I am highly dependent on my cell phone and feel lost without it. That pricey little device provides me with a reliable way to communicate most of the time. Telecommunications can be amazingly fragile at times. Plan for systems to fail during a disaster and have a back-up plan for your back-up plan.
How will I be able to communicate when my cell phone is down? Cell phones require working service or the internet and a charged battery to operate. During an emergency, you may need to rely on alternative forms of communication such as amateur radio, family band radios, satellite phones, landlines, voice over internet protocol (VOIP), social media, or old fashioned hand-written notes.
Imagine how frustrating it might be to experience a sudden disruption in an emergency situation and not be able to reach family members or call for emergency assistance. It could be terrifying, but it does not have to be that way. A little advanced planning and practice can help maintain vital communication in many scenarios when cell phone capability is unavailable.
In this post, we will review basic communication devices and explore the benefits and limitations of each. Keep in mind scenarios in which you need to communicate and which tools, or methods, might enable you to achieve the desired outcome. Consider your needs, budget, and desired level of expertise as you decide which options to use.
Compile a Written List of Contact Information
The first order of business is to compile a written list of important contact information. Have you ever lost a cell phone filled with all your contact numbers? I no longer memorize phone numbers because they are conveniently stored on my phone. This practice could prove to be a bit dangerous if I find myself without a working cell phone.
Compose a list of important phone numbers. Include all of them, even ones you think you would never forget. High anxiety situations can result in slow cognitive functioning and make you unable to recall a frequently used number. If you keep your phone contacts online, it may be as easy as printing the contact list.
Keep this list in a convenient location. Perhaps you can tape it to the inside of a cupboard or closet door where it is easily accessible, but does not add clutter. Make copies for each emergency kit, place of employment, and vehicle. Update this list annually, or more frequently as contacts change.
Children should memorize the most important numbers along with vital information, such as their street address. It may be a good idea to have them carry a list of the most important contacts in their backpack.
Basic Emergency Communication
A disaster situation may require that you are able to both receive critical updates and send information to get the help you need. As you explore your communication options, be sure that you have the capability to do both.
One-Way Communication – Receiving Critical Information and Updates
The ability to get real-time emergency information from local authorities is critical. You may be monitoring the progress of a storm, a wildfire, or any other hazard. Timely information can help you take steps to avoid dangerous situations.
Emergency information can be found on local television stations, radio stations, phone apps, and on the internet. During an emergency, local, state or national authorities will communicate important information over the Emergency Alert System (EAS) or through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).
Some local agencies use social media platforms or a notification program, such as Nixle, to send out local alerts. Contact your local law enforcement agency to find the best ways to keep up-to-date on local safety concerns.
Emergency Alert System (EAS)
What stations should you turn to for local emergency information? A quick internet search for EAS stations in your area should get that information for you. Be sure to include the areas where you commute, frequently visit, and all areas along your evacuation routes.
Label your emergency radios with your specific EAS stations so everyone knows exactly which station(s) to listen to for emergency information and updates.
Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs)
Wireless Emergency Alerts were developed to quickly and effectively alert the public about serious emergencies. WEA alerts look like a text message but they have a unique sound and vibration which is repeated twice to get your attention. These alerts are only sent by:
- State and local public safety officials (public safety messages)
- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (AMBER alerts)
- The National Weather Service (severe weather alerts)
- The President of the United States (national authority concerns).
You do not need to subscribe to receive these alerts. They will be sent to your phone automatically if your device is capable of receiving them. You can opt-out of receiving all alerts with the exception of the Presidential Alert. Contact your service carrier for detailed information about your plan.
It is not possible to respond directly to these alerts. The message should contain information directing you to a source for additional information.
Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)
Integrated Public Alert and Warning System is the new and improved version of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and was developed by FEMA.
During an emergency, officials are able to get information out to the public quickly using this system. IPAWS takes advantage of technologies, infrastructure, and warning systems, and has implemented enhancements to improve Wireless Emergency Alert capabilities nationwide.
AM/FM Radios are still a great way to gather information in a crisis and may work even when television and internet services have been interrupted. Emergency solar-powered, hand crank, and battery-powered radios are all good options.
Cheap radios are only going to cause frustration. You do not need top of the line, but buy something that works well. Store batteries separate from the radio. A car radio may be used to gather information as well.
Take note of the radio stations that provide weather and traffic updates in the areas that you travel. Write these stations down on your evacuation maps so that you know where to tune in along your evacuation route(s).
NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR)
NWR broadcasts weather warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It broadcasts warnings and post-event information for all types of hazards; natural or man-made disasters, environmental (chemical releases or oil spills) and public safety (AMBER alerts).
Look for NOAA radio models with the Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) feature. This allows you to program your radio to turn on and warn you about events in your specific area.
A dependable radio with NOAA alert is an incredibly valuable device to have, particularly if you live in areas subject to hurricanes, tornados, or other severe events.
A shortwave radio receives broadcast transmissions from shortwave radio stations. It can monitor transmissions between 3 and 30 MHz. The radio waves are reflected back from the ionosphere which allows for communication around the curvature of the Earth providing for the reception of world-wide transmissions.
Shortwave radios can also monitor some amateur (Ham) radio transmissions. Reception is limited by the size and type of antenna.
The benefit of having a shortwave radio is the unique ability to hear communications from areas that might not have been affected by the disaster. Reports from other parts of the world may provide valuable insight as to the current situation. It is a good tool for monitoring local emergency channels as well.
The internet is a valuable tool for gathering emergency information. A satellite internet service provider may allow you to communicate through many disasters if your system remains intact.
Refer to reputable news and government sites for official instructions. However, do not underestimate the valuable information available on social media. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms provide some of the best emergency updates with real-time photos and comments which have been posted from phones or mobile devices.
It is possible for you to learn what is happening in your own neighborhood, connect with missing family members, or gather crucial information from these sources. Take time to connect now and learn the value of social media to help you connect with your family and others in an emergency.
In an emergency situation, you might be able to drive through a residential area and access an unsecured wireless network to send or post valuable information or pictures from a laptop or phone.
Driving around a neighborhood to access an unsecured wireless network is called wardriving. If you leave your network unsecured, someone could use your IP address for illegal activities.
While an unsecured WIFI may be helpful in an emergency situation, we recommend securing your wireless (WIFI) network with a password.
Two-Way Communication – Sending and Receiving Information
Establishing two-way contact with others can be critical in a disaster situation. The following methods of communication allow us to both send and receive information.
Let’s explore the basics of phone use and how to ensure that we have something that will be a valuable tool in a time of need.
Telephones – Landlines
Landlines, hard lines, plain-old-telephone-service (POTS) have become less common as people turn to exclusive cell phone use. These phone lines are powered by the phone company and may continue to operate during a power outage.
Most cordless phone sets will not work unless they are on a backup power supply, like the commercially available UPS devices used for computers.
Local calls will tie up two lines. One is taken to send the call and another to receive it. In a large disaster, only outbound (i.e., to out-of-disaster-area) calls may go through.
Avoid making non-essential calls during an emergency to free up lines for emergency calls. If service is overloaded, the entire system may shut down automatically.
Cellular phones may work during a power outage, as long as towers are operating. An event in another area may disrupt your service by taking out a tower in that area and placing a greater demand on remaining towers.
Cell phone availability will depend greatly on the individual event. It is a fantastic tool when you can use it.
As with landlines, cell towers have a limited capacity. A high concentration of cell phone usage may cause one tower to become overloaded and shut down.
Send Text Messages
Text messages may go through when voice calls cannot. They use fewer cellular carrier resources and conserve precious battery power. Do not tie up lines with unimportant chatter during an emergency. Keep conversations short and to the point.
Cell Phone Backup Power
How will you recharge your cell phone during an emergency? Cell phones obviously require power to operate. Consider these alternative options to recharge your cell phone when the power is out.
- Power banks or battery backup power packs. Click here for a good one from Amazon.
- Hand crank generators provide power by manually turning a generator. Click here for a portable military crank phone charger.
- Solar chargers use the energy of the sun to produce electricity. BigBlue makes a solar charger that is waterproof.
- Car chargers and power inverters can be used to recharge a cell phone in vehicles. BESTEK makes a good power inverter with a car adapter.
How to Prepare Your Cell Phone for Emergencies
Your cell phone can be a great asset in many disasters with some advanced preparation. These tips can help you have the information you need when you need it most.
- Specify an “In Case of Emergency (ICE)” contact. Emergency personnel can use this as an emergency contact if a person is unable to provide information. This simple step may help you be reunited with your loved ones.
- Complete and update contacts. Take time to add contact photos, numbers, addresses, emails, and other important information.
- Store your emergency plan on your phone. Take a few pictures and make notes on your phone. Storing the actual documents on the cloud may be helpful during some events but in others, you may not be able to retrieve that information.
- Download emergency apps. Today is a great time to download specific apps that may help you in a disaster.
- Waterproof your phone. Water damage will quickly render this asset useless. Consider purchasing a water-resistant or waterproof case for your phone.
Satellite phones are great for disaster communication, offering voice, short messaging service, and internet access. They use orbiting satellites, completely bypassing any damaged equipment and systems resulting from a disaster.
Satellite phones are cost-prohibitive for many of us. It is possible to purchase an emergency only calling plan. An example of a satellite phone is the BlueCosmo Satellite Phone Kit.
Voice over Internet Protocol
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a technology that allows you to talk over an internet connection. It transforms outgoing or incoming calls into a digital signal. Many businesses use VoIP for phone service.
Face Time, Skype, Vonage, and RingCentral are examples of providers that use this technology. Depending on the provider you may have video as well as voice services.
VoIP allows calls anywhere that you have a high-speed internet connection. Slow connections result in distorted and choppy calls.
Two-way radios allow information to be sent as well as received. They are highly valuable for communicating over short distances as well as relaying information long-distance, even across the world with the proper equipment.
The information is available for anyone listening, so chose your words carefully. Each radio has different capabilities, licensing requirements, price range, and a unique range of required skills to operate.
Two-way radios can facilitate backup communication when phones are not an option.
Family Radio Service (FRS)
Family Radio Service (FRS) is the walkie-talkie type radio found in most big-box and sporting goods stores. They operate on the UHF band, between 462 and 467 MHz.
Some manufacturers will boast a range of 40 miles. Our experience has only provided for 5 miles for clear communication in open terrain. In cities or canyons, this range is shorter, sometimes dramatically shorter. Privacy codes are available to allow for more sharing of busy channels, but they do not prevent eavesdropping.
We tried sending these with our children to school but found them ineffective at only 5 miles due to the terrain. Kylene worked at a hospital 3 miles away in a direct line of sight. The radios would not work due to a coating on hospital windows designed to prevent radio waves from interfering with medical equipment.
We have found these radios to be quite handy in Walmart, around the neighborhood, and on camping trips. Practice using them to ensure they work as you intend them to.
The only cost is the initial purchase of the radios. No monthly service fee is required. No license is required to operate. Many have rechargeable batteries and may be charged with a wall plug using a charging dock.
Radioddity makes a two-way radio with NOAA alert. They are inexpensive and would make great starter radios.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a handheld radio similar to FRS radios. Usually, the radios found in big-box and sporting goods stores are combined GMRS/FRS radios. They have a range of 5 to 25 miles.
Eight channels in the 462 MHz range are exclusively for GMRS use. Most transmit only 1 Watt or less, which is not a lot of power; mobile units (if you can find one) often transmit with 5 Watts.
GMRS radios are permitted to operate at up to 50 watts and require a license to operate legally. You must be 18 or older to obtain a license to operate a GMRS radio.
Citizen Band Radio (CB)
Citizen Band Radio (CB) utilizes a selection of 40 channels near the top of the HF band, at about 27 MHz.
Handheld CB radios are generally less practical due to the need for a long antenna. Typical units include vehicle-mounted or base stations with an external antenna. No license is required for use. The typical range is up to 20 miles, occasionally more.
The Bearcat 880 CB Radio by Uniden may be a good CB radio for emergencies. It comes with an NOAA weather alert.
Amateur Radio, popularly known as ham radio, is the most versatile of all two-way radio systems available for general public use. These radios can communicate over great distances using voice, text, image, and data.
A license is required to operate amateur radio equipment. The entry-level license, Technician Class, is relatively easy to pass. This license gives transmission privileges to all Amateur Radio frequencies VHF 30MHz and above with limited access to frequencies in the HF band above 20MHz.
The Technician class level is great for local emergency communication. Morse code is no longer required for any Amateur Radio licenses.
Tidradio offers an inexpensive ham radio that is a two-way rechargeable radio with dual-band, UHF and VHF. It is designed specifically for beginners. Check here for current pricing.
Amateur radio gear comes in a wide range of costs and capabilities. Select the equipment that will best meet your needs.
Ham radio operators are the unsung heroes of emergency communications. In our experience, ham radio operators are a wonderful group of people. They have a great desire to help others and donate many hours providing emergency and other communications. Many of them are preppers and might provide a great support network. They are anxious to help beginners succeed.
The total cost for a class (often free), exam and licensure are usually less than $20. Go to www.arrl.org for details about licensure and where to find radio clubs and classes in your area.
As a licensed operator, you are issued a call sign and are required to abide by strict rules and procedures. A low-end radio will cost less than $50, but serious operators spend significantly more on equipment.
Backup Power for Communication Devices
None of these communication devices will work without a power source. However, most of them require little power to actually operate.
Carefully consider how you will charge your equipment during a power failure. In addition to storing common size batteries, several small-scale options were shown above.
Jackery makes the Portable Power Station Explorer 500. This battery can be recharged with household power or solar panels. This would be ideal for powering communication devices as well as providing emergency power for other needs such as medical equipment. Check current pricing here.
This is only one of several reasonably good options that are available. Some come with solar modules to provide charging, but with others, you will need to acquire those separately.
You can also build your own back-up power system using solar modules, a charge controller, deep cycle batteries and an inverter. There is good information on the internet describing the design and construction of these systems.
However, you decide to get the job done, do your research, and buy the best quality available in your price range.
Communication Equipment Protection
Communication devices are vulnerable to the effects of Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) from solar flares or Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). We recommend radio equipment be stored in a way that will protect them from these effects.
In some instances, simply unplugging equipment will protect it from GMD or CME. And in some cases, early warning systems will provide some time and ability to protect equipment.
However, EMP will likely have no warning and is generally more destructive. To protect equipment from an EMP, a Faraday cage is necessary. We do not know exactly what will happen, or when it will happen, so take precautions.
Keep radio equipment disconnected from grid energy sources, disconnect antennas, or keep them collapsed down. Wind cords tightly. Store radios and equipment in a Faraday cage whenever possible.
A Faraday cage shields radios and other electronic equipment from EMP damage. Explore ideas online for creating Faraday cages. We store some of our equipment in an old microwave purchased at a second-hand store. We cut the cord completely off the microwave to prevent the power cord from acting as an antenna.
It may not be the perfect solution, but it allows for some protection and convenient access. In our busy world, that means the radios may actually get put away.
Faraday bags can also be used to protect equipment. Also known as EMP bags these are designed to provide shielding for sensitive equipment. Learn more and check the pricing here.
Disaster Preparation for Emergency Communications
The ability to communicate during an emergency could literally save your life. Whether you are stranded on the side of the road, trapped after an earthquake, or trying to safely evacuate from a wildfire, your ability to send and receive timely information might make all the difference.
Investigate the options that are available and select the ones that best suit your skills and ability. Don’t be afraid to get an amateur radio license. It can be a fun hobby for the entire family. If I can do it, surely you can too.
Thanks for being part of the solution!Jonathan and Kylene Jones