Alternative / Emergency Communications
When an emergency strikes, most often a natural disaster such as a flood or major snowstorm, some of the first things we do are seek news and information so we can be informed as to what is happening, contact friends and family to check on them and to reassure them that we’re okay, or alternatively, seek emergency assistance. There are many types of emergencies, some forcing people to shelter in place and others forcing people to evacuate, but loss of power make each of them more difficult to cope with. There are many options for keeping in contact. This document is intended to provide basic knowledge about several alternatives.
The most basic requirement is an emergency receiver, something that can be used in almost any circumstance to receive news, weather, and other information. There are quite a few emergency receivers on the market today. Most will receive AM, FM and the National Weather Service. It is essential that the radio have a crank handle so that the battery can be recharged without an external source of power. Most models today also include solar cells for recharging in the sun, and a built in flashlight. Something small and light will be a big advantage, if you are ever forced to travel on foot, with your essential supplies strapped to your back.
Most people today have cell phones, and tend to assume that their service will continue to work in an emergency. The reality is a bit different. When demand is high, cells can reach capacity, leaving many unable to get a dial tone or to receive calls. Typically, officials will request that people not use their cell phones except in dire circumstances, so that first responders can use their cell phones. If a power outage is widespread and lengthy though, the batteries that power the cell towers in those situations can run dry, bringing down the entire cell phone system. With those cautions in mind, it is nevertheless advisable to have a means to recharge your cell phone batteries. Many emergency radios now include a USB socket for just that purpose. It may take some effort to locate a cable to adapt your phone, but keeping that phone available to you is well worth it. There is a company that sells a broad range of charging solutions under the brand name iGo.
What to do then, if you want to prepare for the possible loss of cell phone service? Radio, is the one form of telecommunications that does not depend on someone else’s infrastructure.
Several radio services available to the average citizen, with different power limits:
CB - Citizen’s Band 5 Watts
FRS - Family Radio Service 500 mW (1/2 Watt)
GMRS - General Mobile Radio Service 5 Watts / 50 Watts
XRS - (not a formal FCC service) 1 Watt
ARS - Amateur Radio Service up to 1500 Watts
These services operate in different parts of the radio spectrum:
CB - 11 meters
FRS - 65 cm
GMRS - 65 cm
xRS - 33 cm (Cordless phone spectrum)
Ham - From 160 meters to 24 cm in 16 bands
Due to the nature or radio wave propagation, lower frequencies (longer wavelengths) will generally travel further than higher frequencies.
CB, FRS, and xRS are not licensed.
xRS radios are only available from a single manufacturer.
GMRS is licensed, but there is no test.
The FCC currently grants three classes of license for the Amateur Radio Service:
Each class of amateur license requires passing a technical exam that covers things such as electronics, radio wave propagation, radio design, antenna design, and the FCC rules. There is no longer a Morse Code requirement for any class of Amateur Radio license.
Some important points:
1) None of these services except xRS allow the transmission of encrypted signals. The FCC demands that it be able to monitor all transmissions.
2) Amateur radio may not be used for any commercial purpose.
3) Amateurs train for and have extensive emergency communication capabilities. The Allegheny County Emergency operations center for instance, includes a ham radio station that is manned in emergencies, to expedite the availability of information to first responders.
4) Amateurs for the most part police themselves, and they are serious about it.
5) Like any hobby, there's almost no limit to what one can spend. Basic 2 meter hand-held radios, (HTs, or Handi-Talkies) start at around $100.
Links for more information
Emergency Radios at Amazon.com
Eton Emergency radios at Radio Shack
Amazon.com FRS & GMRS radios
The Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), the NRA of the radio world.
eham.net - tons of information, including equipment reviews, and free online practice tests for the exams.
Ham Radio Outlet (Online retailer)
Universal Radio (Online retailer)