Amateur Radio is on the brink of extinction. As we lose these courageous souls, we are missing the opportunity to share knowledge with the next generation. Ham radio clubs are dwindling in numbers – having only aging, gray beard members – and largely only men. How do we reinvigorate this society? How do we get the general public interested in communications when they have a false sense of security with their iPhones?
We need to remove the barriers to entry and make it welcoming to new members curious about emergency communications in general terms (not limited to licensed ham radio). There’s a sort of elitism and a myopic focus on FCC licensed long-range HF operation and hundred to thousand dollar rigs. However, this is too esoteric and does not welcome noobs. Instead, we must all be Elmers and share the spectrum of options, teaching the general public simple things they can do and encouraging those who are interested to focus more. We must be welcoming to everyone in the community and help them learn options available with even a passing interest – acknowledging that not everyone is going to take the FCC tests or ICS / NIMS certifications. Instead, how can we welcome everyone and at least share pointers on how they can maximize their chances of survival in a disaster with near zero preparation and tens of dollars, not hundreds. Let’s face it, most people do not prepare in advance – instead they react only at the last minute when the storm is on the horizon or after the earthquake. Most people won’t spend $200 for their first radio.
At every amateur radio meeting, club, hamfest, field-day I’ve been to, there’s an elitism that pushes the average person away (What’s your callsign? What level of certification do you have? What gear do you have?). People do not feel comfortable here. If we are to survive, we need to make our clubs, meetings, hamfest, and field days more accessible to the public, less esoteric, less mystical. We need to style our meetings as e.g., Emergency or Disaster of Off-Grid Communications. We need to focus on the outdoor community (hikers, sailors, campers, burners), preppers, off-grid enthusiasts, activists, veterans, volunteers, but also on everyday families worried about how to call for help when the tower falls or how to reach each other at medium to intermediate distances (from work to school to home). We need to stop sneering at people with bubble-wrap walkies and instead welcome them into the fold as one layer of communications. As they learn, they will see the limitations and seek better options like ham or mesh technologies.
As we see over and over again, when disaster strikes, the towers fall and the ubiquitous iPhone / wifi infrastructure fails us. So how can we communicate without towers or in a degraded capacity? What options are out there to get information and/or share information in the event of a disaster without classes or licensure? What could work and what are the limitations? Well, several options may exist depending on your situation:
Call 911 – Different phones have different service providers and different frequency bands. For a simplified example, Verizon and Sprint are generally CDMA, while ATT and Tmobile are generally GSM – and they are generally incompatible. But, if you have a global phone or an unlocked device, you may be able to access any tower in a 911 call – not just your particular carrier. While you may not be able to get a signal to call family/friends or access data, you might still be able to call 911. In an emergency, your phone (depending on model) may be able to use ANY compatible tower to call 911 (even if you don’t have a sim card or active subscription with that carrier). Dig out your old cellphones and charge them. Get to an elevated position and try to call 911 with each phone in succession. At the fringes of reception, your head may block reception, so try facing one direction, and then try facing another direction (i.e., 180 degrees opposite).
SMS / Text messages – at the most basic level, when the towers haven’t all fallen, but they are merely too congested to support live bi-directional voice or 4G data, you may still be able to send a text / simple message service (sms) message (but these may be delayed and/or lost). Ask for confirmation and assume that it didn’t go through. Some counties and bigger cities have text 911 service. If you can’t call, if calling puts you in danger, or if you are hard of hearing, you may be able to reach emergency services by texting 911 (as a last resort). If your county does not offer this, you should get a bounce-back text message informing you that it did not go through. If you are experiencing a home invasion or active shooter situation, you may want to silence your ringer before texting as the bounceback or further communications with the 911 operator may give you away. Generally, calling 911 and staying on the line even if you can’t talk is still a better option as the operator will get your location, and be able to prompt you to signal your emergency by pressing a button or some other manner. Some important things to note: text 911, unlike calling 911 may not work on ANY carrier’s towers and may require an active subscription and sim card – also, 911 centers may not get a precise location from a text and may not be able to receive pictures, audio, video, or even emojis. Some 911 centers report that an emoji might even result in disconnection or misrouting of the emergency message. Keep it simple, concise, and give your location as best as you can.
SOS mode – Some devices like Apple and Samsung offer an SOS or emergency alert mode (accessed by tapping the power button 5 times or 3 times in the case of Samsung). It’s important to note that there is nothing magical here, these all rely on voice 911 and/or texts to 3rd parties like loved ones and friends – AND they must be preconfigured in-advance under settings. This may be very helpful if you are being kidnapped or other situation. However they may be a double-edged sword… if they use speakerphone to contact 911, the suspect now knows what’s coming. It’s best to get to know what options you have and how the alert feature works before you are in an actual emergency. The newest Apple watch even has a feature that detects a fall and may automatically act to get help based on your detected biometrics. This may be helpful in a heart-attack or epileptic seizure type situation.
Wifi/3G- (e.g., Whatsapp / Facebook Messenger / Signal / Zello*) – If you don’t have cellular, but you can find a working wifi signal, perhaps you may be able to use a data-based message service like facebook messenger, twitter, signal, whatsapp… often-times, buried lines (like fiber optics) may still survive. It is important to ask for confirmation or check that the message was received. However, without working cellular data or wifi, these communication methods will not work.
Wired Landline phone – many homes nowadays use wireless phones (which require power for the basestation) and/or use voice over ip (VOIP) piggybacking over your broadband home internet connection. These may not work in a power outage. However, some services have a backup battery that may keep your broadband router working for a short time after the power has gone out. If this does not work, you may be able to connect an old, wired phone to a copper jack at the point of entry to the home and still call 911.
Visual Semaphores – If all else fails, in a widespread disaster, you may be able to write/paint on your driveway or roof to ask for help. If you are at sea or in a military area, you may be able to signal for help using morse code. A very simple dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot (…—…) where dot (.) is a relatively brief signal and dash (-) is a relatively longer signal means SOS and may bring help. If you are visible, you may outstretch your arms, raising them and lowering them from your sides. Continuously holding your vehicle horn or actuating in three round bursts. A makeshift mirror can be used to signal aircraft overhead. Get creative.
Satellite Devices – whereas terrestrial communications may fail or be overwhelmed, satellite communications devices will generally still work during most emergencies. It is important to note that in most situations they will NOT WORK out of the box, but instead must be registered with active internet or telephone service before use. Most require not only an initial registration, but also an active subscription. Prices are falling like crazy though. Two recent models, e.g., Garmin InReach Explorer ($450ish) or the Spot-X device ($250) provide for text like messages (BUT NOT VOICE) and rudimentary access to social media and do not require a year-long based subscription, but allow for seasonal activation or month to month service (about $14 a month). This may be a very attractive option if you are in a hurricane area provided that you set this up in advance.
Mesh Network /Adhoc software (e.g., BridgeFy, FireChat, AirDrop…) – unfortunately, these options only work at VERY SHORT RANGE – ranges that a loud yell might work better and more reliably than these options. However, if you are in a very populous area such as a university dorm, hospital, senior center, or disaster shelter, these options may work if you need to keep in touch at very short distances (e.g. 100m). The cool thing is that if you get everyone to install it, then each device acts as a repeater and the messages can relay amongst your community to get much better range. The downside to this is that they must generally be installed and registered before you lose connection to the outside world. If you search for, e.g., BridgeFy or Firechat “.apk” you may be able to download an offline installation file that you could share with a memory stick, memory card, wifi hotspot or via bluetooth or airdrop to share with your friends. This is important because, while you may have very sporadic internet (maybe not enough to support multiple megabyte installations from the play store) you may have enough to register the device. But, like every thing, you should practice use before it’s needed to understand its limitations.
Mesh Network hardware (e.g., Gotenna, Sonnet Labs, …) – unlike the software approach, these devices are starting to bear fruit, Gotenna for example is widely deployed (see for example their user-generated map at http://imeshyou.com ) and offers great range, technically line of sight – but more realistically .6 miles in a noisy urban environment, 2-4 miles in the country, or up to 69 miles with creative elevation. At the size of a highlighter this can be velcroed to a drone, elevated up to 400 feet in the air and given some serious distance. Each Gotenna acts as a signal repeater meaning that your message can hop up to six times rebroadcasting and extending your range by cooperative re-transmission with users in your community. Applications like TxTenna / Samourai wallet even allow bitcoin transmissions without access to the outside world. Gliderlink offers tactical mapping and coordination. Mesh Developers toolkit offers internet backhaul, scripting, beacon services. And a 30 day free trial of Gotenna Plus offers SMS relay meaning that even if you don’t have service, you can relay a text message through any other gotenna device nearby out to the outside world to anyone with a cellphone. Unlike the software mesh options, Gotenna allows offline installations with the .apk file and does not require registration before use. At about $50 each, this is becoming a very attractive option for offline, license-free communication.
Walkie Talkies (e.g., FRS, GMRS, MURS…) – Walkie Talkies are available at nearly every store such as walmart, target, best buy, REI… and they may work for your group or family provided that you will remain in very close proximity to each other. They likely will not have the power or ubiquity to get outside help – but they may work up to a quarter of a mile away (depending on terrain and noise). GMRS is better than FRS. But any device purchased in haste without research likely will only transmit at a fraction of a watt. MURS devices are relatively new and may have longer range, but will generally be expensive and you may not be able to reach out for help from others outside your group.
Citizens’s Band (CB) – CB has potential for long range communications depending on your setup but will work particularly well near interstate highways.
Marine Band – Marine band has potential for medium distance communications depending on your setup but will generally only work well at reaching others near navigable waterways.
Ham Radios (HF, VHF, UHF…) – ham radios have the greatest potential to reach the greatest number of people at the greatest ranges possible, but generally require an FCC license to use. The most basic level (Technician) is very easy to pass but will require a day or so of study depending on your level of familiarity with basic electronics. Unfortunately, the Technicians license only allows operation of VHF/UHF radios which generally only have a local (e.g. several miles range) but if repeaters are available in your area this may allow communications up to about 30 miles. Note that these repeaters towers are generally lowered during a hurricane and may not survive extended power outages. For longer distance communications, using HF (relatively low frequencies that bounce off of the atmosphere and can travel hundreds to thousands of miles) you will need to pass the intermediate (General) level of FCC licensure. This is not very difficult with several days or weeks of study.
NOAA Weather / FM Radio* – While this only allows you to receive information and not send messages, a NOAA radio may be setup to give you an alert using the FM radio towers which tend to be more resilient and have broader range than celltowers. The Next Radio app (free) allows you to unlock many phones to receive FM broadcasts even if the celltowers and wifi are down, using a pair of headphones or an aux cable as an antenna.
*This will be updated shortly – but I wanted to give a rough idea for a syllabus of other options that may be more inclusive than merely ham/amateur radio options. Local amateur radio groups may want to consider a radically inclusive meeting / event that seeks to bring in ANY member of the community concerned about communication options available to them in the event of a disaster / emergency to help their families and neighbors. This discussion may provide a nice segue to the enhanced benefits of HF and ham radio once they see the shortcomings with just an iphone or just a UHF/VHF BaoFeng.