Emergency Communications 101

One of the most often overlooked components of an emergency plan or SHTF plan is the need for emergency communications. In today’s world, so many people have become overly dependent on cell phones for communication.

In fact, there’s an entire generation of people, those born after 1995, known as Gen Z (aka iGen), who have grown up with cell phones. We use our phones to communicate with loved ones, stay in touch with friends and family, to keep track of our appointments, to manage online bill paying, to operate our TV’s (as a remote), and most recently to monitor home security.

Emergency-Communication-Gadgets

But as the degree of emergency increases, so does the need for reliable communication. Also that cell phone you depend upon every day? Well…it can only take you so far.

It sucks when you accidentally drop your cell phone into a puddle, or the battery dies while you are out running errands. It’s inconvenient to say the least.

But in serious emergencies, such as a natural disaster, a mugging, or a SHTF event, having access to alternative forms of both one-way and two-way communications can save your life.

Cell Phone or Smart Phone

For most people, a standard cell phone or a smartphone is the device relied upon for the most common emergencies. It’s always a smart idea to store your cell phone’s car charger in your car and to carry your wall charger if you will be gone from home for more than a day.

If possible, carry a fully charged cell phone battery or battery power stick as well. This works well for individual emergencies. But when the disaster or emergency event is widespread, there is always the possibility that the cell phone networks will be overwhelmed with activity or may even become partially or totally inoperable.

Keep in mind that in a widespread disaster, text messages may go through when calls won’t, but even text messages could be delayed. So, even if you are prepared with backup power, you can’t always rely on only cell phones for emergency communications.

Mobile Applications

If your cell phone has power and is operating, there are a variety of mobile applications you can download in advance of an emergency that could just save your life or the life of a loved one in an emergency.

LINE is a free voice and video call program that makes it simple for users to stay in touch with family and friends. It was developed following the devastation of Japan’s phone system after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011.

The program provides free video calls and free international voice calls. There are some limitations and calls to those who don’t use Line are limited to a set number per month. It’s available for Android, iPhone, PC (both Mac and Windows), Windows Phone, and iPad.

Fema App is a mobile application you can download to your phone. It’s available for both Android and Apple devices. This app allows you to receive National Weather Service alerts in real-time for as many as five locations. It includes disaster safety tips as well as a way of locating emergency facilities or open disaster recovery centers in your area.

Life 360 is an application available for either Apple or Android phones. It’s designed to keep families and loved ones connected on a daily basis and in an emergency situation.

The location sharing feature lets you know where loved ones are and includes a help alert which sends your location to family members if you feel unsafe. The crash detection feature can automatically detect crashes at more than 25mph and if needed or if no response will send an ambulance to your location and/or notify your emergency contacts.

Medical ID is an app that Android users can install on their cell phones which stores important critical medical information about the user that first responders may need in order to provide you medical attention if you are unconscious or disoriented.

The app works from your lock screen which protects other sensitive information on your phone. It can also send a text to your emergency contacts which lets first responders quickly alert your family to your medical crisis.

Apple users can download a similar medical safety app in case of emergency called ICE Medical Standard.

Disaster Alert by PDC Global is an app for your apple device. It provides free, real-time updates about a variety of hazards as they occur. It’s a worldwide application and has been updated to include weather related disaster updates as they happen.

Personal Security Applications

When it comes to emergency communications, you don’t always have the time or ability to place a phone call, open a mobile app, or send a text message to get help.

Personal security applications are apps for your cell phone that you can download which are designed to contact emergency personnel or your emergency contacts list at the press of a button or in some cases if you do not come home or check in within a designated time period.

Make sure you thoroughly understand any restrictions on the operation of the app, especially if your cell phone has no signal, is turned off or otherwise inoperable.

Landline Phone

Most adults are familiar with how landlines work, although some young kids may have trouble figuring out how to dial a rotary phone if they’ve never used one before.

The important thing to know in advance about your landline phone is whether it will work during a power outage. Corded phones have the greatest potential to work during a power outage as they get their power from the buried copper lines that connect to your phone company’s office. It takes around 30 milliamps (6 to 12 volts) to operate your landline phone.

Cordless phones won’t work during a power outage unless the base station comes equipped with a battery as well as the handset. Voice over IP phones or those that operate through a broadband router, won’t work as they need AC power to work.

Emergency Signal Whistle

The nice thing about an emergency signal whistle is that it is not dependent on electrical power and it can easily be worn or carried as part of your EDC so you will always have it with you.

It will operate in any location, and high quality, weatherproof signal whistles will operate under just about any weather conditions. Signal whistles are designed to draw the attention of rescue workers or other people nearby.

If you are traveling to an extremely isolated area, make sure you let someone know where you are headed and when you expect to return or use a personal security location alert system to let people know what area to search for you.

OnStar or Alternative Crash Response Alert System

Emergency crash response alert systems are designed to be installed in your vehicle. These systems typically require a subscription or at least registration prior to an emergency.

The system receives an alert when your vehicle is involved in an accident. The alert is sent automatically which means it will work even if you are unconscious or unable to move.

The adviser can then speak to you through the system to determine whether you need emergency medical help, get them on their way to your location, and can even contact a loved one on your behalf.

Emergency Weather Radio

There are two types of weather alert radios, a weather band radio and a weather alert radio. It’s important to know the difference between the two to ensure you get the most up to date information. 

The most critical difference between the two is that a weather band radio must be turned on and tuned to the local weather station for you to receive an alert. A weather alert radio, with AM/FM tuning, has the ability to interrupt other programming and switch to the NOAA channel when an update comes in.

Social Media

Facebook Crisis Response/Safety Check is a Facebook feature which is activated whenever there is a significant disaster or crisis event in your area.

It was used in the Paris terrorist attacks for victims to post their safety status which alerted families and likely helped ease the number of frantic telephone calls and texts on the cell phone networks and emergency services organizations.

Scanner Radios

The important thing to know about scanner radios is that they are receivers only. You cannot send messages out, but you can listen in on communications being sent over the radio network in your area.

You can choose from a plain frequency scanner or a trunk tracking scanner. Trunk tracking scanners can be digital or analog. You can check the radio reference website to determine which system your local emergency services personnel are using.

Satellite Phone

Satellite phones are an option to consider for emergency communications because they operate using orbiting satellites rather than on the ground cell towers use for cell phone networks.

This means satellite phones can often be used in remote areas where cell phones might not get a signal. Satellite phone units can be mobile, the size of a cell phone or can be larger and fixed with an adjustable satellite tracker, like for on a ship.

Portable satellite phones are best used outside to prevent signal interference. In some areas, you may need to move around a bit to get a clear signal. Reliable satellite phone service is available from 3 major networks including Iridium, Inmarsat, and Globalstar.

Citizens Band (CB) Radio

Like with other radios, there are several different types of CB radios each with their own advantages and disadvantages. They type you choose will depend on how often you intend to use the radio, where you live, and the range that you need to get from your CB radio

Keep in mind that CB radio is limited to transmitting at 5 watts and to the 27 Mz frequency band, about 40 channels. You do not need a license to use CB radio.

Mobile CB Radio– this is the most common CB radio and you’ve probably seen one or at least seen one used on TV. The mobile CB radio mounts in your car, connects to the antenna, and includes a microphone that you use to transmit a message out.

Handheld CB Radio-similar to the walkie-talkie two way radio, but with many more features. They are a battery operated handheld unit. Some of these can be used in a vehicle with a car charger and adapter. Handheld CB radios are the best option if you are on foot.

All in Handset-is a CB radio with the controls integrated into the actual handset. Although this makes the handset larger than a traditional CB microphone, it means the entire unit is much smaller. This is a great option for smaller vehicles and motorcycles where space is limited.

The connector box installs in or under the dash and is sold separately. For those with two vehicles, you can buy two connector boxes and simply switch the handset to the vehicle you are using at any given time.

Base Station– these units have an integrated power supply that uses a 110v outlet. Base stations are designed for indoor use. A base antenna mounted high in the air, ie 30 foot, will provide the best performance.

Personal Radio Options

Family Radio Service (FRS) has become the personal use ham radio because it’s a better quality option than CB but didn’t require a license like ham radio. These are generally used when a small group, such as a family, wants to be able to communicate.

A radio which is powered by batteries, solar cells, or even hand-cranked, can be a great go-to source for information if any of the mentioned possibilities occur. I would especially recommend a unit that doubles as a weather alert radio and is able to pick up any storm-related news, watches, and warnings for your area.

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is designed for use by businesses or groups. A company with staff working at several branch locations for example, might use GMRS to communicate. Or a sales team could use GMRS to communicate messages in real time to salespeople who are out in the field during the day.

Farmers might use it to communicate quickly with workers who are spread out in the fields. You do need a license to use GMRS radios. Most GMRS radios produce 3-5 watts of power but have the potential to operate at up to 50 watts.

Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) came into being in 2000. It’s the least commonly used. No license is needed to use MURS. The power is restricted to 2 watts; however, some users are pairing it with products such as goTenna, which allows short text messages to be sent without using the cell phone network. This essentially produces a peer-to-peer network which some preppers could find useful.

Ham Radio (Amateur Radio)

Probably one of the best options for preppers who want to be ready for anything when it comes to emergency communications, is ham radio or amateur radio. “Amateur”, in this case, doesn’t mean beginner or civilian, but it means non-commercial.

Ham radio is not intended to be a private communication option from one person to another, however. It is designed to be used to transmit and receive information for the benefit of the general public.

You can receive and send messages to local emergency personnel in your area and access high frequency bands which can easily communicate hundreds of miles if needed. Using repeaters and other add-ons, you can send and receive information or reports from all over the world.

You are required to have an operator license to use ham radio, and can receive stiff penalties for using the service without proper licensing. Ham radio offers more power, 5 to 8 watts for handheld radios and up to 1,500 watts for base stations and it has the widest range of options for frequency. 

Developing an Emergency Communication Plan

First, and foremost, have an emergency plan on how to contact those you would need to reach. It’s best to include local family or friends as well as at least one contact outside of your immediate area.

Make sure your plan details what each person should do if they are at home, work, or school when an emergency occurs. You should know the emergency evacuation procedures for your child’s school district and work out in advance how to reunite with children during a disaster.

Identify a safe meeting place for each type of disaster or event and work out which situations warrant going home to meet up versus which ones require each person go immediately to the safe location.

Second, depending on your circumstances, determine what kind of alternative communications you would use if a serious emergency occurred .and your cell phone was inoperable, or the cell network was overwhelmed.

This can include any of the emergency communication methods we listed above as well as written or visual signals such as leaving a note in a protected location, hanging a scarf, sheet, or other material from a window, color coded rocks or other materials your family knows to look for along the bug out route, etc.

Text messages and calls sent during emergencies should be short and contain the information needed, such as “I’m safe, biking to safe location using route B, ETA 20 minutes”, “Picked up Tammy safely, ETA at location B 15 minutes”, or “I’m injured at location A, send help”.

Short, coded messages give your loved ones the info they need without providing identifying information to anyone who may intercept the messages or find your phone, etc.

Third, gather the equipment needed to execute your plan and practice! Experts and research studies have proven that in an emergency, many people, who are otherwise perfectly alert and oriented, can become confused, distraught, and unable to process even simple tasks.

This is why experts recommend that you carry written emergency contact information including full names, phone numbers, and addresses.

Practicing your emergency communications plan repeatedly before you need to use it can allow muscle memory to kick in. Written contact information can help you to react quicker, without needing to think or remember.

Fourth, seriously consider becoming an amateur radio operator. It is easy to obtain a license, and you can get started with little cost. I recommend this because the options available to you as ham operator will give you an arsenal of communication possibilities if you found yourself in a significant emergency.

Car/BOV Emergency Communications System

Last but not least when developing an emergency communications plan, make sure you add an emergency communication option for your car or bug out vehicle.

A car or BOV option can be as simple as a car charger or a spare cell phone with a fully charged battery that you check monthly to make sure it’s still working properly.

You can also consider a mounted or all in CB radio for your vehicle, or an OnStar or other similar crash response alert system, etc. Whatever option you include in your car or BOV should be something that will work if your main cell phone dies or has no signal for whatever reason.

What Emergency Communications Will Work and What Won’t

Stranded in Your Car

You are having an average commute on the way into work when….BAM…you get a flat tire…and wouldn’t you know it? Your spare is flat too!

This is an everyday, “vanilla-flavored” emergency. It’s a common emergency, in fact Yyou might have passed someone with a flat tire on the way to work this week.morning.

Luckily, this is a job for your EDC communications, your cell phone. Assuming your phone is charged, and you have a signal, you can make the phone calls necessary to get the assistance you need and get on your way again.

Recommendations to be prepared for Scenario 1: This is the kind of event that we all use as justification for having a cell phone anyway. You may as well put it to use.

The only other thing I would add to your EDC (Every-Day Carry) is some kind of additional power source to charge your phone in case it was dead and you find yourself in a bind. I would suggest always having on hand a portable power bank.

Of course, this is all assuming that you live where a cell phone signal is prevalent. If not, I would suggest that you have an alternative form of two-communications with you.

What Will Work:

  • Cell phone and backup battery or portable power bank
  • Mobile applications or personal security applications
  • CB radio 
  • OnStar or Alternative Crash Response Alert System
  • Satellite Phone
  • FRS radio depending on range
  • Emergency signal whistle (may attract a good samaritan)

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work:

  • Ham Radio
  • Scanner Radio
  • Landline
  • Emergency Weather Radio

Workplace Accident (Chemical Spill, Explosion, Fire, etc)

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that disasters can only happen at home or in the wilderness or outdoors. Many people have been involved in workplace accidents that are disastrous, the biggest of which was probably 9/11.

Workplace disasters can involve a terrorist attack, chemical spill, fire, or even an explosion or active shooter.

What Will Work

  • Mobile Applications 
  • Personal Security Applications
  • Emergency Signal Whistle (if buried under debris or caught in smoke/dust)
  • Cell Phone
  • Landline
  • Personal Radio (GMRS)

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work

  • OnStar or Alternative
  • Emergency Weather Radio
  • Social Media
  • Scanner Radio
  • Satellite Phone
  • CB
  • Personal Radio
  • Ham Radio 

Mugging or Assault

What Will Work

  • Mobile Applications 
  • Personal Security Applications
  • Emergency Signal Whistle

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work

  • Cell Phone
  • Landline
  • OnStar or Alternative
  • Emergency Weather Radio
  • Social Media
  • Scanner Radio
  • Satellite Phone
  • CB or Personal Radio
  • Ham Radio

Power Outage

You are alerted that a severe storm watch has been issued for your area, and you can see in the distance that dark clouds are heading your way. You are watching the TV for updates when….the cable goes out.

The degree of severity you are likely to face depends heavily on your location, power can go out on a temporary basis or for an extended time period, but most locales will see severe weather at least some of the time.

The problem in this scenario results from dependence on regular media for information and communication. If the cable, satellite feed, or even the power, goes out, do you have another source to turn to for news updates and to get in touch with family or emergency services personnel?

Here is where the need for an emergency radio comes into play. Every household should have one as part of their emergency preparedness plan.

What Will Work

  • Cell Phone (if already charged)
  • Landline (if not internet based)
  • Emergency Weather Alert Radio
  • Social Media (accessed through cell phone)
  • Scanner Radio (if battery backup available)
  • CB or Personal Radio (if battery powered or charged)

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work

  • Mobile Applications
  • Personal Security Applications
  • Emergency Signal Whistle
  • ONStar or Alternative
  • Ham Radio
  • Satellite Phone

Home Invasion

In the event that an intruder attempts to get into your home or even worse succeeds in getting into your home, you need to be able to notify emergency services as quickly as possible to get help on the way.

What Will Work

  • Mobile Applications 
  • Personal Security Applications
  • Emergency Signal Whistle
  • Cell Phone
  • Landline

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work

  • OnStar or Alternative
  • Emergency Weather Radio
  • Social Media
  • Scanner Radio
  • Satellite Phone
  • CB or Personal Radio
  • Ham Radio

Wilderness or Outdoors Emergency

You and your buddies are four-wheeling in the backcountry. All is fun until one of the guys hits a big rock and flips his ATV. He needs medical attention. You reach for your cell phone….but no signal.

Whatever you do, have something as an alternative to cellular communications. FRS and GMRS radios are very easy to obtain and operate but range can be restrictive. As I mentioned, there are many options, and one does not need to spend a lot of money. FRS and GMRS radios are very easy to obtain and to operate.

As for other possibilities, a personal security app or Satellite phones also may be a good option for you if you find yourself frequently in very remote places. The disadvantages of satellite phones, however, are the expense to own and to use.

What Will Work

  • Mobile Applications 
  • Personal Security Applications
  • Emergency Signal Whistle
  • Cell Phone
  • Satellite Phone
  • CB or Personal Radio

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work

  • Landline
  • OnStar or Alternative
  • Emergency Weather Radio
  • Social Media
  • Scanner Radio
  • Ham Radio

Natural Disaster

A large earthquake hits your area. Infrastructure has been damaged, and, for the moment, is inoperable. The area’s infrastructure will have most likely taken a considerable hit. Undoubtedly, many will try to use their cell phones to contact their loved ones to see if they’re O.K.

The problem with this plan is that, assuming there are cellular towers still working, they will quickly overload from too many people trying to use their phones at one time.

There is only so much bandwidth out there. There will be those who are updating social media, sending pictures, making calls, etc. Text messages are the cell phone communications most likely to reach their intended recipients, but again, this is assuming that the cellular towers are even functioning at all. Landline telephones can be more reliable in an emergency, but damage to the existing infrastructure could affect those too.

You are panicked trying to get a hold of everyone in your family to confirm they are O.K. You also feel the need to contact at least one relative outside your area to let them know you’re still alive.

If an event arises, and you are in an area with no cellular signal, what would you do? Mobile apps and personal security apps may be working but there’s no way to know for sure.

This is when other forms of two-way communications are needed. There are a number of small portable radios on the market that can be taken with you if you feel you need to “bug out.” Some are even capable of picking up shortwave signals which can give you access to information from a larger region than what your standard AM/FM radios are able to do.

In the case of a large earthquake, the area’s infrastructure will have most likely taken a considerable hit. Undoubtedly, many will try to use their cell phones to contact their loved ones to see if they’re O.K.

The problem with this plan is that, assuming there are cellular towers still working, they will quickly overload from too many people trying to use their phones at one time.

What will work

  • Mobile Applications 
  • Personal Security Applications
  • Cell Phone
  • Satellite Phone
  • CB or Personal Radio
  • Emergency Signal Whistle (to attract the attention of rescuers if needed)
  • Scanner Radio
  • Ham Radio

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work

  • Landline
  • OnStar or Alternative
  • Emergency Weather Radio
  • Social Media

SHTF Event

A SHTF event is one where your world just fell apart without notice. Luckily, this type of severe emergency doesn’t happen every day. it is not your everyday type of emergency.

However, none not of one of us can guarantee we will never face a life-changing event. If not an earthquake, it A SHTF event could be a catastrophic tornado, a strong hurricane, an extreme health epidemic, or even the breakout of war.

The infrastructure we rely on day to day is fragile, and there are possible events, such as an EMP or nuclear weapon attack, that could instantly transform the landscapes of our lives. These are the events which we hope never come to pass, but ones we prepare for anyway because we cannot rule them out completely either.

What will work

  • Landline (sporadically if at all)
  • Satellite Phone
  • CB or Personal Radio
  • Emergency Signal Whistle (to attract the attention of rescuers if needed)
  • OnStar or Alternative
  • Emergency Weather Radio
  • Scanner Radio
  • Ham Radio

What Isn’t Ideal or Won’t Work

  • Cell Phone
  • Social Media
  • Mobile Applications (if Internet reliant)
  • Personal Security Applications (if Internet reliant)

Getting information you need or accessing medical help in an emergency depends on the use of different types of ham radio equipment and techniques used.

For example, with the right equipment, you can send emails over ham radio to anyone with email access. The amount of frequencies available for ham radio operators to use far outnumbers the frequencies allotted to the other radio services. One could even place a phone call, by radio.

The truth is, there are more options and methods of communicating available to amateur radio, and it is not dependent on the community’s infrastructure. As long as you have your own power source, you can operate. This is why governments and communities all over the world rely on ham radio in the event of a serious emergency.

What forms of emergency communication are you already using? Are there any forms of emergency communication that you hope to add to your prepping resources in the future? Share your ideas and resources in the comments below.

emergency communications pinterest

updated by Megan Stewart 08/14/2019

About Megan Stewart

Megan Stewart
Born and raised in NE Ohio, with early memories that include grandpa teaching her to bait a hook and watching her mom, aunts, and grandmothers garden, sew, and can food, Megan is a true farm girl at heart. For Megan, the 2003 blackout, the events of 911, and the increasing frequency of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, spurred a desire to be more prepared for whatever may come along. Soon to be living off-grid, this mother of four and grandmother of nine grandsons and one granddaughter, is learning everything she can about preparedness, basic survival, and self-sufficient homesteading. She is passionate about sharing that knowledge so that others can be increasingly prepared to protect their families.

2 comments

  1. Avatar

    Thanks for posting this information. There is too much advertising hype and folklore out there regarding the capabilities of off the shelf 2-way radio systems, and having some authoritative information from somebody in the broadcast industry who understands the technical characteristics of 2-way radio and can effectively explain it in plain language for non-engineers is extremely helpful!

    PLEASE post more technical information with plain language explanation and less advertising hype.

    Bravo Zulu Mr. Kohl!

  2. Avatar

    Thanks for the information, but for the 4 scenario’s I would handle it as follows:

    Scenario 1: Pull out the cell phone and call my insurance company for a tow to a tire shop
    Scenario 2: Once the cable went out, I would turn the volume of the HF up and listen to SKYWARN
    Scenario 3: While 4-wheeling I would take out the 2m and try to get a repeater if that didn’t work, I would pull out the FT-817 and
    make a emergency call for emergency medical assistance.
    Scenario 4: My mother and sister have high-power GMRS for emergency, I can pick them up on my GMRS mobile. I would contact SATURN
    and would provide a Welfare Message to send to my brother in Hawaii.

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