So how would you communicate with your family or get help if communications go down? If you found yourself in the middle of a wide-scale disaster such as a hurricane or other catastrophe and you had no government coming to help for a while, how would you communicate with your family or others? What if the power grid went down?

You won’t be able to rely on your cell phone. There are alternatives, however. This is a pretty long article that goes into some good detail, but if you want the short answer, this is what you need.

Short-term emergencies have shown the limitations of using cell phones to coordinate with each other. Even if the towers are operational, they can’t handle the added traffic of millions of people trying to get a hold of loved ones – or help. Ever had trouble calling your mother on the morning of Mother’s Day?

During many recent events, cell phone service wasn’t an option for many for days. The system became seriously overloaded on 9/11 so calls wouldn’t go through, 70% of the towers went down during Katrina and were down for days, and most areas haven’t been adequately improved across the US.

These won’t be isolated events. Don’t think that because you live in a large metropolitan area that you’re safer. A quick look at some of the things that went on during Hurricane Sandy in NY will show that the government has a lot to deal with in addition to just trying to get your cell phone service back up so even though that was a pretty short-term event, it caused a lot of problems.

Here are just a few issues that would affect you being able to pull out your iPhone to call up people:

  • Cell phone communication has a lot of vulnerabilities that make it a poor solution for widespread or long-term emergencies.
  • Heavy winds or flooding can disrupt the cables between towers such as during Hurricane Sandy.
  • Cell towers require AC power to operate so if they don’t have an automatic backup system, they stop. Keep in mind that a lot of towers are just glorified antennas on the tops of buildings or mountains and backup power, such as an emergency generator, is a very short-term solution. Generators require fuel and that fuel has to be replenished quite often. In a lot of cases, the only backup power available is a bank of batteries that stop charging when the main power system stops.
  • Backhaul systems (essentially the system that connects and/or allows overflow from outer systems to the core, often including other carriers) aren’t always reliable. A lot of this system is wired but has been expanded to microwave and other systems.
  • Most cell phones will only stay charged for a day or three. If you don’t have local power to keep it up, when the system does come back up, you won’t be able to talk to it.
  • Cell phones require satellites, which are vulnerable to hackers, physical attack, or solar storms.

Now don’t get me wrong, for day-to-day emergencies, such as getting a flat tire, a cell phone usually works pretty well. It’s just a crappy solution for big emergencies. They’ll be pretty useless if the national grid goes down due to a cyber attack, EMP or CME, which is actually a lot more likely than you might think.

One cool idea that’s coming out is the goTenna cell phone radio antenna system. Your cell phone connects to it via Bluetooth and an app, and the signal is sent and received through an encrypted radio signal. How awesome is that? It won’t be able to reach to the other side of a city but you should be able to locate your family if they’re in the area and maybe even communicate with others if they have the system.

So if you can’t rely on cell phone service, what other options do you have?

CB radio for emergency comms

A lot of people grew up watching BJ and the Bear and they remember seeing all the truckers talking over the air with each other. CB radio is definitely more available during an emergency but they have a lot of limitations.

For one, not a lot of people are on CB. You might be able to find someone in a truck but even that’s harder to find. The problem isn’t just the lack of people who use it, it’s the lack of people in your range that use it.

One of the big reasons your range is very limited with CB vs other systems is that they’re limited to 5 watts input which is about 4 watt out. That may be just some vague notion but more power means more distance. At the frequencies that CB radios use, you can only expect to get between 1 and 10 miles or so, depending on the terrain. There could be a million people in the US with their CB’s all on the same channel at the same time, but if they’re not within range, you won’t be talking.

You might think that you could just hack into your ham radio and pump out more power, but the FCC goes after people who do that. Obviously if SHTF, you’re not gonna really care about that but remember that adding more power to transmit and receive farther doesn’t do anything to help you hear the other guy with a normal CB transmitter.

How good are satellite phones in an emergency?

For a lot of emergency situations, satellite phones are pretty good. The first problem with them though is cost. They’re mighty expensive. Not only do you have to shell out for the phone, you have to pay for service and minutes. If you’re stranded somewhere though, it may be worth the cost.

They don’t always work though. I had one with me at all times when I was in Uganda, and it came in hella handy at times. They don’t like jungles though due to the trees blocking the satellites and contrary to what every freaking movie shows, they don’t work indoors or inside a ship like they kept showing in World War Z (which was a decent movie but movie mistakes like that drive me crazy).

The real problem is that it’s highly unlikely you’d need it in a normal household so they’re ONLY good for emergencies and probably not worth the cost.

Another big problem is that just like cell phones, they rely on the satellites to function so if the satellites stop working, then so do the satellite phones. Obviously. Solar storms and CMEs have taken out satellites in the past. They will do it again.

GMRS/FRS/MURS radios

For local communication, GMRS, FRS and MURS radios are pretty good. They don’t require an FCC license for FRS and MURS, they’re cheap, and easy to use. They’ve pretty much replaced CB radios for a lot of families. As such, even though they’re an improvement, they have a lot of the same limitation on power and range.

If you have a true GMRS radio, you may be able to tap into a repeater, which will expand your range to possibly hundreds of miles, but the repeater obviously has to be running, and you have to be within range of the repeater for your radio to hit it. GMRS radios are also allowed to operate at higher power than a lot of other radios. You also need a license to use GMRS frequencies.

Basically, if you’re considering one of these radio systems for emergency use, go with a true GMRS radio and get the license.

Amateur radio (ham radio): the best emergency communication system

Ham radio is the go-to communication system for pretty much every emergency response system and is what MARS (the Military Auxiliary Radio System) and ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) both use, as well as many search and rescue and other emergency groups.

One of the nice things is that a lot of ham radios can reach the national weather system (NOAA) frequencies. That means that if you have a radio, you can find out what’s going on in the area. If you have a radio scanner, you can listen to what’s going on with emergency frequencies as well as any other that the scanner can reach, and you don’t have to know which one they’re transmitting on. That’s why they call it a scanner. It goes in a loop up through whatever frequencies you tell it to and it stops if it hears someone transmitting.

Here is a list of emergency radio frequencies that you should keep in mind when both looking for radios and coming up with your emergency communications plan. Just to pacify all the know-it-alls who keep telling me this list is crap because you can’t transmit on them – keep in mind that they’re useful to monitor in emergencies even if you can’t send anything out, and I wanted to make as complete a list as I could for everyone:

34.90:      Used nationwide by the National Guard during emergencies.

39.46:      Used for inter-department emergency communications by local and state police forces.

47.42:      Used across the United States by the Red Cross for relief operations.

52.525:    Calling frequency used by ham radio operators in FM on their six-meter band.

121.50:     International aeronautical emergency frequency.

138.225: Disaster relief operations channel used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; it is active during earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and other catastrophic events.

146.52:    Used by ham radio operators for non-repeater communications on the two-meter band; it is very busy in many parts of the country.

151.625:  Used by “itinerant” businesses, or those that travel about the country. Circuses, exhibitions, trade shows, and sports teams are some of the users you can hear. Other widely used itinerant channels are 154.57 and 154.60.

154.28:   Used for inter-department emergency communications by local fire departments; 154.265 and 154.295 also used.

155.160: Used for inter-department emergency communications by local and state agencies during search and rescue operations.

155.475: Used for inter-department emergency communications by local and state police forces.

156.75:    Used internationally for broadcasts of maritime weather alerts.

156.80:   International maritime distress, calling, and safety channel. All ships must monitor this frequency while at sea. It is also heavily used on rivers, lakes, etc.

162.40:   NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

162.425: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

162.45:   NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

162.475: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

162.50:   NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

162.525: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

162.55:    NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

163.275: NOAA weather broadcasts and bulletins.

163.4875: Used nationwide by the National Guard during emergencies.

163.5125: The national disaster preparedness frequency used jointly by the armed forces.

164.50: National communications channel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

168.55: National channel used by civilian agencies of the federal government for communications during emergencies and disasters.

243.00: Used during military aviation emergencies.

259.70: Used by the Space Shuttle during re-entry and landing.

296.80: Used by the Space Shuttle during re-entry and landing.

311.00: Flight channel used by the U.S. Air Force.

317.70: Used by U.S. Coast Guard aviation.

317.80: Used by U.S. Coast Guard aviation.

319.40: Used by the U.S. Air Force.

340.20: Used by U.S. Navy aviators.

409.20: National communications channel for the Interstate Commerce Commission.

409.625: National communications channel for the Department of State.

462.675: Used for emergency communications and traveler assistancein the General Mobile Radio Service.