Disaster Communication: Prepper’s Guide

A disaster communication plan is essential to preparing to survive a catastrophe.

What will you do if there is a disaster and your cell phone or landline stops working? The best plan of action for emergency coms is to have alternate forms of communication lined up in case you need them.

I’m just getting into emergency communication. I’ve recently signed up to take the Amateur radio technician class and I purchased some FRS radios for my Bug-out vehicle. I figure since I’m doing the research on disaster communication I might as well take you along for the ride. Hopefully, you find something helpful that will help you build your Disaster Communication Plan.

Pre-planning

Get prepared for disaster, and put together a communication plan by doing an outline of everything you need to prepare a survival group for emergency communication.

Some of this stuff won’t make sense unless you move beyond relying on smartphones (a bad idea) and landlines if you still have one, for disaster communication. Following is a list of information to gather and preparations to make. Make a list of:

  1. Type of Communications (radios, smartphones, redundancies)
  2. Predetermined phone numbers and call signs
  3. Predetermined broadcast channels
  4. Predetermined frequencies (HAM/Amateur Radio)
  5. Predetermined broadcast times
  6. Predetermined emergency charging and electricity
  7. Training and Practice with Communication gear (really important with Ham/Amateur Radio)

Contact List

Compile a list of contact numbers for friends and family, so you have them in an emergency. Store the emergency contact list on everyone’s smartphone under ICE or Emergency contact list.

Have a written contact list and laminate it. Make sure everyone in your survival group has a copy in a bug-out bag or go kit, and hang one in a central location like a hallway closet or a kitchen pantry.

9 Important Emergency Contacts

I don’t know your particular situation but the following emergency contacts are a baseline. If things go south who might you need to get in touch with?

  1. Medical (Doctors, Hospitals, & Clinics)
  2. Schools
  3. Local Contacts
  4. Family & Friends
  5. Electric and Utility Companies
  6. Poison Control
  7. Veterinarian
  8. Special Emergencies And Medication
  9. Out of Town Contact

Out of Town Contact: Choose a contact that doesn’t live in your area, preferably out of state. The local phone lines, mobile, and landlines may be jammed. Use this contact to get the information you can’t get locally and put your disaster communication back in order.

Communication Tip: Try to text instead of making a call. Texts have a much better chance of getting through when mobile capacity is reached.

4 Emergency Meeting Places

Create a list of meeting places where your survival group will meet if it isn’t safe to go home or if you can’t get there because of traffic, a downed bridge, flood waters, or massive structural damage.

Imagine a massive hurricane, tornado, tsunami, or a great flood that covers a river basin. You know you can’t get home, but where will everyone come together? That’s a meeting place. Following are four types of meetings places to have pre-planned.

#1 Indoors

This area should provide safety from storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes, Preferably a substantial room with no windows, a basement, root cellar, or storm shelter. This area should protect you against high winds and flying debris.

#2 Neighborhood

Use this place to meet if there is a house fire or other emergency. It could be a church or school parking lot, a local park, or a friend’s house.

#3 Out-of-the-neighborhood

If an emergency happens and you can’t get back to the house, have a predetermined meeting place. It could be a Walmart parking lot, a local grocery store, church, or recreation center.

#4 Outside your town or neighborhood

This should be a place that is out of town. Use it if you can’t get back to your house and your family isn’t together when disaster strikes.

Imagine what you would do if your house were in one of the flooded neighborhoods during Hurricane Katrina. You wouldn’t be able to meet your group in the city of New Orleans or anywhere close to the levies.

FRS Two-way Radios

7 Transceivers For Emergency Communication

#1 Smartphones

Smartphones are the first line of communication during a disaster, but cell phones may not work for because they are susceptible to disruption during a natural disaster. Alternate means of communication should be part of your prepper plan.

Smartphones and cellular services are easily disrupted by power outages, physical damage, and high call volume.

Build redundancy into your communication system to make sure if one means of communication fails, there is another means of communication to take its place.

Radios: Receivers VS Transceivers

When planning for survival communication, you want both one-way and two-way radios built into the plan. One-way radios (receivers) like AM/FM radios will provide news of what is happening in the disaster. Two-way radios (transceivers) will allow you to communicate with your survival group via two-way communication.

What is the difference between receivers and transceivers?

Receivers are radios that take incoming messages only. For example, an AM/FM radio or weather radio. Transceivers allow for two-way communication via hand-held, vehicle, or base radios. Each transceiver type comes in different radio signals that fit a specific survival scenario.

Learn more about radios for disaster. Check out the Ready Squirrel article, Disaster Communication (11 Radios and Devices)

Table #1: Emergency Radios (Transceiver and Receivers)

Transceivers (TWO-way communication)License RequiredReceivers (ONE-way communication)License Required
FRS (Family Radio Service)NoAM/FM RadioNo
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service)Yes (FCC license required to transmit)Weather Radio (NOAA)No
Amateur HAM RadiosYes (FCC license required to send)NWR Receivers (National Weather Service)No
Mobile PhonesNoGeneral Purpose ReceiverNo
VHF (High-Frequency Radios)Yes. (FCC license required to transmit)Wide Band Radio RecieverNo
Satellite PhoneNo____
Satellite MessengerNo____
MURSNo____
CB RadioNo____

#2 FRS Radio (Family Radio Service)

FRS radios are excellent two-way radios because they are inexpensive, readily available, and don’t require licensing. The best thing about walkie-talkies is anyone can use them. This isn’t the case with more complex radios like the HAM (amateur radio.)

FRS radios have preset channels that are easy to use. As long as your group is on the same channel, all you have to do to communicate is press to talk.

I purchased a set of cheap Midland FRS radios at Walmart to use in a bug out vehicle or on my small sailboat. These radios are good for communicating when a group is close together. Another thing I like about FRS, I know my wife and people unfamiliar with radios can use them. Until she is interested in learning the complexity of Ham radios FRS is my best option.

Scott, Ready Squirrel

What are FRS radios good for? (Walki-talkies)

FRS radios work best over water or in open rural areas without obstructions. The best reception is when you can see the other person you are talking to over open ground. FRS radios are line-of-site, which means the signal goes straight out and stops when it hits something like a building or a hill.

These radios won’t work well in an urban environment unless you can get to a high area like the top of a building.

How far will an FRS radio reach?

Under optimal conditions, an FRS radio will reach 20 to 30 miles, but a realistic estimate is one mile.

To learn more about FRS radios, read Ready Squirrel’s article, FRS Radio: Easy to use Disaster Comms

#3 GMRS Radio (General Mobile Radio Service)

GMRS radios are similar to FRS radios but require an FCC license to operate. Some preppers like these radios because the open channels are less busy than FRS channels.

GMRS radios can be used with repeaters to extend how far the signal will reach.

How far will a GMRS radio reach?

A typical GMRS radio will reach 1 to 2 miles. They will transmit 5 miles or more with an improved antenna or repeater.

Search your area to see if there are GMRS repeaters to expand your transmission distance.

Learn more about GRMS radios, Ready Ready Squirrel’s article, GMRS Radios: Best Disaster Comms

Long Haul Trucker on a CB radio

#4 CB Radio (Citizen Band)

CB radios are limited to 5 watts of power, amplifying a CB to a higher power is illegal.

How Far Can I talk on a CB radio?

Depending on the topography, you can talk 1 to 20 miles on a Citizen Band radio. CB radios are considered line-of-site meaning the signal is stopped by objects like buildings or topography like hills and mountains.

CB radios are a good choice for local emergency communication because they are relatively inexpensive and give many options for set-up.

CB radios have amplitude modulation, allowing you to transmit on low bandwidth like AM over longer distances.

CB radios have single side-band modulation, which uses transmitter power and bandwidth more efficiently.

Atmospheric conditions may allow CB radios to communicate at much further distances than 5 to 20 miles, but this is unpredictable, so don’t count on extra distance for emergency communications.

Satellite Phone

#5 Satellite Phone

Satellite phones will work when mobile phones are down, but they are super expensive. You must purchase the phone and satellite service operated by either Globalstar, inmarsat, or Iridium. Each company offers a phone, and they are not interchangeable with the different satellite constellations.

Iridium is currently the only satellite phone company that has coverage over the entire planet.

A Satellite phone is an option if you live in a rural area without service. If all modes of communication are out, there is a good chance that a sat phone will work unless the catastrophe is Air burst-Nuclear.

#6 Satellite Messengers (Satellite Communicator)

Satellite messengers can send SOS messages and two-way communication via a text-type message. Satellite messengers have different capabilities.

At the very least, expect that the device will track your location and allow you to send text messages.

Popular models of Sat Messenger include Garmin In-Reach, SpotX, and ACR Bivy Stick. The Garmin In-Reach is the most popular model with hikers, backpackers, and adventurers.

Ham Radio: Morse Code

#7 HAM Radio (Amateur Radio)

Ham radios are the best radio for preppers during catastrophes and disasters. They have capabilities that far surpass any other type of radio on the market, and their signal can reach across the globe.

Why you shouldn’t use ham radios for a disaster

Ham radios are complex. Amateur radios work on frequencies for specific functions, and much more is happening with the radio controls. The average person couldn’t go up to an Amateur radio, turn it on, and communicate. There is a reason you have to take a written test and get a license.

Keep this in mind when planning survival communication for large groups. Most people won’t have the training necessary to use amateur radio, so you’d be better off using FMR or GMR radios.

Depending on the type of amateur radio equipment used expect to reach out anywhere from 5 miles to Worldwide. The signal of Ham radios depends a lot on the power of the radio, the antenna, available repeaters, geography, and weather.

In a typical disaster scenario, you will average 18 miles from base radio to base radio.

Are Ham Radios Good For Preppers? (Amateur Radio)

Ham radios are suitable for preppers. They are the best all-around radio you can get for a disaster situation. You can send, receive, and contact any other radio band, including the mobile phone system.

Ham radio’s weakness is its complexity. If you genuinely plan on setting your survival group up with HAM radio, everyone will have to learn how to use it. These radios aren’t plug-and-play like the FRS radios.

Frequency Bands For Ham Radio

Frequency Band For Amateur Radio

Long-Range Communication With Ham Radios

Suppose you want to talk to someone across the globe. You have to use HF (High Frequency). HF does not act like a line of a sight radio signal (FRS, GMRS) that goes straight, hits an obstacle, and stops (never reaching the other base radio.)

HF bounces off the Ionosphere and bounces back down to earth. This is called skip distance and can reach 3000 miles or farther.

To increase communication distance beyond 5 to 50 miles, you need to use an HF signal, so you need to move past the technician license and get the General license.

Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse

Are Ham Radios EMP Proof?

Ham Radios are not impervious to EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse.) Electromagnetic energy of enough magnitude will fry any electronic parts not hardened to its effects.

What causes EMP?

EMP is caused by large solar storms, lightning, nuclear detonations, and military-grade EMP weapons.

I expect the next major war will have a lot of EMP technology deployed. So how can I protect my radios from EMP?

EMP Protection: Faraday Cage

To protect Ham radios and other electronic communication equipment, store them in a faraday cage, so the equipment isn’t damaged by severe electromagnetic impulse.

What is a Faraday Cage?

A Faraday cage is a sealed metallic box that protects HAM radios and other electronic devices from electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Faraday cages can also be made from aluminum foil and wire, but they may not be as effective as a sealed metal box with no gaps or cracks.

Solar Charging

Powering Comm Gear: Grid Down

Communication gear requires a backup power plan. And it isn’t straightforward. There are a lot of options when it comes to grid-down charging. This is just a cursory list to get your brain working. Once you decide how to communicate, you can use these alternative power methods to keep communication running.

  • Solar
  • Portable Power Stations (Jackery)
  • Batteries
  • Wind Turbines
  • Hydro Electric
  • Generator

Volts and AMPs: You need to know the Volts and Amps required for charging your communication gear to devise a plan for electrical charging when the grid goes down.

Battery Powered Radio

4 Receivers For Emergency Information

#1 Transistor Radio

This is the battery-powered radio of old. My grandfather had the kind on his workbench and beside his easy chair. This type of radio will keep you informed via AM and FM channels.

Good to have so you can stay up to date on local weather, disaster relief efforts, or a boil order for the municipal water supply.

#2 NOAA Weather Radio (NWR)

Weather radios broadcast dangerous weather from local weather stations. If you have an area prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, or blizzards you probably already have on in your home.

What is a weather radio?

NOAA Weather Radios (NWR) receive information from a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office.

NWR doesn’t just broadcast official Weather. It also sends Service warnings, watches, forecasts, and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

#3 Emergency Alert System (AES)

AES is a national public warning system that allows the president to communicate with the U.S. population through television, radio, and cable in the event of a national emergency.

Suppose you are listening to the radio or watching t.v. You will automatically get these messages during a national emergency if they are broadcast.

#4 Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA)

These are emergency messages that are geographically targeted and sent via wireless devices like smartphones. If your smartphone and other smart devices can transmit WEA, you must set them up.

Not all wireless devices use WEA technology check with your carrier to make sure your phone is compatible.

How To Turn On WEA For Emergency Information

iPhone: Turn WEA messaging on if you have an iPhone: Go to Settings > Notifications. Scroll to the very bottom of the screen. Under Government Alerts, turn the type of alert on or off.

Android: Turn emergency alerts on or off: Open Settings >Tap Notifications>Wireless emergency alerts>Select the alerts you want to receive