Communication Options in a Disaster

Updated: Mar 25

When we think of preparedness, the basics come to mind first: food, water and shelter. But technology also plays a huge role in our everyday lives, so before a disaster actually happens, ask yourself how you will cope when the means you rely on for tasks such as navigation, shopping, or keeping in touch with others ceases to be available.

I was born and raised in California, and always knew I needed to be ready for the “Big One,” yet failed to prepare for the inevitable. On October 17, 1989, I was in Arizona when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area. According to the NIST, the event lasted 10 to 15 seconds and measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale. 63 people were killed, thousands were injured, and up to 12,000 were left homeless.

Many homes and roads were destroyed. When news of the earthquake reached me, I immediately tried to contact my family, who lived in the South Bay Area. At that time, we had no cell phones, something that seems incomprehensible today. All land circuits were busy and I was not able to reach my family until the next day.

In the East Bay Area, a section of Interstate 80 experienced significant damage; the upper level collapsed onto the lower level, killing and injuring commuters. It was a stretch of highway my family rarely traveled, yet in the emotionally-charged confusion, I was convinced they had perished and were among the many trapped among the carnage.

Fast forward to 2020, and I am a mother. While my boys are grown now, motherhood instilled in me the desire to act upon my decision to become prepared for emergencies, not just have it on my list of things to do. The earthquake made me realize I had to consider an event or series of events that could render primary means of communication unavailable.

Today we all have cell phones, but we must remember they may become as useless as the landlines were for me in 1989 if the network is overwhelmed with families frantically trying to reach their loved ones. At best, there may be SOME coverage, but the ability to connect with others will depend on the cell towers, and who owns them. Expect providers to cut out competitors from using their towers when capabilities are over taxed; Verizon may restrict others (AT&T, Sprint, etc.) from utilizing their towers. It is wise to know ahead of time who or what company owns the towers in your area. Sometimes, the SMS (short message service) feature will work when a regular call with fail, even if there is poor signal coverage where you are at the time. Disasters caused by weather are common in the United States, so accessing NOAA for emergency weather alerts is another way to keep informed as the situation develops.

There are alternative means of gathering and sharing information with your family or group, such as two-way, citizens band or Amateur Radio (also known as Ham Radio), and I will give a brief overview of them here.

Emergency radios are inexpensive and have a few powering options, such as batteries, solar, and hand cranks. The FCC establishes standards for the Emergency Alert System, a national public warning system used to deliver emergency information via radio and television broadcasters (if available) and enable the President to address the public in the event of a national emergency. FEMA is responsible for activating the national-level activation. Your car radio will also receive broadcast coverage during an emergency, so while you may not be able to actually contact your family, you will be updated with information as it is available.

Cell Phones may have SOME coverage, but the ability to connect with others will depend on the cell towers, and who owns them. Expect providers to cut out competitors from using their towers when capabilities are over taxed; Verizon may restrict others (AT&T, Sprint, etc.) from utilizing their towers. It is wise to know ahead of time who or what company owns the towers in your area.

Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs create a tunnel from one cell phone (or similar devices) to another without the peering eyes of the service providers. Cyber security expert Gregory P. Carpenter warns of VPN “leakage” of information that may be transmitted due to “holes” in the VPN; what does this mean? Simply stated, despite claims of privacy, your browsing activity and IP address are exposed to the world – something to keep in mind for purposes of OPSEC.

Two-Way Radios, also known as “walkie-talkies,” are portable radios that are a means of exchanging information between family or team members. Ranges and functionality vary depending on the situation. While they are limited in range, they are far from useless, particularly if you have set up a plan with others in your area to relay information. Some smartphone apps have this functionality, but remember the information transmitted won't be secure, despite assurances to the contrary.

Citizens Band “CB” Radio is another option for shorter, line-of-sight communications, and is known for its popularity among truck drivers. Unlike ham radio, it requires no license to operate. While the typical range may be up to 20 miles, there are various methods to extend your reach. Planning ahead and setting up outposts makes for useful means to contact friends and family during a disaster. One benefit is that repeater towers, used in amateur radio, are not necessary.

Amateur Radio utilizes a spectrum of radio frequency to exchange information in a non-commercial setting. Ham radio is also useful for sharing information during an emergency. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is an excellent resource for information about getting a license to operate on these frequencies. No license is required to just listen in, so this is another means by which you can gather information if traditional means become unavailable. If the situation is really bad, enforcement is unlikely if you broadcast without a license issued by the FCC, but the process of obtaining one will give you the background you need to operate them to their maximum potential. Ham operators may rely on repeater towers to relay their messages, which may render them problematic in places like California

, where the state Department of Fire and Forestry informed Ham operators that they must either remove the repeater equipment located in mountainous regions or pay the state thousands of dollars annually, per repeater, for them to remain in place.

One added benefit to Ham radios is there are handheld models available; many people are under the impression that in order to use amateur radio frequencies you must have a station and antenna. Handheld options may not be as robust for distance, but will certainly provide an opportunity to share information on this spectrum of frequencies.

We really don't know how much we need technology until it becomes unavailable. In a long-term disaster, our modern-day lifeline, the Internet of Things, will cease to magically connect us to each other instantaneously. Will you be ready?

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