Communication is one of the most vital components during an emergency, both man-made and natural. This is particularly true if you live in a city or close to a large population of people. Because we live so close to one another and are so interdependent for our survival, we can become very vulnerable during a crisis. Knowing what is going on, what is happening where, the direction things are moving and also being able to coordinate with others is critical.
There are several different reasons why communications would go down. The most common of these are caused by mother nature. Bad rain storms, winter storms, tornados, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc. can take out communications either temporarily or permanently. During these times, phone lines can be knocked down, cell towers destroyed, power knocked out, etc. Later in this article, we'll consider some of these and how they might effect our communications.
Another reason why communications may go down is due to man-made catastrophes. The most devastating in terms of communications would be an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), caused my a nuclear bomb, either detonated on the ground to cause physical damage or detonated high in the atmosphere with the intent of causing damage to electronic (including communications) with the EMP. There is also the very high possibility that an EMP could be caused naturally by solar flares from the sun. This type of catastrophe must be considered when planning for emergency communications plans. We will consider the effects this might have on different methods of communication.
Because we have become so modernized in the devices we use, we have also become more vulnerable. For instance, most homes today have "cordless" phones which have a single base station that is plugged in to the telephone jack and also an electrical outlet. Then there are multiple "stations" around the house that are simply plugged in to electrical outlets and used conveniently. If the power goes out, these phone are no longer functional.
Then there are the phones that are "bundled" with cable and internet to give you a better price. These function through your cable lines are also dependent not only on electricity, but your cable as well. Thus increasing your vulnerability.
Finally, there's the old fashioned telephones that plug right into the phone jack and require no more power. These are the optimal phones for during an emergency. If the power goes out, no worries. These phones require very little power which is completely received through the telephone lines. So as long as the telephone lines are up, the power can go out and the cable can go down and they will still work. Everyone should have at least one of these in their home, ready to access and plug in when needed.
After an EMP has happened, the phone lines will no longer work. The circuit boards at the telephone companies will be fried and therefore no longer functioning. The same will be true for the power companies. So power and phone lines will be useless.
Many people have opted out of having a telephone in their home at all and just rely completely on cell phones. This decreases the number of lines they have, eliminates an extra phone bill and allows them to take their home numbers with them no matter where they go. Although there may be some advantages to this, there are also vulnerabilities in this. For instance, they are also reliant on power. Yes, they have batteries, but if they cannot be charged on a daily basis, they will no longer function when the battery runs out. During an emergency that lasts a few hours, this is not a problem. But during a true emergency when power may be out for weeks, this weakness will leave a person without communications in a very short time. And because the batteries used in these phones are not normal AA or AAA batteries, they cannot be changed. They must be charged.
An EMP will have no negative effects on the cell phones themselves because there is not enough surface space to collect the harmful effects of the EMP. However, the cell towers and circuit boards that allow them to function will be destroyed and therefore no phone calls will be able to be made with the cell phones. At that point, they will be useless.
The FRS radios are the "walkie talkie" type of radios that can be found at Radio Shack, Home Depot, Costco, etc. They are the most common radios purchased by families when going on a trip to communicate between vehicles while on the road. They are mostly a line-of-site radio that has very short distance range. Some may be able to reach 20 miles or more, if no buildings or other obstacles are blocking the way (unlikely). Otherwise, the range is often under 1 mile. Range can be increased if standing on your roof and talking to someone else on their roof.
These radios are great short distance communications devices. If you have people you are wanting to contact on the next street over, they are great for this purpose. Because they are wireless, they do not rely on phone lines. Many also take AA or AAA batteries so if you have rechargeable batteries and a solar charger, they can be effective for longer periods of time.
Like cell phones, they have very little surface area and therefore should not be effected by an EMP.
HAM radios are probably the most effective methods of communication for the general population during an emergency. And for the sake of simplicity, we'll focus on the handheld radio that would be used by someone with a Technician's license. Personally, I really like the Yaesu FT-60. With this radio, you can reach several miles and with a simple j-pole or other inexpensive home-made antenna, you can reach across many cities.
There are 2 methods that these radios use for communicating. The first one is by the use of repeaters. Repeaters are towers most often seen on top of hills, mountains and tall buildings. They receive a signal (from your HAM radio) and rebroadcast it out utilizing the antenna which can extend the range for great distances. With repeaters, the range can be extended from just city to city all the way across a state, depending on many factors. Either way, the range on a HAM radio are far greater than an FRS radio.
The second method is simplex, or direct communication from one HAM radio to another. The distance is less than when using repeaters, but can still cover many miles. And with a good antenna, the range can cover many cities. This is a reliable method of communication between individuals within a city or valley when all other methods are unavailable.
During an emergency, HAM radios are great methods of communication. Although they do require batteries, power grids are not necessary. And there are often simple adaptors that allow for use of AA batteries. With a solar charger, the use of a HAM radio can be greatly extended for long term. They also do not rely on phone lines. And the repeaters often have backup power independent of the power grid, which can be very beneficial. However, during great crisis, FEMA and other government agencies can seize these repeaters for their own use and not allow others to utilize them.
If there is an EMP, the radios themselves should not be effective. To be safe, it would be wise to store your HAM radio without an antenna attached. And the radio waves are not effected and will always be present. However, the repeaters will be effected by an EMP. So they will not be a reliable resource after an EMP. Plans should be made to utilize home made or store bought antennas to increase distance for communications. Great car antennas are also available to allow communications while on the road.
Another method of HAM radio (which we wont discuss at this time) is an HF HAM radio setup, which can allow world-wide communications. If interested in learning more about that, there is plenty of information available on that subject.
Some things to consider in regards to communication:
- How would you find out local news if the cable, satellites, tv, etc went down?
- What if there was an EMP, how would you get news to your friends and family about your status and find out about theirs?
- If riots and gangs were heading in your direction after an event occurred that took out communications, how would you find out about this news before it was too late?
- If you were to evacuate, how would you coordinate this with your family members or let them know?
Do not hesitate in getting you emergency communications plans in order before you are in a situation when you are needing them. Prepare so you are in control to make educated decisions based upon the information you can receive as a result of this preparation.
Enjoy the journey!