Communications are an essential part of any disaster plan. Certainly for anyone, and especially for preppers, getting in touch with the people you are responsible for and the people you care about in the aftermath of a disaster will be critical for ensuring a good outcome.
No one that I know would leave anyone they gave a damn about flapping in the breeze when it is time to go wheels-up and bug-out.
For that reason it seems a little odd to me that most preppers’ plans always begin with the entire family, or at least the entire household, being together when things kick off. It might be a forgivable assumption, but it is a total fallacy and the fact remains that it could be a deadly one.
Contrary to this thinking, it is actually likely that you will not all be together when the SHTF. Everybody, including kids, have lives and itineraries of their own. The kids could be at school, both of the parents at two different jobs, and so on.
Heck, one or more members of the family might even be traveling well away from home when the skies darken and the sirens howl. Have you considered how that might impact your plans?
Getting in touch with your family in the immediate aftermath of a crisis situation is imperative, but will rarely be simple.
Just like anything else you will have many obstacles to contend with, and you will need plans A, B and C in order to guarantee success. In today’s article I will share with you multiple methods for getting in touch with your family and other loved ones post-SHTF no matter what the situation is.
Cut-Off and In the Dark
Picture this scenario: You’re out of town for business reasons. You have left your partner and your two children at home to go about their lives while you take care of business and bring home the bacon, several hundred miles away.
Then, it happens. What it is doesn’t matter. It could be a massive and coordinated terrorist attack, an outbreak of extreme social unrest and the accompanying violence and chaos, or a devastating natural disaster, a literal act of God. Your home is directly affected, or it will be soon, and you have to reach your family, pronto.
After a few desperate attempts to call your family members by phone, you give up in frustration, as all lines seem to be busy or out of order.
You drop everything and try to head for home, but you find that flights are canceled and the highways and interstates are already clogging with panicked people and refugees. What reports you are able to glean about the overall situation are sporadic.
You know it is going to take time, effort and grit in order to make it home however that happens.
Based on your previous plan you discussed time and time again with your family members they will try to head for your parent’s cabin to the west, but that is also going to take them closer to the epicenter of the event. You think the best play is to head south in order to meet you halfway.
But you cannot reach them! Will they think to head your way, or will they just stay put and wait for you? What if they do head west towards the cabin and put themselves in greater danger?
What if they go somewhere else and become just another set of haggard faces among the teeming, tattered masses of humanity? How would you find them? Should you waste valuable time and try to get in touch with them or just leave now and roll the dice?
Think quickly; time is a-wasting.
The Importance of Communications to SHTF Planning
In all kinds of high-pressure, time-is-life endeavors, timely and accurate communications will often spell the difference between success and failure.
Even if you are only responsible for yourself, getting the right information from an accurate source early enough to affect your decision making process could entirely change how events unfold for you.
That is just for one person! Imagine how much more important rapid communication is when you’re responsible for more people than just yourself. If you’re trying to take care of two, four, ten or a hundred people you had better have your communication plan down-pat and backed up.
Since time immemorial communication disruptions or slowdowns have spelled disaster in war, in politics and during times of disaster cleanup. Failing to get the right information to the right people quickly enough means that soon folks involved in the endeavor will get out of sync with one another, hampering efforts.
At worst, they might be working off of information that is now outdated or even completely erroneous. This could see people actively making decisions that will lead to death or mission failure.
The situation you and yours are dealing with post-SHTF will have serious implications to both life and limb, to say nothing of ongoing survival. The things you do, or fail to do, not to mention when you do them or don’t do them, will directly impact your outcomes.
This is further complicated by the fact that your family must attempt to survive as a unit if at all possible; when individual members are separated from each other, confusion, fear and doubt will reign, reducing effective decision making and increasing the chance of a bad ending.
But when everyone can keep in touch with everyone else, even if they cannot speak directly, they can be brought up-to-date on the family survival plan: what is the overall threat, how they will deal with it, what procedures they need to take, when, and where they need to go. This will help to instill control in a situation that is decidedly out of control.
You might be the King of Prepper Mountain and have the best, most foolproof survival plan in the world come the apocalypse, with alternate, contingency and even double-dog emergency plans on top of that, but if you cannot relay any of that to your people when it is required from them it will count for naught.
Post-SHTF Communications Methods
Remember, if you are the “Guy/Gal-in-Charge” of the lion’s share of the prepping in your household you cannot count on your family members to commit all your various plans to memory.
You’ll need to be the quarterback, if you will, calling the plays from the huddle. It’s tough to huddle if they cannot hear you! Use the following sources of communication to increase the chances of contacting and communicating with your family after a SHTF event.
Keep in mind that some of these methods will be your primaries, ones you will attempt first and keep attempting, and others will be esoteric or special-purpose. That’s alright! They are all tools in your prepping toolbox.
It is a common idea in personal preparedness circles that your cell phone is going to s**t the bed at the first sign of trouble.
The idea is probably to wean people off of something that we have all become so hopelessly dependent on. That is an okay idea, but it is not necessarily grounded in reality.
As it turns out, cell phone networks are actually surprisingly resilient, and their distributed nature and built-in redundancy means that many of them will continue to work, if only in a limited capacity, for the duration of an event.
Only something like a total, major power outage or direct takedown of the infrastructure coordinating the network will offline them on a permanent basis.
Also, the modern smartphone is supremely adaptable, capable of making a call over a dedicated cell phone network or using a standard internet connection.
Simply being able to connect to the internet opens up a plethora of other communication options that we will get into just a little further down.
Chances are during any crisis or disaster worth the name you will find it almost impossible to complete a call using your cell phone, at least if you are near the affected area.
That is okay; don’t throw your phone away and don’t give up, simply try some other method of communication using your phone and you will likely have better success. And, furthermore, you will be glad to have your cell phone, contrary to the preaching of some preppers and survival instructors!
Again, this might come as a surprise to some of you who have been drinking the all-electronics-will-let-you-down Kool-Aid, but sending a simple text has a better-than-average chance of reaching the recipient than a phone call when there is major trouble brewing.
Depending on the messaging service or app you are using, it might be able to go out over the cell phone network or via the internet if you can get connected to one or the other.
But let us say the cellphone networks are functional but merely degraded or just completely, hopelessly clogged with traffic. That is where sending a text is going to be your best bet.
A text uses only a fraction of the bandwidth necessary to connect and maintain a call, and you can click “Send” on a text knowing that even if it can’t get out right away, so long as your device maintains a connection to one network or another it will squirt it out when it can.
Your mileage may vary on that last bit, so check your phone’s or your app’s settings to be sure it will keep trying if it is unable to send initially.
Sending any form of text instructions is also beneficial because people do not have to remember what was said and will not fail to hear or misunderstand things you say. So long as they can receive it on their device and it has power they can refer back to it.
Email is another form of communication that many preppers assume will just automatically go down during a disaster, or be completely ineffective.
While it is true that that intricate conglomeration of tubes we know as the internet is a fantastically complex array of systems that most mere mortals could never hope to figure out or truly understand, it is generally too widely distributed to be knocked out in its entirety all at once.
This makes email a fairly reliable option for getting in touch with people during a crisis.
This does not mean you should assume your email will arrive in seconds or minutes, however.
We have all experienced the aggravation and hassle of emails getting lost in space, arriving way too late, or some other mishap due to internet troubles from something as common and everyday as bad weather or botched maintenance.
You will likely not be enjoying the same browsing experience that you would be in kinder, normal times during a SHTF situation. But you should still fire off an email all the same.
This should not be your first or even second choice when the chips are down since it takes a little time to compose a meaningful email, and a little bit of time for it to transmit, but it is definitely worth your while.
No matter what is happening, it is still worth your time to attempt to call someone on a landline phone if you have one available.
It is true that landline phones are all around more vulnerable to disruption due to physical destruction of the lines themselves and their switching stations than cell phones are, but I would be willing to bet these networks see far less traffic than cell phones in our modern era.
If you cannot raise someone on a cell phone, try it on a landline! You have nothing to lose.
Other Internet-Based Sources
Assuming you can get on the internet, there are other worthwhile ways to communicate with the people you care about.
Social media is one of the most pervasive, ubiquitous and obvious. Many social media platforms include a check-in function for those who have been affected by major events or disasters. This is an easy way to ascertain whether or not the person you are trying to raise is nominally okay.
You can try making a post on their profile or sending them a direct message using one of several social media platforms. Remember, just because one goes down that does not mean that all of them will go down. Don’t give up if at first you meet with failure!
It is fair to assume that these social media sites you are trying to use will be experiencing extraordinary traffic from people who are trying to figure out what is going on, as well as reach other people in the affected areas.
Combined with the increased strain or degradation of the infrastructure needed to keep the internet functioning at tip-top speed, you should expect some slow down, connection timeouts and other mishaps.
If that is the case, try to steer clear of those sites and leave a message for someone on a lesser used website, or even in the pre-agreed section of a forum. This could take the form of a message on Craigslist, the off-topic chat section of a shared interest forum, or even an old fashioned chat room.
Be creative, and use your head. Did might be an inefficient way to carry on a conversation under the circumstances, but it is great for leaving messages and checking back in later if that is the only option you have.
Satellite phones are another method of point-to-point communication that is damn-near disaster-proof, since the mass of the system that keeps them operational and viable is tucked away safely in orbit around Earth.
While the service that runs them might be disrupted temporarily, only something truly cataclysmic will permanently offline these systems.
Satellite phones, as you might expect, are completely independent of traditional terrestrial wire-based and cellular telephone systems, and typically as long as you have a view to open sky you can place a call.
These systems do have some disadvantages though, namely that they are very expensive and require a little bit of know-how to use them to best effect.
But if you are serious about staying in touch with your family, with your base camp, or with anyone else that is really important satellite phones are an essential tool for the modern adventurer and prepper alike.
The O.G. piece of communications equipment for preppers (and anyone else who wants to keep in touch during times of trouble), radios can take the form of anything from a completely self-contained handset, a compact in-vehicle or backpack mounted unit with accompanying antenna, or large base stations with attendant antenna mast, typified in civilian circles by the ham radio.
Radios might be as easy to use as a walkie-talkie, or as complex as an app or aforementioned ham radio, and that means you will need training, practical experience and some theoretical know-how to get the most out of them.
The advantages of radio though are manifold for preppers. So long as the set is powered and the person you are trying to reach is able to receive, your message will likely get through.
A comprehensive knowledge of radio theory and an appropriately powerful set in the right location can let you get a message a very long way, and this is without even relying upon such advanced tricks as bouncing a signal off the atmosphere to get it over the horizon or using repeater stations.
One significant disadvantage of radio, though, is that anyone listening on the same frequency will be able to eavesdrop, but in most situations the tradeoffs are definitely worth it.
The bar for entry in both cost and knowledge might be high if you want to get the best use out of radio, but it is an entry fee that most preppers would be wise to pay now before judgment day comes.
Non-Electronic Communication Methods
Remember, communication is all about getting a message to the recipient and doing it in a timely fashion. You might not be able to reach your family, or even get to their vicinity, but someone else might be.
Sending a written or verbal message along with someone who can hopefully get it to your family can be an option, just hope it isn’t your only option!
In a truly chaotic situation, you might have to resort to the proverbial message in a bottle, a dead drop.
This system actually works best when the nominal receiving party leaves a message for you, the seeking party, just in case they have to call an audible and evacuate or take other action in response to the emergency. This is the note left on the kitchen counter that you find when you come home.
This could also be left in some other probable location they could expect you to find, but no one else could or would think to look in, perhaps in an agreed-upon hiding place or some other landmark that is not likely to be destroyed but is still accessible.
One often forgotten method of communication is the use of simple visual signals that can be seen and interpreted over a long distance.
Powerful lights are an excellent option, but assuming there is not much atmospheric “clutter” and there exists long sightlines in and around the area where your family resides, this could even take the form of smoke or even potentially a balloon.
Anything that can be seen over a distance and interpreted based on prearranged signals will do.
If using a flashlight or some other powerful light source, you could blink out simple codes from a high vantage point that your family knows to look for periodically at agreed upon times.
A smoke signal appearing from a certain direction at a certain time could likewise be an acceptable method of communication, though probably a one-way method.
Either of these work best with simple messages: Stay, go, etc., but if both parties are proficient in more advanced forms of communication (something like Morse code) they can be used to good effect and have the advantage of allowing efficient and intricate two-way communication.
Obviously over great distances this system breaks down quickly until it becomes totally ineffective. Additionally places with short sightlines or a situation in which your family does not know to look for these signals you are unlikely to meet success.
Family Comms Plan Procedures and Tips
This part at least should come as no surprise to most of you. Just like any other facet of prepping, proper previous planning is essential for success and a good outcome when it comes to post-SHTF communications.
This, more than most other preps, is an important hedge against total disaster and chaos when that fateful day finally arrives.
Contingency Planning: “If this happens, we’ll do this.”
The biggest part of it is simply gaming out scenarios with your family and coming to agreed-upon responses for the major variations of events that are likely to happen.
You don’t need to start splitting the atom and having a plan for events V through Z, as too much complexity is only likely to confound and confuse your efforts. Instead, set out guidelines on what you will do if you are away from the family when things break out.
If you are across town or out of the state, how will that affect things? How long should they wait to hear from you before they act, if they are able?
Integrate this with the rest of your family preparedness and bug-out plan. If they have to leave, where will they go; first choice, second choice and third choice? This can give you a trail to pick up if you arrive to find them gone.
Institute a Family Itinerary
Another big part of preparing for this sobering but likely scenario is understanding the itinerary of your family members intricately. Do you know where they are, or rather where they should be, at any given time on any given day?
Who are they with and who if anyone is responsible for them at that time? If you don’t, you need to rectify that, and making a proper family itinerary and agenda part of your life goes a long way towards instilling this value.
If you cannot reach your family members directly, you might be able to try the organization or agency that they were with at the time.
Make Contact Lists a Mandatory Part of BOBs, GHBs, Go-Bags, Etc.
This is an analog trick that will save the day when all of your digital devices decide to take a crap on you. Let’s get real: the vast majority of people (and, yes, that includes a significant chunk of the readership!) will not remember even a handful of important phone numbers, if that.
They rely entirely on their personal devices to remember it for them. That is completely unacceptable when you consider that several forms of electronic communication will remain viable even if your personal device is smashed, lost or just out of juice with no recharge in sight.
And this goes beyond phone numbers. You should include email addresses, physical addresses, typical radio frequencies, and times they are on the air for any radio set users you know, anything at all you can think of that will help you get in touch with people you need to get in touch with.
Include the phone numbers of local, state and federal agencies and NGOs while you are at it. Keep these lists up-to-date and keep weatherproof copies inside every bug-out bag or related survival kit belonging to every member of the family. This is a pain in the butt, but is very cheap insurance.
This is also a great document to include a simple reminder list of what procedures they should follow, and what alternate methods of communication you might employ that have been previously discussed.
It is also a good idea to force the members of your family to memorize the most important phone numbers and email addresses, and periodically quiz them on them to make sure they have it down pat.
Utilize Gov’t. Agency and NGO “Check-in” Rosters
Depending on what has happened, how bad it is and how full their hands are, government agencies at all levels and non-governmental organizations are likely to offer check-in services for survivors who are affected by various events.
The people dealing with the calamity at the time might not have access to any services, but you can bet your bottom dollar the major government entities and NGOs alike have the infrastructure, the manpower and the backing to keep the technology running and the databases humming no matter what is going on.
This is a boon for preppers, since your family could check in with one of these agencies that you could later check on via the agency’s app or website to confirm that they are okay, and potentially other information such as their status and current disposition. Again, this is not a 100% reliable option, but nothing on this list is.
You might be thinking that this does not technically qualify as a type of communication, but in the face of a total comms blackout just knowing that your family is okay and where they are could be all you need to know when it comes to informing your own decision and heading.
Getting in touch with the family you have been separated from in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or some social crisis is going to be priority number one for pretty much every prepper.
Unfortunately, you might not be able to rely on the typical methods you would use to accomplish that. Network overload, physical damage and general chaos will greatly degrade once reliable and dependable communications networks.
Having alternative means to fall back on, both electronic and non-electronic, is an essential part of any personal preparedness plan.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.