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Emergency Preparedness: Part 3 - Exploring Emergency Communication Methods

In times of crisis, communication becomes paramount. There are lots of people out there that can speak way more intelligently on what I would describe as advanced communications. I would define the need for advanced communications to be in a grid down or emergency situation where cell towers are inoperable, and the internet is gone. Being able to receive and convey important information during emergencies is crucial for your safety and the well-being of your loved ones. In this third installment of our emergency preparedness series, we will delve into various emergency communication methods that can help you stay connected and informed in challenging situations. We are going to stay high level on this first post to get us started, but in future post we will go deeper into this topic. So, let’s get started!

Establish a Communication Hierarchy

During emergencies, it's important to have a clear communication hierarchy within your household or group. Designate a primary point of contact and establish alternative contacts in case the primary person is unavailable. Ensure that everyone is aware of this hierarchy and has the necessary contact information. Put this hierarchy on paper with associated phone numbers so if your phone battery dies or your phone isn’t working you can still call. Once you have it on paper laminate it and place with your evacuation planning paperwork. If you need to go back and review Part 2 – Evacuation Planning for more information.

Cell Phones and Text Messaging

Cell phones are often the most accessible and reliable means of communication during emergencies. Make sure your cell phone is fully charged and consider investing in a portable battery charger. Text messaging is often more reliable than voice calls during times of network congestion, so prioritize text messages when possible. I remember when my wife was in Oklahoma for work during the F5 Moore tornado on May 13th 2013. I was in another state watching the weather roll in. After the tornado ripped through Moore and the neighboring towns calling out or receiving a call was practically impossible. Initially certain carriers were able to support the load, but that quickly ended. Text was the only option right after the storm and even then, messages were often delayed by hours.

Emergency Alert Systems

Stay informed by signing up for local emergency alert systems. These systems send notifications via phone calls, text messages, or email, providing critical information about emergencies, evacuation orders, and other important updates. Check with your local government or emergency management agencies to learn how to register for these alerts. Utilizing a weather radio can be a great way to monitor the emergency alert system. Most weather radios are able to be plugged in, battery operated, and as a last resort wound up. This makes them a great addition to your emergency planning.

Two-Way Radios

Two-way radios, also known as walkie-talkies, can be invaluable for communication, especially in areas with limited cell phone reception or during power outages. Ensure that you have a set of fully charged radios and establish a designated channel for communication within your household or group. There are some caveats to keep in mind.

  • Range and Channels - Two-way radios have a limited range, usually measured in miles. If you’re looking at purchasing radios, I would recommend taking the stated communication range with a grain of salt. The range can vary based on factors such as terrain, obstructions, and the power of the radio. When purchasing two-way radios, consider the range needed for your specific circumstances. Additionally, radios typically have multiple channels, which are like separate communication frequencies. Choosing the right channel can help avoid interference and ensure clear communication.

  • Establish Communication Protocols - Like establishing a communication hierarchy. Before an emergency occurs, establish communication protocols within your household or group. Determine designated radio operators and establish a clear communication plan. Establish codes or signals for different types of messages, such as "emergency," "all clear," or "need assistance." Assign specific frequencies or channels for different groups or purposes to avoid confusion and facilitate efficient communication.

  • Practice and Familiarize - Regularly practice using two-way radios with your household or group members. Familiarize everyone with the operation of the radios, including how to change channels, adjust volume, and activate any additional features. Practicing scenarios and simulated emergencies can help refine your communication skills and identify any issues that need to be addressed. One thing I like to do with my kids is to give each of them a radio when they are playing outside and ask them to use it. They can talk to each other, I can check in with them, and they get lots of practice holding the PTT button and speaking clearly, and they learn not to hold the mic right next to their mouth, etc. We’ve also discovered what the range limits of the radios are for our location and urban environment, which is much smaller than advertised.

  • Battery Management - Maintain a regular schedule of checking and charging the batteries of your two-way radios. Keep spare batteries on hand, especially during extended emergency situations. Consider investing in rechargeable batteries and a portable solar charger, which can be useful when access to electricity is limited. Plan accordingly for batteries to potentially become depleted faster in colder climates.

  • Privacy and Security - Keep in mind that two-way radio transmissions are not encrypted or secure. There are exceptions to this which we will cover more in the future. For now just remember radio communication is not private. Period. Avoid transmitting sensitive personal information over the radio. If you need to convey confidential or private information, consider establishing an alternative means of communication.

Ham Radio Operators

Taking radio communication beyond the basic level you could consider becoming a licensed amateur radio operator or connecting with operators in your community. Amateur radio, or ham radio, can provide long-distance communication capabilities, even when other communication methods are down. Ham radio operators can relay messages, provide updates, and connect you with emergency services if needed. It’s important to remember that without a license it’s illegal to transmit on HAM channels, but you can always listen for free.

Social Media and Online Platforms

During emergencies, social media platforms and online communities can be valuable sources of information and communication. Our world is so connected that it’s possible you see events occurring on the other side of the world before you see it on mainstream media. Follow local government agencies, emergency management organizations, and reputable news sources on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Online forums and community groups can also provide support and resources during times of crisis. Don’t discount neighbors and good old face to face communication either. Some of the best information I’ve gotten is from walking my dog in the neighborhood and talking to neighbors.

Public Address Systems and Alarms

Pay attention to public address systems, outdoor warning sirens, or other alarms used in your community to broadcast emergency information. Familiarize yourself with the sounds and meanings of these signals, as they often indicate important instructions or alerts.

Garmin inReach Devices/Satellite Phones

Garmin inReach devices are satellite communication devices that offer global two-way messaging, SOS capabilities, and GPS navigation. These devices use the Iridium satellite network, providing coverage even in remote areas where cell phone signals are unavailable. With inReach, you can send and receive text messages, share your location, and access weather forecasts. In case of emergencies, the SOS feature allows you to communicate with a 24/7 global monitoring center, which can coordinate rescue efforts. Consider adding a Garmin inReach device to your emergency preparedness kit, especially if you frequently venture into remote or wilderness areas. In areas with limited or unreliable cellular coverage, satellite phones can provide a lifeline for communication. While they can be expensive, having access to a satellite phone can be crucial during emergencies, especially in remote or disaster-stricken areas. I remember when satellite phones cost you an arm and a leg, fast forward to 2023 many of these companies like Garmin, IsatPhone and Iridium offer competitive pricing.

Effective communication is vital in emergency situations. By establishing a communication hierarchy, utilizing cell phones and text messaging, signing up for emergency alert systems, using two-way radios or ham radios, leveraging social media and online platforms, being aware of public address systems and alarms, and considering satellite communication devices like the Garmin inReach, you can enhance your ability to receive and relay important information during emergencies. In the next part of this series, we will explore essential survival skills and techniques that can help you navigate challenging situations. Stay tuned!


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