Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies- Part 5

from Survival Blog:

So far, you’ve learned about the FCC and non-FCC license communications devices and equipment that is used with them. I touched on the use of Ham devices in an emergency, if you don’t yet have your Ham license. Now, let’s wrap up by learning how you can obtain your Ham license and move on to establishing and planning your communications.

Getting Your License

Ham radio licenses come in three levels, increasing in complexity of test and allowable frequencies. The FCC does not charge for the license, but your local Ham radio club usually has a $14 fee for giving the exam.

I usually describe the Ham radio licenses in the following way:

  • Technician class: a test on what you can’t do and why you can’t do it, along with an overview on what you are allowed to do and how not to electrocute yourself. After passing it you have access to VHF/UHF/50MHz with limited access to some HF.
  • General class: a test on how things function and an overview of the new things you can do, plus a reminder of how not to electrocute yourself. This includes access to almost all amateur frequencies.
  • Extra class: a test on the theory behind what you are doing, plus a few extra frequencies, oh… and bragging rights.


There are a number of free and cost resources. Since the question pool changes every few years, make sure you have the latest version. Some resources just focus on the answers; some go over the content and give you all possible answers. Personally, I recommend the KB6NU Technical Study guide. It focuses on what is needed to pass the test. Study this, and use the link to test how you are proceeding. When you are 90-100% successful, start looking for a local exam.

If you have looked into Ham radio years ago, please note that they stopped the CW (Morse Code) requirement. There are free, and at cost, study guides for each level of test, and you will learn more than you think while studying for them. Personally, I recommend a General class license; this has almost all frequency privileges while still being a reasonable test.

Establishing and Planning Communication

Knowing who you want to talk to, what kind of equipment they have, what time of day it is for both of you, and their location matters. Location isn’t just about distance; it’s about terrain, too. For instance, if you want to talk to your rural neighbor that lives in a valley two mountains and 60 miles away, your approach will be different than if the terrain was flat and there was 80 or just three miles between you. Almost all options here require a Ham radio license. Communications plans can be outlined with non-licensed technologies; however, they are extremely limited in power and distance.

Basic Questions for Communications Planning

  • With a map, identify where you are and where they are expected to be.
  • List distance in a straight line between you and them; use a ruler, map, and map key.
  • On the map, draw a circle around each person, team, and location and have those circles overlap. This will give you a better understanding of the distances you need to communicate over. Those distances will help you understand the bands you will need to operate with.
  • Identify major terrain obstacles, such as mountains.
  • What radio equipment do they already have and what frequencies do they support?
  • Do they fall within groundwave range of one or more frequencies above?
  • Are you both within range of a specific 2 meter, 70cm, or other repeater?
  • Is there direct line of sight between both locations (neighbor next door, with or without obstacles between you, and what the obstacles are if they exist).
  • Are they, or everyone you want to talk to, within 0-500 miles from each other (NVIS)?
  • Is direction finding a concern?
  • Do you or does someone else need to know the location of someone at given any time? (Tracking a bugout in progress).
  • Do different people within your communications plan have different communications needs? (urban, rural, highway routes, centralized communications hubs)

When Planning, Know How To Contact People

  • Have a plan. Knowing when to contact, who to contact, what methods of contacting and when are all critical in a good communications plan. Just as important as being able to contact someone is knowing how you and they are to respond when contact cannot be made. (See” 3-3-3” plan below.)
  • The 3-3-3 plan is a method commonly found on the Internet where you know at what time two people will try and communicate, and by what method. This has two goals. The first is defining the means of communication; the second is that by knowing when you plan to communicate, you can turn off your communications devices in between times, to save battery life. Here’s one of many excellent resources around planning one:
  • Write down those numbers and plans. If all your contact information is on a cell phone and that fails, you lose all that information. Write it down, and use waterproof paper, if possible. One of the major downsides of the smart phone is that people no longer have to memorize phone numbers. Sadly, I am guilty of this.
  • Emergency services. Remember that there are ways to contact emergency services besides 911. All Fire, Police, Sheriff, and Ambulance services have their own local numbers, in addition to the relay with 911. When 911 lines become saturated during an emergency, remember you can call all emergency services directly. Having all those numbers written down ahead of time and programmed into your phone can make the difference between help and a busy signal.
  • Voice Mail. Remember if you have temporary access to voicemail, you can reset your VM to provide information.

Planning By Learning From Real Disasters

It doesn’t matter if you are planning for a hurricane or the apocalypse, the challenge is the same. Small groups of people have the need communicate between each other, and that group may have the need to communicate to a centralized or larger group.

If there is one consistent across almost all major disasters, it is that the existing communications infrastructure breaks down. Hurricanes, ice storms, and earthquakes take out cell and radio towers. Generators run out of fuel for those towers. Hard lines are cut or destroyed. Existing communications infrastructure almost always fails.

To combat this inherent failure of communications during a natural disaster, CERT teams have each member carry a small FRS radio to talk to each other while they go house to house searching for survivors. Those same FRS radios are ineffective at communicating between teams that are separated by distance, so frequently amateur radio operators are part of the CERT team, or accompany them with larger radios capable of providing communications between teams. These same amateur radio operators also provide team to central command communications in order to help direct search grids.

Note: CERT teams do not use FRS because the radios are better; they use them because many CERT members do not end up getting a Ham radio license, and FRS is really their only commonly available option.

Note: My local volunteer fire department uses low power VHF, similar to MURS. They can communicate within rural/suburban areas, but once they have to respond to a fire at the local mall their radios become ineffective.

This organization method, of having in-team communications and a “radio operator” to communicate with a larger organization, is no different in theory from how the military organizes communications. The method is effective.

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