Disaster Communication (11 Radios & Devices)

I am writing this article on disaster communication because I live on the Emerald Coast of Florida and have no emergency communication besides a smartphone. Destin, Florida (my current location) has been hit by hurricanes 58 times since 1930. Poor planning on my part. This is the first comms article, so it will be pretty basic, but it should be a good jumping-off point for further research. (More articles to come)

If all you have is an AM/FM radio, you can at least stay connected and have a general idea of what is happening around you. Before, during, and after a disaster, good communication moves people and supplies where they are needed. It also helps avoid dangerous situations and instills a sense of control through the information it provides.

Radios are the number one communication tool for disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, forest fires, and without the rule of law scenarios where the grid is down. Not all radios are created equal. Each type of radio fills a different role in coordinating people and supplies. Some are battery-operated and reach out a mile or two. Some take a lot of power but reach across the globe.

Hurricane Katrina was a classic failure… [there was] no unity of command…no one in charge and no unified incident reporting system to coordinate efforts of local, state and federal agencies. Fixed communications systems failed with no ready means for their restoration. 

9/11 Public Discourse Project, 2005

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11 Means of Disaster Communication

Phones

#1 Smart Phone

Smartphones are an outstanding mode of communication. They are a PC hooked to an internet service with a two-way cellular radio. If they work, they are great.

The problem with only depending on smartphones is that they may not work in a significant event. The cellular towers could be down from something like a hurricane, or the system could be overloaded, as happened during 9/11.

Cell phones are complicated and are prone to what is called Cascading failure.

Cascading failure occurs in a system comprising interconnected parts, in which the loss of a component can trigger the failure of successive parts. Such a failure is common in computer networks and power systems.

Pros

  • iPhone Emergency alerts (contacts, emergency SOS)
  • Make preset messages ahead of time, i.e., I’m ok, I’m not ok, and include location.
  • Easy Method of storing a lot of contacts
  • Holds important documents, bug-out maps
  • Two-way communication
  • One-way communication like news, weather, and messages from the emergency alert system

Cons

  • Cell towers can be damaged
  • Affected by Solar Flairs
  • Overloaded calls (During 9/11, it was impossible to get a call through)
  • Poor reception
  • Charging (have an off-the-grid method to charge electronic devices)

#2 Satellite Phone

Pros

  • Phones with Iridium coverage work globally
  • The signal is strong and consistent
  • Voicemail
  • Incoming Phone #
  • Keep contact in highly remote locations

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Not made for everyday communication
  • It does not work in a grid-down scenario
  • The phone needs direct sight to satellites for satellite signal
  • It does not work well in bad weather
  • Easily blocked by buildings in an urban environment
  • It cannot be used indoors

Will a sat phone work when the grid is down?

A satellite phone will not work if the grid is down. Sat phones communicate with ground terminals that function based on the power grid. The process is called authentication; a sat phone will not work without power on the ground. Choose a shortwave radio and harden it to EMP if this is a worry.

#3 Satellite Messenger

Communicate via text-like messages and include your location if desired. The device tracks your location every ten minutes.

I plan to purchase one of these when I’m out sailing on a Hobie cat alone. If I get separated from the boat, I could be bobbing around the Gulf of Mexico for an indeterminate amount of time.

Pros

  • Small
  • Portable
  • Lightweight
  • Iridium Network (most dependable)
  • Full functionality without hooking to a cell phone

Cons

  • Require Satellites
  • Clunky to use
  • It does Not Work In a Grid-down scenario

Amazon| Garmin Store

Reciever Radios (Recieve Only)

What is a receiver radio?

A receiver radio can only receive signals it cannot transmit. Another way is that you can listen to get valuable survival information but can’t send a message. Let’s look at the pros and cons of the three most common types of receiver radio.

#4 Weather AM/FM Radio

A simple battery-operated weather radio with a hand crank or solar backup is an excellent thing to have around. I have a cheap emergency weather radio with solar power charging, a hand crank, and a flashlight. The radio is advertised as able to charge a smartphone, but that didn’t work for me.

If I were purchasing a radio today, I would get a small battery-operated model and store many extra batteries. The hand crank charging feature isn’t as great as it sounds.

Pros

  • Simple to operate
  • Weather and hazard channels on an AM/FM radio
  • Battery operated
  • Solar recharging available
  • Handcrank charging available

Cons

  • Not the most effective
  • Hand-crank is hard to use and isn’t very effective.

Amazon| Midland Store

#5 General Purpose Reciever

In a survival situation, the more information, the better. You can listen to ham radio operators, short wave radio stations, NOAA weather, and AM-FM radio stations with a general-purpose receiver.

When purchasing anything other than a weather radio or a typical AM/FM radio, research the types of signal it can listen to. There are so many models of the general-purpose receiver, and they are a little different in what signals they can receive.

Pros

  • Compact
  • AM/FM
  • Weather
  • Air
  • Shortwave
  • Single Side-band
  • World Band
  • Long Wave
  • Short Wave
  • No license Required

Cons

  • Can’t send messages

Amazon| Tecsun Store

#6 Wide Band Radio Receiver

Shortwave receivers allow you to hear news and information broadcast daily worldwide. Shortwaves come in handheld models and tabletop models. Today’s portable models are outstanding but not quite as good as tabletop models.

Pros

  • Provides As Much of the RF band as you can get
  • AM Band
  • FM Band
  • Shortwave (access to the information you can’t get in the United States)
  • Local, to the nation, to worldwide reception
  • Sideband
  • No License Required

Cons

  • Receive Only

Amazon| Eton

Transceiver Radios (Send & Receive)

What is a transceiver radio?

Transceiver radios allow for two-way communication. Said another way, these radios will enable you to receive and send a message. Let’s look at the 5 most common types of transceiver radios.

#7 FRS Radio (Walkie-talkie)

FRS radios are “entry-level” radios that allow you to transmit from a radio without taking the amateur radio test (Ham).

Walkie-Talkies are good for local communication, and they are easy to use. They allow you to keep in touch with people on the same channel within 1 mile.

Hand these out to your survival group so you can stay in touch during security events or camping. They can call for backup if someone is out scavenging or looking for survivors.

How far do walkie talkies (FRS) reach?

On land, walkie-talkies (two-way radios) typically reach 1 to 2 miles.

Pros

  • Short line-of-site communication for local activities.
  • Good vehicle-to-vehicle communication in a close convoy
  • Good communication when moving through a crowd
  • Suitable for camping and hiking
  • Have specific channels (complicated frequency settings not required)
  • Cheap
  • No license required
  • Battery Operated

Cons

  • Limited distance of communication
  • You can’t have detachable antennas
  • A limited number of channels
  • Don’t use repeaters to boost the signal
  • Not Private

Because FRS radios are line-of-site radios, anything can block the signal, like buildings in an urban area or the earth’s curvature.

#8 GMRS Radio (General Mobile Radio Service)

GMRS, or General Mobile Radio Service, is one of several radio services used in the United States. It is typically used locally for two-way communication and is favored by preppers.

How far away can I talk on a GMRS radio?

A handheld GMRS radio has an operating range of 1 mile. A mobile unit will operate out to 5 miles.

Because GMRS are line-of-site radios, anything can block the signal, like buildings in an urban area or the earth’s curvature.

Pros

  • You can use more power (Up to 50 watts in the U.S. and 2 watts in Canada)
  • Repeaters extend range (only limited by repeaters available)
  • 30 Channels, so you don’t have to hunt for frequencies
  • Mobile and handheld units
  • Can have a separate antenna
  • Can Use a GMRS repeater to extend the operating range

Cons

  • You need a license, but it is easy to get and doesn’t require a test (one license for the entire family)
  • Limited channels
  • Communications are not private, and there is no encryption

#9 MURS Radio

MURS (Multi-use Radio Service) is used for two-way communication at short distances. It is primarily used with handheld radios and is similar to GMRS radios. (Sam’s club and Walmart use MURS on their radios.)

As with GMRS and FRS radios, MURS is a line of sight radio blocked by buildings in urban areas and geographical obstructions like mountains or hills.

MURS is one of the publicly available radio services, along with CB, GMRS, FMRS, and Ham Radio.

Pros

  • No license required
  • Privacy (not encrypted but isn’t used much)
  • Simple with no bells and whistles
  • Two-way communication

Cons

  • Can’t integrate with phone system (Ham radio can)
  • Weak transmitter (limited to 2 watts)
  • Repeaters are not allowed
  • It can’t be used onboard aircraft

#10 CB Radio

Citizen’s band or CB radios are used for local communications during an emergency. A CB radio can run off of 12 volts and won’t fail when radios that are hooked to the grid will fail.

CBS is not the best radio for first-line communication (See HAM radio below), but they build redundancy and are pretty easy to use.

You can communicate 10 to 15 miles with a CB on a good day.

Pros

  • Single Sideband Propagation(lower frequency allows you to bounce the signal off the ionosphere to increase the distance a signal will travel)
  • Come in Handheld, base station, or vehicle-based versions
  • Better range than GMRS radios at a lower wattage
  • Requires no license
  • Inexpensive

Cons

  • Distance of signal unreliable due to atmospheric changes
  • No Privacy (anyone with a CB can pick up your signal)

#11 Amateur Ham Radio (My Top Choice)

This is the radio that shines in when it comes to capability and flexibility. Ham radios are the best solution for off-grid and prepper communication.

Ham radios are complex, but they can do more than any other amateur-band radio out there. As with anything worth doing, Ham, radios take effort to learn, and in a non-emergency situation, you have to have an amateur operator license from the FCC to broadcast.

I just ordered my first ham radio (Yaesu FT-60R) and contacted my local Ham club to get information about studying and taking the first ham radio license test. (Technician), so stay tuned for more Ham articles.

A Ham radio allows the user to communicate with all other radio types.

Do I need a license to broadcast on Ham radio?

It is legal for an unlicensed person to use a radio in an emergency, but they will probably not know how to use it because Ham radios are complex. For emergencies, the best plan is to get your FCC license and practice using the radio.

Pros

  • Works on repeaters for amplification of the signal.
  • It comes in handheld, base, and vehicle configurations
  • Single Side Band for weak signals (not all radios have this capability)
  • A wide array of frequencies
  • Receives FM band for real-time news
  • Receives real-time weather information from NOAA (they transmit on 10 frequencies)
  • Can transmit during an emergency
  • Local clubs available for training and practice
  • HF Radio capability (allows for long-distance communication)
  • Great hobby

What is ARES for Ham Radio?

The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment, with their local ARES leadership, for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.

Cons

  • Requires FCC Amateur radio license to broadcast (non-emergency)
  • Learning curve
  • Expensive
  • Repeaters can go down, limiting the distance of communication
  • Fewer people use Ham in an emergency or survival situation (barriers to entry)

What is the range of a handheld ham radio?

A handheld radio pushing 5 watts has an operating distance of up to 12 miles. If you have a line of sight to a repeater, you may increase the working distance to 100 miles.

If the grid is down, repeaters will be down. (electricity is required to create radio frequency transmissions)

However, this distance is somewhat deceiving because you can increase distances by using repeaters, better antennas, and equipment.

Amazon| Yaesu

Start prepping for your Ham Radio license. Check out Hamradiocrashcourse.com or his YouTube channel. (I am not affiliated, but he has a good channel.)