One major part of emergency preparedness is emergency communications. Many people don’t realize that during some sort of catastrophe, local or not, usually the first infrastructure to buckle under the weight of traffic is cellular phone towers. Most cell phones operate within a 2-mile radius of the tower. If the tower is further than this, or behind obstacles, then “dead spots” as they are known, are experienced. Within a 2-mile radius of a suburban city, thousands of people could be living. Tens of thousands if you live in a very crowded, urban city. The towers you’re connected to aren’t designed to maintain that sort of load. Typically, maybe 20% of the covered area of a single tower is connected to it, either downloading data, sending text messages, or placing calls. When the cell phone tower as at 80 or 90% capacity, it begins to buckle under its own weight. Even if the tower can support that sort of traffic, the upstream node it is connected to, and many other towers may not be. The point is, during a critical emergency, cell phones are not reliable.
When cell phones buckle, people turn to land lines. Even then, it’s becoming popular for many people to not have land lines any longer, and just carry their cell phone. For those that do have land lines, many of them may be using VOIP, which stands for “voice over IP”. Basically, it’s a phone over the Internet. So, the fallback pressure becomes immense for land line providers, as well as VOIP providers. So, with your cell phone out of service, your land line may too be out of service.
This is why Amateur Radio is so critical. In every emergency, amateur radio operators, or “hams” as they are known, step in to relay communications to and from family members. With amateur radio, or just radio in general, there is no infrastructure that it connects to. It’s 100% decentralized and infrastructure-free. No centralized towers. No centralized control points. No centralized data nodes. No running wires. Each operator has an antenna, a power supply, and his transceiver. Radio operators can be placed in any location, at any time of the day, to relay any amount of traffic, provided he has a good antenna, good radio wave propogation, and enough power to carry out the communication. So, when all communication fails, radio is available.
Unlicensed vs Licensed
There are two types of radio transmitting- unlicensed and licensed. Both types, however, are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It’s important to understand the laws regarding radio transmission, such as maximum power and antenna usage. This post is not meant to explain those fully. You are responsible to learning the laws, which you can get from the FCC directly; nor is this list a complete listing of licensed and unlicensed spectrums. However, here is a list of the more popular radio spectrum that you will likely encounter during an emergency, and some of their laws:
- Amateur Radio
- $15 per exam. Free renewal every 10 years.
- Unlicensed operators may use if the licensee is in control of the station.
- Three classes: Technician, General and Extra.
- 1500 watts maximum.
- Radio cost ~$100 and up.
- 2m and 70cm popular for local communications.
- Repeaters may be used.
- General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
- $85 per 5 years – no exam required.
- 1 license covers the whole family.
- Radios cost ~$50.
- 5 watt output maximum.
- Antennas cannot exceed 20′ above the ground.
- 15 frequencies in 462-467 Mhz range.
- Repeaters may be used.
- Citizens Band (CB)
- Radios ~$40
- External antennas may be used without height restrictions.
- Linear amplifiers may not be used.
- 4 watts AM, 12 watts SSB maximum power.
- 40 channels in 27 Mhz.
- Family Radio Service (FRS)
- Radios as cheap as $5.
- Antennas must be permanently fixed to the radio. External antennas may not be used.
- 500 milliwatts maximum power.
- 14 channels in 462 – 467 Mhz.
- Multi-use Radio Service (MURS)
- Radios cost ~$70.
- External antennas cannot exceed 60′ above the ground.
- 2 watts maximum output.
- 5 channels in 151 & 154 Mhz.
In order to ensure maximum communication proficiency, your stake and ward should be practicing regular check-ins with their radios. Generally this is done two ways, and while the end goal is the same- that is, to carry out communication in the event of an emergency, how the communication is relayed is different. The first way is local block captain check-in. The second way is stake emergency communication check-in. The goal of these check-ins is three fold:
- Learn how to carry out emergency communications and to whom.
- Show that you are not uncomfortable using the radio, its menus, etc.
- Show you are available with a radio, in case an emergency hits.
Block Captain Check-in
Block captains are an assignment by the community, but sponsored by the LDS church. The idea is that the LDS ward is broken up into blocks, and a block captain is called from each block, to oversee the immediate needs of that block in the event of an emergency. This assignment can be made to a member of the LDS church or to a non-member. The assignment is non-denominational, and should be supported by your city. Block captains are encouraged to be Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certified. This will allow the block captain to operate on behalf of the city if an emergency occurs.
Block captains should be familiar with all the neighbors in their assigned block. Each neighbor should know who their block captain is. A great way to facilitate this, is by having regular block parties. Each neighbor should have the block captain’s address and phone number(s), including other emergency contact information, such as community leaders and city resources.
At least once per month, the block captains should check in with each other on FRS radio. Typically, the stake will assign FRS channels to each ward in that stake. This will prevent interference with other wards during check-ins, and during emergencies. My ward, for example, is assigned FRS channel 5. Then, there would be a “net control operator” in charge of the check-in. His purpose would be to go down the list of assigned block captains, asking if they are present and to checking. Something like:
“Block captain one, please check-in.” (pause for block captain one to check-in)
“Block captain two, please check-in.” (pause for block captain two to check-in)
The net control operator should be keeping attendance of who is checking in, and that should be relayed to the called stake emergency communications chairperson.
Block captains checking in should be loosely aware of their blocks. Basically, knowing whether or not an emergency has hit that block. This is probably not the case, but they should be aware of such situations anyway, and likely will be should an emergency hit. Because FRS radios are cheap (they’re the standard “walkie talkies” you played with as a kid), there should be no reason why every block captain cannot get a radio. In fact, every family should have enough FRS raidos for their family to communicate with, in the event of an emergency.
When an emergency does hit, block captains don’t report back to the LDS church- that’s what home teachers are for. Instead, block captains report to their local amateur radio operator, if one is present. This local amateur radio operator will report to local civil authorities as needed. If a local amateur radio operator is not present, then the block captains need report to the city directly.
Amateur Radio Check-in
Not all emergencies, however, will be localized. An emergency may be very wide-spread, such as an earthquake or flood. Due to the limited nature of FRS, block captains can only carry their communications so far. As such, amateur radio operators should be able to check-in, and relay communications at much greater distances. Amateur radio operators should be in contact with their local block captains, but they should also be in contact with each other, regardless of location.
This is also sponsored by the LDS church, but again, it is designed to help out the community. Amateur radio check-ins should also be frequent, at least once per month. The scheduled “net”, as they are called, should also include and encourage non-member participation. Hams are generally very friendly, and love to socialize and talk on the radio, so this shouldn’t be difficult to encourage non-members to participate.
As with block captain check-ins, there will be a net control operator for the amateur radio check-in. Unlike block captains, this should be a call issues from the stake. Generally, this person will be called to the “stake emergency communications chair”, or something like that. This operator will oversee that the check-ins are done smoothly and timely, with little interference. It is important to understand that all though this is also sponsored by the church, the net control operator script should be non-denominational as much as possible, so as to not alienate non-members. The net control operator script could look something like this:
“This is AE7ST, net control operator. I will begin roll call for our weekly net now, sorted alphabetically by last name. Let’s begin with A-G. Is John Adamson, KZ7ZZZ present?” (pause waiting for KZ7ZZZ to check-in)
“Is Steve Baily, KY7YYY present?” (pause waiting for KY7YYY to check-in)
“Now moving to lastnames starting with H-M…”
Just like with the block captain net control operator, the amateur radio control operator should be keeping roll. Along with the block captain reports that come in frequently, this stake emergency communications chair should have a good idea of who is checking in regularly for each neighborhood. This will give an accurate picture of who can be relied on in the event of emergency communications.
The net meeting should be at least monthly, and can be either simplex, or take advantage of a repeater. Both come with their advantages and disadvantages, and it should be discussed among the other hams participating in the meeting. Advantages of simplex, are not needing to program your radio for offsets to talk to the repeater, and the ability to keep a repeater less crowded during an actual emergency. The big disadvantage is distance. If the stake is large, hams on one end may not be able to hear or communicate with hams at the other end. This is the big advantage of a repeater- if every ham can reach the repeater, then everyone can communicate cleanly.
In my stake, we have weekly amateur radio communications check-in. We chose 146.520 MHz as our simplex frequency to hold the net on. We hold the meeting every Sunday night at 21:00 local time. The net control operator will check-in hams by ward alphabetically (which I disagree with). He’s friendly, and will hold minor chit-chat with each ham as they check-in, asking about their week, and so forth. Currently, we do not have any training during the meeting. Each ham checks in, then general business is covered, and the net ends. The meeting lasts about 30 minutes.
A ward in my stake has monthly block captain check-ins. They are assigned FRS channel 2 by the stake, which is 462.58755 MHz with PL tone of 67 Hz. This meeting is every Fast Sunday at 20:00 local time. They have 18 block captains assigned, each with FRS radios, each checking in every month. Again, no training is held during the meeting, and general announcements are usually not discussed. Rather, check-ins are all that are processed, then delivered to the stake emergency communications chair. The meeting lasts about 10-15 minutes, depending on the speed of checking in the block captains.
Hopefully this gives you a rough idea of how emergency communications can be prepared for in your ward or stake, as well as family. Getting FRS radios are cheap. Getting amateur radio licensed might be difficult, but when you pass that barrier to entry, more frequencies and power are available for your transmissions, and you may be able to help in larger scale emergencies. However, it’s important to understand that although the LDS church sponsors these activities, these are community assignments, and reports should go to civil authorities. Home teachers in your ward are responsible for carrying information back to the Bishop who in turn relays it to the Stake President, etc.