In my opinion, determining communications tools and protocols for volunteer preparedness teams has always been difficult to navigate. There are those who are extreme that want the best products and will pay top dollar, along with those that just wanted the lowest cost to get by meeting requirements. With communications today, people depend solely on cell phones. Without a cell, what would most people do? Probably very little, so I decided that a write up could help define a few options for emergency communications to help bring everyone up on the same level.
First off, here is a high level listing of the different types of communication tools available along with PROs and CONs for each in emergency situations:
- 4G LTE cell phone – works great for direct voice contact, text messaging to groups can be applied, and easy to use. However, when emergency situations occurs the cell services max out limiting usage. Basically, you’ll receive an “I’m sorry this service is currently unavailable, please try again later.” If the service is not immediately knocked-out, be quick and send text messages. During that 5-minute-point, send the text messages to family and key people notifying them via text that you’re safe, your whereabouts, and where to meet in the future. However, your emergency plan should have that defined well in advance. All in all, after that first 5-minutes after the incident, give up on cell phones entirely, if at all functional, they will likely remain completely unavailable due to a massive upsurge in callers.
- Old fashioned phone – original telephone line phones will be more stable, but it’s tough to find these. Make sure you have phone numbers of contacts out of state to act as your family communication relay point. Have those key phone numbers handy. Other than that, they may not be much help with emergency communication.
- VHF/UHF radio communications – this area has multiple paths so I’m going to break these up:
- FRS (Family Radio Services) – These are the cheapest walk-talkies that can be purchased and have limited range. They transmit at maximum .5 watts and generally have 15 channels. These do not require call signs when used. If you need distance, stay away from these as the transmissions are easily blocked by hills and buildings. These should be used for staging area communications; within eye-sight.
- FRS/GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) – These are the best choice for non-FCC regulated communications. They can transmit up to 2watts with 22 channels. These do not require call signs when used. (NOTE: channels 8 thru 14 automatically set to .5 watt that span over to FRS .5watts transmission.) This higher wattage transmission will provide better range, but still will be impeded by dense barriers, i.e., hills, trees, building, etc. These are advertised as FRS/GMRS and can be identified without a detachable antenna.
- GMRS Radios – These are higher end UHF radios that have a much greater transmission level from .5 up to 50 watt, which is the reason why FCC has required a GMRS license for them ($75). The FCC requires announcing call signs when using a GMRS device for monitorability. These radios generally have GMRS written on them and have a removable antenna. These are FCC regulated because the high power transmission can disrupt other frequency based devices, thus GMRS license holders must be responsible. If you would like this type of power, I think a Ham Radio Technician’s license is better, as it provides much broader options and for a lower cost.
- Ham Radios – These are the best for simplex transmission and can go up to 50 watt, but are much more complicated to use. The FCC Ham Radio Technician’s license requires a base understanding of physics and electronics, along with passing an FCC test ($15) to receive your license. The FCC requires announcing call signs, ex., KG7LIW, at the start of transmitting and every five to ten minutes during interaction (see communications protocol below). Due to the difficult testing and much more expensive equipment, many do not go this route. They are best because Ham Radios allow you to enter into direct frequencies (rather than channels), connect to repeaters, and transmit simplex (point-to-point) for local VHF communication. Handhelds along can transmit at 5 watts. Well worth having in emergency situations.
The FRS/GMRS radios are highly recommended. They are lower cost and do not require a license to use. An example FRS/GMRS radio that was shown in the September 2017 Hayhurst NET meeting is the Cobra microTALK CXT645. It has a direct weather report button, flashlight, privacy codes to encrypt communications, and transmits at 2 watts max or at .5 to conserve battery. Like this example, I recommend the GMRS/FRS radio be used. It’s been confirmed through the FCC that they do not require GMRS licencing eaither, as that was debate going on for many years asking why a “bubble-wrap” radio would require a license. Well, FCC has reached agreement that if transmission is 2 watt or lower, the GMRS license isn’t needed. Here’s a link to the FCC confirmation.
General Communications Protocol 101: When transmitting via radio here are the basic rules:
- Never interrupt communication unless it’s a life and death situation. The use of “break, break” preceding a radio communications indicates someone’s life is at stake and your communication then takes over.
- Radio communication requires this basic form. Generally, you wait till there is silence, then key in the push to transmit (PTT) button with one second then start talking. After finishing talking, then release. It takes a second to engage the transmission and end. This is not like a duplex (multiple voices simultaneously) cell phone either, simplex is one party speak at a time – back and forth. This communication technique requires verification of messages sent also to verify proper understanding. When applying this make sure you have the target in contact before going into details. “This is KG7LIW, KG7EMM do you copy?” You’d reply, “KG7LIW, this KG7EMM, go ahead.”
- When emergency communication is in effect, be sure to follow a short and to the point message format. Await open air, then first identify who you’re contacting (call sign or code), followed by what you need from that party, and lastly who you are (call sign or code). Verify the recipient copies the brief message you sent. Then you’re finished. Emergency communication is critical; keep it short and to the point. The same applies for drilling activities.
- Last and most important, is speaking slowly and clearly. This is essential particularly when there are transmission issues, background noise, or the receiver just doesn’t hear well (to name just a few). Clear communication and not rushing is essential.
Any suggestions or questions on this topic, please post them below. Thank you!