The Prepper’s Guide to Emergency Communications

A communications plan is a big part of disaster preparedness: The right gear, the right mindset, and the right protocols

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Photo by Jack Sloop on Unsplash

We are in a pandemic, and by all accounts, it has been one of the biggest disasters of our generation. However, we are fortunate to have the usual comforts of life, such as electricity, running water, telecommunications — basically, the things that enable us to adjust to a “new normal” or “next normal.”

A disaster like a huge earthquake, forest fire, or big storm, on the other hand, will usually result in the destruction or unavailability of such comforts, not to mention injuries and loss of life.

A few weeks back, I watched a documentary about how a grassroots communications network based on GMRS had been set in place in Northern California as a means for emergency communication during disasters. Prior to that, wildfires resulted in the loss of communication to the extent of one couple fearing each other’s deaths having lost touch (they both turned out OK).

Communication is one of the aspects of prepping, and we have seen how inexpensive radios like Baofeng handhelds have been a staple on prepper reviews and videos. As a licensed radio amateur, however, I can say off-grid disaster communication goes beyond having walkie-talkies in your go-bag.

In November 2013, Supertyphoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) hit Central and Eastern Visayas in the Philippines, and it resulted in at least 6,000 fatalities and billions in dollars worth in infrastructural damages. As expected, communication lines were brought down, both due to congestion and loss of power and infrastructure.

During that time, the only means through which aid was coordinated was initially through amateur radio operators who volunteered as part of HERO — Ham Emergency Radio Operators.

Such instances don’t only occur during natural disasters. For example, telcos will sometimes turn off cellular coverage during big events, to prevent a scenario that involves using cellphones in detonating explosives. Another example will be emergencies that result in severe congestion.

Prepping means getting ready for any eventuality. When it comes to communications, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. We will need to carefully establish a communications plan, practice it, and make sure we have redundancies and protocols so that when the need arises, we can effectively use our skills and gear to communicate and coordinate.

Some gear considerations

Baofengs are a so-called “gateway drug” into more capable and expensive radio gear for the simple reason of cost. If you’re not familiar yet, a dualband Baofeng UV-5R would go for as little as $20, and you can even find it in the second-hand market selling for much less.

Such inexpensive gear was unheard of years back. Today, a lot of new hams get started on these cheap handhelds and eventually graduate into more capable gear. It’s so cheap, however, that families and kids would sometimes buy it thinking it’s a license-free option or even a toy.

Range. A handheld portable radio will be very limited in terms of transmit and receive range. Baofengs are notorious for getting “desensed” due to receiver overload. This means that the moment you install a more sensitive antenna such as a mobile antenna, aerial antenna, or even a higher-gain whip, there is a tendency for the radio to not receive any signals in your tuned-in frequency due to stronger signals overpowering it. This is true, particularly in urban areas.

Antenna efficiency. A mobile or fixed rig will be significantly more powerful in terms of transmit and receive. While UHF and VHF are line-of-sight, you can get a world of difference in TX/RX range when you have a more capable antenna system and additional power. Remember, with line-of-sight, height is might. UHF works best in urban areas, while VHF generally travels farther with power and height being the same.

Off-grid power. You also need to consider the power source. For one, if you are keeping radio gear in your go-bag, bug-out vehicle, or another emergency stash, you need to make sure your rechargeable batteries are in condition.

I, for one, have battery cases that use alkaline or rechargeable AA cells for my dualband Yaesu FT-60R (the FBA-25 battery case or a generic option) and Icom IC-T70A (the BP-263 battery case or a cheaper generic option).

Most radio amateurs will also include solar-charging in their fixed station or radio go-box.

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Left: Icom IC-S70 pictured with BP-263 battery case. Right: Yaesu FT-60R pictured with FBA-25 battery case. Credit: Author’s own, 4I1RAC/N2RAC.

Longer-range options. HF radios let you bounce signals off the ionosphere, which means you can communicate at longer distances, even across regions and countries. These require very large antenna setups, however. CB radios fall under “HF” being in the 11-meter band (27–28 Megahertz), although legality as a license-free option will depend on your jurisdiction.

License-free options. Being a licensed amateur, I can use more bands and devices. There are limitations on unlicensed use of radio frequencies, however. In the US, there is FRS. There are also the more powerful GMRS and MURS, wherein you can simply apply for a license online (with GMRS each license is valid for use by immediate family, too). In the Philippines, there is SRRS. In Australia, there is UHF CB.

The community network I linked above uses GMRS with a repeater system linking several towns. Each household has a fixed (or “base”) station, which is powered by a rechargeable car battery, ensuring effective off-grid capability.

Check your jurisdiction for license-free radio options. Range, power, and accessories may be limited with such license-free radios, however, so consider getting licensed so you can explore and enjoy better performing gear and bands.

The need to establish protocols

A lot of prepper discussions on communication do away with licensing, with the argument that when shit hits the fan — SHTF — no one would bother with licensing anyway. And there is the libertarian thought that getting licensed exposes one’s identity and address information to the government!

True, during dire circumstances, no one will probably bother to check your license validity, but it will be a big plus in non-emergency cases.

Being licensed in the use of radio equipment and frequencies goes beyond having a piece of paper and being part of a database

This privilege lets you legally use your particular part of the spectrum, you can also establish networks and protocols around disaster preparedness.

This is one purpose of “nets” for example. An amateur radio net is often held on certain days of the week (e.g., 8 PM Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, in the case of my DX1ARM club). This can have several advantages:

  • You can test the capability of your gear — how far you can communicate, how well you can hear;
  • You can practice communications relay, which is very useful when the infrastructure is down;
  • You get to know the people in your community, so you are part of an active network of communicators.

Being licensed also lets you have the privilege of using repeaters

These are radio stations in high locations such as hilltops, mountaintops or atop high-rise buildings that essentially re-transmit your transmission for wider coverage (this is done in duplex, with receive and transmit frequency being split or in pairs).

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A rudimentary illustration of how a repeater works. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Communications prepping is not just having gear on standby

You also need to know how to use it. If you have a family, each member should know where to find the gear, how to use it, and how to effectively communicate. For example, you need to know how to power up, which channels to use, how to change or charge the batteries.

Part of what we learn as radio amateurs are how to effectively communicate: listening before talking, properly identifying, use of clear language, and responsible use of the airwaves.

In most cases, your primary means of communication will likely be your mobile phone, which will ideally have location-tracking for your family, which can be useful for making sure everyone is safe. Families and groups should have access to off-grid alternatives.

A protocol should also include back-up options, e.g., where to meet in case you can’t get in touch with anyone, which people to trust, etc.

Signal vs. noise

As stated above, effective communication goes beyond having the best radio, antenna, and off-grid power capabilities.

Herein lies the importance of practice. If everyone suddenly got on air without learning some procedures and protocols, then everyone would be transmitting and talking at the same time, being used to duplex telephone or cellphone communications.

With off-grid options like two-way radios, it will be significantly different. We need to take turns since a half-duplex or simplex option means one is talking while everyone else is listening.

Since it is one-is-to-many communication, how do we handle taking turns and keeping track of messages? How do we handle situations wherein we can’t hear each other but some other persons can relay?

We may be monitoring public-safety channels such as police departments or city public safety offices. How do we deal with this information, or how do we verify such information?

“At the most basic level, you need to hear what is happening in the world around you. How will you contact others for aid and support? Don’t limit your horizon to how loud you can yell,” writes Craig Buck, K4IA in his handbook Prepper Communications: The Easy Way.

These questions will arise, and these can be addressed with practice.

In conclusion

Prepping may have been overhyped by media coverage of people hoarding guns, ammunition, radio gear, and months’ worth of food and supplies. However, true preparedness goes beyond these. It’s a gradual but purposeful build-up of capability leading toward readiness in any eventuality.

Having a communications plan and capability will be a big part of disaster preparedness. Be sure to have the right gear, the right mindset, and the right protocols in place. Your life — and that of your loved ones — may depend on it.

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