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How to Prepare for Communications Disasters

Article and photos by Capt. William E. Simpson II
Generally speaking, when it comes to disaster preparedness, few people have it together better than farmers and ranchers in my opinion. In most cases, they have water, food and shelter handled very well.

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

However, many people have no idea how critically important communications become during and after emergencies and disasters. Many people today are so use to having their land-lines and cell phones easily accessible for all their communications and Internet needs that in the event those systems fail during a disaster, these people would suddenly find themselves in an information blackout! According to the USGS, the West Coast suffers from a magnitude 9-10 earthquake every 300-350 years… this is a fact. And it has been over 300 years now. An earthquake of that magnitude would completely devastate the supply distribution infrastructure as well as many communications systems. We need to be prepared for this eventuality before it happens!

In addition to a major earthquake, there are two other potentially devastating disaster scenarios that would render most communications systems useless on a very large-scale basis, in many cases, permanently. Briefly, they are:

1. High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse ‘HEMP‘ attack (a nuclear weapon that is detonated in the upper atmosphere over a target); and,

2. Severe Geomagnetic Storm, stemming from an earth-directed solar coronal mass ejection.

Each of these events has its own characteristics and will affect communications equipment in different ways. The good news is that if equipment is properly protected, it can be used post-event.

The HEMP event is the most devastating to electronic devices because it has the ability to damage electronics that are sitting in the drawer of a wooden desk as well as electronics that are plugged into the wall (drawing power from the electrical grid). Added to which, there would be no warning prior to such an event. The best protection is easily affordable; simply buy a large metal trash can with a snug fitting metal lid and line the entire inside with cardboard. You can then safely store your emergency devices and accessories inside this metal can, which affords the protection of a Faraday Cage.

The Geomagnetic Storm is just slightly less damaging for a couple of reasons: First, as a result of NASA’s work to maintain a close watch on the sun, we should have at least 16-18 hours advanced warning from the time any earth directed coronal mass ejection is detected, which would cause severe geomagnetic storming here on earth. And this leads to the second reason, which is; there is ample time to take simple and effective action by unplugging any/all electrical devices from the energy grid. Devices that are not attached to any wiring or the energy grid (plugged into the wall) should not be affected, this includes electrical devices sitting in a wooden desk drawer. Additionally, all wiring to any mission critical devices (radio transceivers) should also be disconnected, including antennas. Once the event is over, devices can be re-connected to their power supplies, wiring and antennas.

When disaster strikes the importance of redundant communications becomes all too apparent to those people who are ill prepared.

In an emergency or disaster, your personal situational is highly dependent upon obtaining real-time local and regional situation reports from news stations and other local or national sources, including civilian reporting stations. These sources can provide you with information that will likely enhance your tactical decisions.

As an example of the value of such reports as they relate to tactical decisions during a relatively common disaster, let’s consider tornado forecasts and reports. Through the regular use of a simple radio receiver equipped to automatically receive live NOAA weather warnings (’alerts‘), people are able to receive timely notice of potential serious weather threats, such as weather conditions that are favorable for potential tornado formation. Here is a link to an actual demonstration of such a radio receiver:

And when a funnel cloud reaches the ground and becomes a tornado, such reports are timely updated with reports/alerts of; current location, estimated strength of the tornado, estimated speed and direction of travel of the tornado. This information is tactically critical for people on the ground. The last thing you would want to do is to evacuate into the path of a tornado (or a wildfire in some locations) and this information would help to prevent such a serious tactical error. In some cases, you are better-off seeking immediate shelter in a basement or the lowest level of a building as opposed to evacuation, such as in cases where there are several storms (or tornadoes) all around your location.

In our example above, let’s imagine some added complexity; let’s assume some of your family members are away from the house where you have a safe basement/shelter. And in our example, we already have an existing telecommunications handicap, so reaching other family members to ascertain their status (safety) isn’t possible using your normal cell or land phones. In this case, having two-way radio transceivers would be a huge benefit. The beauty of having your own two-way communications systems is that they are not dependent upon the local utilities or infrastructure.

These stand-alone radio systems only require a power source (batteries) and another similar radio in order to have two-way communications. This means that in addition to the radio transceivers, you should have options for keeping your mission critical equipment energized with batteries or another source of power such as a generator with battery back-up. For long-term power needs, a solar array feeding a large bank of deep cycle batteries would allow many additional power options.

To accommodate disaster situations, many professional emergency managers will utilize multiple redundant systems for emergency communications. Well versed Peppers should follow their lead and do the same.

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

Let’s briefly look at the kinds of communication equipment that is available and its tactical importance.

There are many radio receivers on the market today that are capable of receiving a very large range of radio frequencies that lay within the various radio bands, as they are known; HF (High-Frequency), MF (Medium Frequency), VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) radio bands. These radios will only receive signals from other stations that are transmitting and cannot transmit, so they are limited to collecting information.

On the other hand, ‘transceivers’ can receive and transmit signals to other stations; however, they are typically limited to transmitting on a specific band of frequencies. It’s a good idea to have both a quality multi-band receiver as well as enough transceiver radios to suit your group’s requirements. Some receivers require that you manually tune them in order to seek-out stations that are transmitting, while other models offer the ability to automatically ‘scan’ the bands and frequencies and seek-out stations that are transmitting. Here are some examples of ‘scanners’:

Before you attempt to use any transceiver that you may acquire, please take the time to learn the basic radio etiquette, which is very important. Here is a PDF that is provided by some professional emergency managers for use by their teams.

As a part of your communications protocols, you should consider adopting certain frequencies or ‘channels’ that will serve as the primary and secondary communications frequencies or ‘channels’ that would be used in case of any emergency or disaster. As a simple example; a family equipped with CB radios in their cars might have prearranged to all meet on Citizens Band Radio (CB) channel 23 in the event of any emergency.

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

Short-Range Communications
CB Radio Tranceivers

Probably the most common and well-known two-way radio transceiver is the Citizen’s Band Radio, also known as the ‘CB Radio’. Individuals do not need any license to buy or operate a CB radio (http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/citizens-band-cb-service). CB radios typically operate using about 4 watts of output power on frequencies that are just above HF radios and below those of VHF radios. They have a nominal effective operating range of about 5-10 miles depending upon the antennas that are being used by both radios and the terrain.

Operating these radios in areas that are bounded by large buildings or in mountainous areas, a car with a CB radio may only have a range of a mile or two as a result of the obstructions blocking or reducing the signal. Line of sight, as a general rule provides the maximum range for most short and medium-range radio transmitters. However, the band of frequencies used by CB radios are capable of utilizing the phenomenon called ‘skip‘, where under certain atmospheric conditions, the signal can bounce off the ionosphere providing a much greater operating range. There are some versions of CB radios that also have the capability to operate on the sidebands (SB capability) of their assigned frequencies (Upper Sideband [USB], and Lower Sideband [LSB]), and as such are legally allowed to use a higher power output of 12 watts, which does increase the effective range of the radio to well beyond 10-20 miles. Occasionally atmospheric conditions (‘Skip’) will allow CB radios with SB capabilities to send and receive radio signals over hundreds of miles and even farther on occasion. CB radios are widely available and very reasonably priced:

Here is a link for more detailed information about CB radios:

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

VHF Radio Transceivers
VHF or ‘very high frequency’ transceivers are used in industry and by various professional operators and government entities, including fire departments, police, USCG and marine operators to name a few. These radios can be purchased by anyone, but in some cases require a license, which is a simple formality; see this website.

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

VHF radios operate on frequencies that are higher than HF/MF frequencies but are below UHF (ultra-high frequencies), and unlike CB radio frequencies, these frequencies tend to penetrate buildings better, which is why they are used by some police and fire departments. Many of these radios are built to MIL-SPEC (military) standards and can withstand various levels of impact-shock, water-resistance and so forth.

The handheld units typically have 5-6 watts of output power and have a reliable operating range of about 5-10 miles. As with most other radios, terrain does have an effect on the effective range. The base-station units (fixed) have various available power outputs ranging from 20 watts to 50 watts, depending upon the unit. Some even have scrambler systems that provides for secure communications between your radios; here is such a system.

Because of the higher power output of some mobile and fixed base station units, these radios can operate effectively over much greater distances, ranging as far as 50-100 miles depending on terrain and the antennas used.

Here is some more detailed information on VHF Radio.

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

UHF Radio Transceivers

UHF or ‘ultra-high frequency’ radio transceivers are used in business communications, public safety and government applications, as well as others. The operating frequency band ranges from 300 Megahertz (MHz) up to 3 Gigahertz (GHz), which covers a lot of applications, including television, satellite and cordless radio transmissions. This operational range of this band of frequencies is ‘line of sight’ but these higher frequencies do penetrate into building fairly well, to a point. GPS satellites which orbit the earth at an altitude of about 12,000 miles also operate at the upper end of this spectrum and allow for data transmission and communications with ’line of sight’ receivers on the surface of the earth, such as ships, aircraft and many vehicles.

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

Iridium satellite telephone systems also utilize the UHF band and have the potential to be fully functional when other terrestrial telephone systems are down during some disasters.

The UHF band is probably the most crowded communications band because it is used by some many different applications. Additionally the Family Radio Service (FRS) also uses this band at frequencies 462 and 467 megahertz. These FRS radios are now ubiquitous as a result of the mass sales of these radios through outlets like Costco and other large chain stores. As a result, I would expect a lot of chatter on these frequencies during a major disaster.

More detailed information about UHF here.

HF Radio Transceivers

HF Radio transceivers are used by both Amateur Radio (HAM) operators and other entities including some industrial, military and maritime operators to name a few. The Federal Communications Commission has assigned frequencies for various users with the HF bands, which due to their lower frequencies tend to bounce off the ionosphere and as a result can provide effective operating ranges of thousands of miles. HF radios are available in both handheld units, which tend to be much larger than handheld VHF units as a result of their higher output power and related battery requirements, and fixed base-station units. The base station units will generally have a transmitting output power of 100 watts or more.

Capt. William E. Simpson II, preparedness, emergency communications, radios, myoutdoorbuddy.com

These radios can be purchased without any license, but all of them do require a license to operate. Because of the great distances that these radios can cover, there are special operating protocols that must be observed, which can be learned by listening-in over a few weeks time. These HF radios will become especially useful in the event of any national or world-wide infrastructure black-out that could be catalyzed by a severe geomagnetic storm (Solar Flare) or through global HEMP warfare (High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse warfare).

Here are some examples of HF radios that are available today -- see this and this.

My advice is to have as many different communications systems as possible, which will provide several levels of redundancy and functionality. This also applies to the systems that will provide power for your mission critical communications systems. In 2010, I experienced first-hand the value of multiple redundant communications systems. Here is that true story.

William E. Simpson spent his formative years growing up on a working ranch in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon. William (aka: 'Capt. Bill') is a retired U.S. Merchant Marine Officer with decades of boating and expedition sailing experience, having logged more than 150,000 miles at sea. Capt. Bill has successfully survived long-term ‘off the grid’ at sea and at remote uninhabited desert islands with his family for years at a time. In early 2013, he appeared on National Geographic’s hit TV show Doomsday Preppers (Season-2 ‘A Fortress At Sea’) and received the highest score in two seasons for disaster preparedness and survival, earning the title of ‘Best Prepper’.

Capt. Bill is also a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot and a PADI DiveMaster. Simpson is an accomplished writer covering all aspects of disaster preparedness, including a recent book ‘The Nautical Prepper’ (Ulysses Press). His articles have been featured via numerous magazines and websites and he has been a featured guest on various disaster preparedness radio talk shows. More info WilliameSimpson.com

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