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Disaster Communication (11 Radios & Devices For Preppers)

I am sharing this article on disaster communication because most preppers are woefully underprepared to communicate during a disaster. For example, I live on the Emerald Coast of Florida. I have no emergency communication besides a smartphone, and Destin, Florida (my current location) has been hit by hurricanes 58 times since 1930. Poor planning on my part. But why is preparing to communicate during a disaster so important?

Before and after a disaster, good communication moves people and supplies where they are needed. It helps avoid dangerous situations and instills a sense of control through the information it provides. So what is the backbone of disaster communication?

Radios are the number one disaster communication tool for catastrophes like tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, forest fires, and without the rule of law (WROL) 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 devices are battery-operated and reach out a mile or two, and some take a lot of power but reach across the globe.

Let’s take a look at the eleven types of radios and devices you should consider for disaster communication.

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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Phones (disaster communication)

#1 SmartPhone

Smartphones are outstanding for disaster communication because they allow internet searches, texting, and phone service, and when they work, there isn’t a better disaster communication tool available. The problem with smartphones is their vulnerability during a catastrophe.

Smart Phones are a weak form of communication. First, Smartphones depend on cellular towers to operate, and cell towers are easily broken by events such as hurricanes.

Second, smartphones can be overloaded with traffic. For example, Smartphone circuits were overloaded with traffic, and people couldn’t get a connection when the towers went down during 9/11.

Third, SmartPhones are prone to cascading failure because their operation depends on a system comprising interconnected parts. The loss of a part or component can trigger the failure of successive parts. Such a failure is common in computer networks and power systems. Next up, the pros and cons of SmartPhones for disaster communication.

Smartphone 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

SmartPhone 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)

Next up, satellite phones.

#2 Satellite Phone

Satellite Phones (SAT phones) are excellent for remote locations, and they work globally and provide a strong, consistent signal. Also, they provide an incoming phone number and voicemail. Not everything is roses; however, there are cons to SAT phones.

The cons of SAT phones are that they are expensive and aren’t made for everyday communication because they need direct sight to satellites to send and receive signals. Also, they don’t work well in foul weather, and high buildings easily block signals. Also, they do not work well 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 for EMP if this is a worry.

#3 Satellite Messenger

Satellite Messengers communicate via text-like messages that include your location, which is tracked every 10 minutes. Next, look at the pros and cons of satellite messengers.

Pros Satellite Messenger

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

Cons Satellite Messenger

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

Amazon| Garmin Store

Receiver Radios (disaster communication)

A receiver radio can only receive signals it cannot transmit. For example, A Weather radio or an AM/FM radio are receivers. Let’s look at the three most common types of receiver radio.

#4 Weather AM/FM Radio

This type of receiver is a simple battery-operated weather radio with a hand crank or solar backup and is excellent for receiving weather and disaster updates. I have a cheap weather radio with solar power charging, a hand crank, and a flashlight.

If I were purchasing a radio today, I would get a small battery-operated model and store extra batteries because the hand crank feature doesn’t work well. Let’s examine the pros and cons of a weather radio.

Pros Weather AM/FM Radio

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

Cons Weather AM/FM Radio

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

Amazon| Midland Store

Next up is the general-purpose receiver.

#5 General Purpose Receiver

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 slightly different in what signals they can receive. Take a look at the pros and cons of the general-purpose receiver.

Pros General Purpose Receiver

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

Cons General Purpose Receiver

  • Can’t send messages

Amazon| Tecsun Store

Next, the wide band radio receiver.

#6 Wide Band Radio Receiver

Wide Band receivers allow you to hear news and information broadcast daily worldwide. Also called shortwave radios, Wideband radios come in handheld and tabletop models. Today’s portable models are outstanding but not quite as good as tabletop versions. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of shortwave radio.

Pros of Wide Band Radio Receiver

  • Provide 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)
  • Worldwide reception
  • Sideband
  • No License Required

Cons of Wide Band Radio Receiver

  • Receive Only

Amazon| Eton

Transceiver Radios (disaster communication)

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)

First, FRS radios are “entry-level” radios that allow you to transmit from a radio without taking the amateur radio test (Ham). These simple walkie-talkies are good for local communication and beginner disaster communication.

Because these radios are so simple, you can hand them out to a group with zero radio experience and teach them how to use them in minutes.

How far do FRS radios reach?

FRS radios typically reach 1 to 2 miles if there are no obstructions. Up next are the pros and cons of FRS radios for disaster communication.

Pros of FRS Radios

  • 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 of FRS Radios

  • 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.

Amazon| Motorola

#8 GMRS Radio (General Mobile Radio Service)

Second, GMRS, or General Mobile Radio Service, is one of several U.S. radio services. It is typically used locally for two-way communication and is the favorite of preppers, along with Amateur radio (HAM). So, how far can I talk on a GMRS radio?

How far away can I talk on a GMRS radio?

A handheld GMRS radio operates from 1 mile to 5 miles, even further with repeater towers. However, the useful operating range is limited because GMRS radios are line-of-site. Anything can block the signal, like buildings in an urban area or the earth’s curvature. Next, check out the pros and cons of GMRS radios for disaster communication.

Pros of GMRS Radios

  • You can use more power than FRS (Up to 50 watts in the U.S. and 2 watts in Canada)
  • 30 Channels, so you don’t have to hunt for frequencies
  • Mobile and handheld units
  • Replaceable antenna
  • GMRS repeaters to extend the operating range

Cons of GMRS Radios

  • A license is needed, 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

Amazon| Baofeng

#9 MURS Radio

Use MURS (Multi-use Radio Service) for two-way communication at short distances. Murs is primarily used with handheld radios and is similar to GMRS radios. (Walmart employees 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. It is only one of the publicly available radio services, along with CB, GMRS, FMRS, and Ham Radio. Next, let’s examine the pros and cons of MURS radio.

Pros of MURS Radio

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

Cons of MURS

  • 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

Use Citizen’s bands or CB radio for local communications during an emergency because a CB radio can run off 12 volts and won’t fail when the grid goes down. Still, CB radios are not the best radio for first-line communication (See HAM radio below), but they build redundancy and are pretty easy to use to communicate up to 15 miles away. Let’s examine the pros and cons of CB radio for disaster communication.

Pros Of CB Radio

  • 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 of CB Radio

  • 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)

Hands down, Ham or Amateur Radio is the best radio for disaster communication because it has the most capability and flexibility. Therefore, Ham radios are the best solution for off-grid and prepper communication. There are some caveats, however.

Ham radios are complex, but they can do more than any other amateur-band radio, but Ham radios take effort to learn. In a non-emergency situation, you must have an amateur operator license from the FCC to broadcast.

Do I need a license to broadcast on Ham radio?

You need an Amateur Radio license from the FCC to broadcast a signal unless it is an extreme emergency. Still, you also need the skills it takes to operate a Ham without the knowledge an Amateur radio is a worthless brick not fit for disaster communication. Let’s examine the pros and cons of Amateur Ham Radio.

Pros of Ham Radio

  • 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

Check out the cons of Ham radio below.

Cons of Ham Radio

  • 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)

Next, let’s take a look at using your Ham Radio to be helpful to your community.

What is ARES for Ham Radio?

Buckle up and get ready to turn your disaster communication skills into a hobby by registering for ARES. 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.

So, how far can we communicate with Amateur radio?

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.)

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