will happen again and for how long is anyones guess. What is your plan?

The previously mentioned events may or may not have been isolated events depending on who you ask. But, you can bet, they will happen again. Have you noticed they seem to happen more frequently? One of the worst assumptions one can make would be that living in a metropolitan area will get your services connected faster than other locations. I don't mean to sound rude, but you nor I will be a priority to get reconnected. So, I ask again, what is your plan. As I have stated in the past and in recent articles, the No 1 priority is life safety of citizens and first responders. Restoring critical infrastructure is a priority. A town or city must have critical infrastructure restored to get the area functioning for the masses. Hospitals, utilities, unblock roads for emergency vehicles to respond to help in life and death situations. Utility crews can't fix utilities if the roads are blocked. Transportation can not get in to a populated area to restock fuel and food for the masses. Remember, most, if not all, food stores maintain about three days of food and products. This alone is another reason to prepare.

So, getting your cell services restored is not one of the highest priorities. And, often the cell services will work. They are just overloaded with emergency calls and folks checking to see if Domino's is delivering pizza. Back in 2011, our area of north Alabama was hammered with 24 hours of tornadic conditions and endured a couple of Cat 5 tornado's. We lost utilities and so forth. Our evening entertainment was hanging out at the picnic table on the patio and listening to AM radio which was broadcasting local news pertaining to emergency issues. If a person could find a phone to call and ask for help, this was the hotline. You would be amazed at the crazy calls coming in. "Could someone bring me 5 gallons of gasoline so I can get over to my girlfriends house or she will break up with me." Or, "we are stranded here with nothing to do, could someone bring some games or playing cards to our house."

The list goes on. My point is, we must be self-reliant and able to survive the best we can without needing outside help. Remember, the longer the event goes, tempers flare and people will do crazy things. Have a plan and separate from the 95% group. You may not be able to communicate but if you have a plan that states where your family will rally and time lines to wait or go looking for the other member, you may be able to survive without technology. Your communication device is your pre-planned steps in the plan. Just remember, a plan is not a plan if you haven't practiced it with those who would use it. Always remember, both short and long term events can cause major problems to you and your way of life.

Here are just a few issues that would affect you being able to pull out your iPhone to call up people:

- Cell phone communication has a lot of vulnerabilities that make it a poor solution for widespread or long-term emergencies.

- Heavy winds or flooding can disrupt the cables between towers such as during Hurricane Sandy.

- Cell towers require AC power to operate so if they don’t have an automatic backup system, they stop. Keep in mind that a lot of towers are just glorified antennas on the tops of buildings or mountains and backup power, such as an emergency generator, is a very short-term solution. Generators require fuel and that fuel has to be replenished quite often. In a lot of cases, the only backup power available is a bank of batteries that stop charging when the main power system stops.

- Backhaul systems (essentially the system that connects and/or allows overflow from outer systems to the core, often including other carriers) aren’t always reliable. A lot of this system is wired but has been expanded to microwave and other systems.

- Most cell phones will only stay charged for a day or three. If you don’t have local power to keep it up, when the system does come back up, you won’t be able to talk to it.

- Cell phones require networks, which are vulnerable to hackers, physical attack, or solar storms.

Now don’t get me wrong, for day-to-day emergencies, such as getting a flat tire, a cell phone usually works pretty well. It’s just a crappy solution for big emergencies. They’ll be pretty useless if the national grid goes down due to a cyber attack, EMP or CME, which is actually a lot more likely than you might think.

One cool idea that’s coming out is the goTenna cell phone radio antenna system. Your cell phone connects to it via Bluetooth and an app, and the signal is sent and received through an encrypted radio signal. How awesome is that? It won’t be able to reach to the other side of a city but you should be able to locate your family if they’re in the area and maybe even communicate with others if they have the system.

So if you can’t rely on cell phone service, what other options do you have?

CB radio for emergency comms

A lot of people grew up watching BJ and the Bear and they remember seeing all the truckers talking over the air with each other. CB radio is definitely more available during an emergency but they have a lot of limitations.

For one, not a lot of people are on CB. You might be able to find someone in a truck but even that’s harder to find. The problem isn’t just the lack of people who use it, it’s the lack of people in your range that use it.

One of the big reasons your range is very limited with CB vs other systems is that they’re limited to 5 watts input which is about 4 watt out. That may be just some vague notion but more power means more distance. At the frequencies that CB radios use, you can only expect to get between 1 and 10 miles or so, depending on the terrain. There could be a million people in the US with their CB’s all on the same channel at the same time, but if they’re not within range, you won’t be talking.

You might think that you could just hack into your ham radio and pump out more power, but the FCC goes after people who do that (just a few examples). Obviously if SHTF, you’re not gonna really care about that but remember that adding more power to transmit and receive farther doesn’t do anything to help you hear the other guy with a normal CB transmitter.

How good are satellite phones in an emergency?

For a lot of emergency situations, satellite phones are pretty good. The first problem with them though is cost. They’re mighty expensive. Not only do you have to shell out for the phone, you have to pay for service and minutes. If you’re stranded somewhere though, it may be worth the cost.

They don’t always work though. I had one with me at all times when I was in Uganda, and it came in hella handy at times. They don’t like jungles though due to the trees blocking the satellites and contrary to what every freaking movie shows, they don’t work indoors or inside a ship like they kept showing in World War Z (which was a decent movie but movie mistakes like that drive me crazy).

The real problem is that it’s highly unlikely you’d need it in a normal household so they’re ONLY good for emergencies and probably not worth the cost.

Another big problem is that just like cell phones, they rely on the satellites to function so if the satellites stop working, then so do the satellite phones. Obviously. Solar storms and CMEs have taken out satellites in the past. They will do it again.


For local communication, GMRS, FRS and MURS radios are pretty good. They don’t require an FCC license for FRS and MURS, they’re cheap, and easy to use. They’ve pretty much replaced CB radios for a lot of families. As such, even though they’re an improvement, they have a lot of the same limitation on power and range.

If you have a true GMRS radio, you may be able to tap into a repeater, which will expand your range to possibly hundreds of miles, but the repeater obviously has to be running, and you have to be within range of the repeater for your radio to hit it. GMRS radios are also allowed to operate at higher power than a lot of other radios. You also need a license to use GMRS frequencies.