CF2 TechNotes Blog

This is Not an Emergency

February 12, 2007 12:29 pm

I grew up a child of the Cold War, when various sorts of school drills and regular tests of the Emergency Broadcast System were a part of everyday life. Yes, there was nothing like the reminder that nuclear holocaust might be only moments away to put that test on diagramming sentences into perspective…

Instapundit has done another in his ongoing series of posts on disaster preparedness. This one focuses on food, with a side glance at, errr, morale. Both are important, and I’m pleased to see anyone remind folks that it’s important to plan ahead for life’s least fun moments. I’ve been disappointed to see many conversations on disaster planning continue to assume that a cell phone is all the emergency communications you’ll need if things get truly sticky. In every significant disaster of the last decade, the cell phone infrastructure has followed shortly on the heels of the land-lines in rolling over to languidly wave their electronic legs in the air.

Regardless of the disaster’s cause and form, effective communications boost survival rates and lessen the burden on everyone concerned. It’s important that you start with a battery-powered combination NOAA/FM/TV radio like this one. There are rather a lot of these available –the key is looking for those that have the Weather Alert feature, that can be battery powered, and that have FM/AM/TV capabilities so you can hear instructions from emergency managers during and after the trouble.

Now, the weather radios solve part of the problem, but they won’t do anything to help reunite your family or let friends and family members in distant locations know that you’re OK. For those tasks you need a way to talk to the outside world without using any part of the telephone system. Now, in a limited number of cases, VoIP wins–if you get your broadband via cable modem or satellite, you may be able to get on the Internet and then use e-mail, IM, and VoIP to let the world know how you’re doing. For most people, though, when the phones go away, so does communication with the rest of humanity. What then?

For very local communications (from next door to perhaps a mile or two away), a GMRS radio like one of these may do the trick. You can give one to each member of your family or group, agree on a channel and protocol, and be in communications as you work to get back together. (One note: unlike the lower-powered FRS, GMRS is a licensed service; if you get the radios, do the right thing, and send your application and fee to the FCC.)

If you might need to reach a bit farther and talk to people who aren’t in your immediate circle of family and friends, then the old-fashioned, much-maligned CB radio still has a role to play. There are still quite a few models to choose from and any of them can be used to contact REACT or any of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who still own and use CB radios.

If you’re really serious about staying in touch through a disaster, though, nothing matches amateur radio. I’ll admit to a bias here: I’m a radio amateur (KG4GWA), as are my lovely wife and my son. We each carry hand-held radios and have used them to keep in touch in emergencies. It makes me feel better knowing that, in the worst case, I can reach people around the country if things truly go to pot. It’s getting easier to become licensed–as of February 23, morse code will no longer be required for any amateur license. Getting a Technician License, which will let you communicate throughout metropolitan areas, or across rural counties, should take most folks no more than a few hours of studying. If you’re interested, get in touch with your local ham club, or contact the ARRL.

Regardless of the method you choose, it will be far less effective if you don’t develop a plan and rehearse emergency communications on a regular basis. You can make if fun for young people, but you must make it mandatory for everyone. We’ve seen far too many cases of people who’s lives were lost or forever disrupted because they couldn’t communicate in an emergency. This is one problem that each of us can solve for ourselves and our families. Start now.

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