Saturday, October 10, 2009

Disaster Communications

There's usually two things you can count on in regards to communications during a disaster. One, communications systems will be down and/or two, what communication systems aren't down, will be so overloaded as to make them practically useless. Either way, the result is that when you most need to rely on your communications system to call for help, check up on family members, or find out more information, they won't be available. Here's a run down on a variety of communication options during a disaster.

Satellite Phone

  • These aren't wholly reliable, even on a good day. The Global Star network is still in the process of putting up its new satellite constellation which should be completed during the second quarter of 2010.
  • Sat phone systems are expensive. For the average citizen, having a satellite phone in the off chance you would need to use it during a disaster doesn't make financial sense (you'd be better off using the money for additional stored food).
  • If you have a base unit with the antenna mounted on your roof, you need to make sure the antenna is still standing after a disaster in order to use it. On the other hand, if you have a portable unit, you can only use it outside where it has direct access to the satellite (not a fun option in the middle of a down pour). In either case, your antenna can't be blocked by anything (trees, buildings, etc) that would interfere with direct access to the satellite or it won't work.
  • If you do have a sat phone, make sure to turn in on during a disaster in case someone is trying to call you. Generally, organizations have sat phones as a back up system for disasters, however since they usually only turn the phone on for testing purposes and not normal use, people may forget to turn it on!
  • If you plan on calling a friend/government agency/etc on their sat phone after a disaster, make sure you have a list of the sat phone numbers you will need to use.
  • You may want to print off the satellite schedule so you will know the best place to find your satellite connection if you need it.
  • If you try your sat phone and can't connect, try again a little later.
  • Bottom line: unless you need a satellite phone for mission specific purposes (a dog sled race to the North Pole, a mission into places where it would be difficult--or deadly--to ask to use a pay phone) you probably don't need one.
Home Phone
  • A home phone is usually the first line of communications, other than a cell phone, that people will use before, during, or after a disaster.
  • If you have a phone company phone line in your home, these will often work even when the power is out. The catch is that you need a wired phone to plug into the jack (not the cordless type that also needs to be plugged into an outlet).
  • If you use a VoIP system (internet phone service through your broadband company) or use Skype through your computer, these systems are only as good as your power supply (to power the computer and modem) and the power supply to your internet provider's system (some have back-up battery systems for use during power failures).
  • Consider telephone priority services such as GETS and TPS which, for a fee, will give you priority for getting your phone working after a disaster (from reports this seems to be hit or miss as sometimes your phone service will be restored sooner rather than later depending on where exactly you are located). Some programs are available for civilians, but most focus on restoring service as quickly as possible to critical infrastructure providers.
  • Keep a list of contact numbers near your phone. Like many people, I look up nearly every number I need online or in my contacts list on my computer; without power I would not be able to do this.
  • Note that is is sometimes easier to call long distance after a disaster (this is part of your emergency communications plan isn't it?) than to call down the street.
Cell Phone
  • Cell phones work fairly well on a normal day, however dropped calls and overloaded cell circuits are common even on a good day.
  • Be sure to always keep your cell phone charged up and keep a car cell phone charger on hand as well.
  • Check out wireless telephone priority services (WPS) similar to the above services for land lines.
  • If you can't get a cell phone call through after a disaster, consider sending a text message as these can often get through when the voice calling part of the system is overloaded.
  • Consider having cell phones with more than one company. I carry cell phones from two different service providers due to service issues where I usually work. One has better coverage in some areas, the other has better coverage in other areas.
  • Even if your cell phone isn't working, leave it on as cell phones can be "pinged" to find your location if needed.
HAM Radio
  • During and after a disaster, HAM radio may be one of the few communication options available since it uses radio waves to send and receive messages.
  • You can't use a HAM radio without a license, however getting one of these is fairly simple. Check out the ARRL website for more information.
  • Base stations radios with good antennas work quite well but require power (ie: these won't work when the power goes out unless you have a generator or battery back-up system). Portable radios work on charged batteries but usually their range is shorter without a really good antenna.
  • An excellent way to practice your HAM radio skills (and provide a valuable service to your community during a disaster) is to volunteer with RACES or ARES.
  • Note that two-way handheld radios are often included in people's emergency supplies. These are good for communication within a very short distance (two miles or so) and for coordinating with your team.
Newer Communications Technology
  • Aside from the old stand-bys, newer communication methods to call for help or provide information after a disaster can be accessed either through your computer or web-enabled cell phone.
  • Twitter has been used on more than one occasion to call for help. One man sent a message out via Twitter as he was being hauled off to jail in a foreign country; at least his friends knew where to start looking for him.
  • YouTube, Flicker, blogs, Facebook, MySpace and other social media sites often provide disaster information faster than the local news. Simply upload your video, photo, or message and it is shot out to the world.
Incoming Communication Services
  • In instances when you may not be able to communicate with the outside world after a disaster, it is still important to receive information about what is going on.
  • A wind-up radio should be a part of everyone's disaster supply kit.
  • You can now purchase small battery-operated televisions which do not need a digital converter box as this is built in.
  • Scanners often provide up to date information just by listening to the calls from dispatch to the law enforcement and fire service personnel in the area.
  • A short wave radio is another option for receiving information before, during and after a disaster.
  • A NOAA radio has the added bonus of being able to turn on an alert specifically for your area when a weather disaster threatens.
High Tech and Low Tech Communications Systems
  • There are other types of high-tech communications systems that just aren't practical for civilian use (infrared and microwave systems to name a couple).
  • Low tech communications includes the things our ancestors would have used: smoke signals, sending a runner with a message, beating drums, using mirrors to signal others, writing out your message and posting it somewhere, etc.
While communication gaps are a huge topic for disaster planners, people seem to forget than only a few short decades ago (we're talking the '60s, '70s, and early '80s), there was no such thing as being connected to the world 24/7. Then, TVs had three stations, cars had AM radios only, and the way you communicated with others in your hunting party was to write a message on a paper plate and tack it to a tree in the mountains. While I am just as much of a communications junkie as everyone else, we all need to prepare for the times when communications are down and our normal methods of communication are not available.


  1. a very handy thing to have during a "general emergency" is a whistle.

    Very compact, durable and cheap ones are available pretty much anywhere. Great for attracting the attention of rescue workers if you're trapped somewhere, for finding party members in the dark or communicating (one whistle to check in, two to meet up, three as a call for immediate assistance for example)

    A typical scenario for this would be if you're looking for something or someone in a wooded area where you cannot easily see each other, but a whistle still allows you to call out and tell somebody to "get over here, I got something"

  2. > ... since it uses air waves to send and receive messages ...

    Don't tell that any physicist ;-)