Radio Communications in an Emergency


“I can’t reach her!”

In a major disaster, the chances are your telephones won’t work.

  • Handheld home phones (“rove-a-phones”) depend on electricity for power. If you experience an outage, your house phones may not work at all.
  • Old style land lines messages may go through when a home phone doesn’t work. But they have to go through a central office before getting distributed to another connection.  An earthquake or storm may cause lines to break or that local office to be damaged.
  • Cell phones “broadcast” your voice or data to antennas that are connected through a network of computers and then are re-broadcast from other antennas to the recipient’s location.  Even if you have a strong battery, if the antennas are damaged or the computers inoperative, cell phones won’t work.

The problem for everyone, no matter WHAT kind of phone . . .

System overload!

With everybody on a network trying to get through at once, the circuits (which typically can only handle about 10% of the total subscribers at best) will be overloaded and calls won’t go through . . . especially local point-to-point calls within the affected area. Remember these examples where service was shut down because of overload — people calling to check on each other, to share video, etc.?

  • Boston Marathon
  • Superbowl
  • Earthquake in SF Bay area
  • Mass shooting in Las Vegas

Naturally, you might ask, “Why not add more capacity to the system?”

Building more towers and more switching stations could make it possible for more traffic to be carried in an emergency. But since emergencies by their very nature are unpredictable, it would be impossible to know WHERE to put all this extra equipment. Even if it were installed, the overcapacity would then sit idle probably 364 days a year until it were needed.

So, massive infrastructure upgrades are not likely to happen!

What are our options?

If you personally are caught in an emergency  at home, check to see if you have (1) cell service, (2) home service and/or (3) hardwired landline.

If you do have cell service, keep in mind . . .

  • Calling locally may be difficult or impossible. Call outside your local area — for example, making a long-distance call to your out-of-town contact may work.
  • Use email and text — they require less bandwidth than voice and may get through.
  • Register and use the Red Cross Safe and Well app so family members can check there, instead of trying to reach you by phone.

Note: If you don’t have your cell phone, or it’s damaged, or the batteries have died, you will need to have memorized a few important phone numbers or be able to put your hands on a written list!

Now, if you are on the planning committee for a big event, you’ll want to find out more about temporary solutions like these:

  • A wireless network —  can be installed in a matter of hours, saving event organizers time and money on the overall cost of the project.
  • Mobile cell towers on wheels or light trucks, along with specialty antennas — boost network traffic capacity.
  • Low altitude airborne platforms hovering over an emergency (imagine a tethered helium balloon or a drone) — easily extend a communications network over a difficult terrain or dangerous location.

As for First Responders, in 2017 AT&T won a 25-year contract from FirstNet to build and run a broadband network that will cater to first responders including police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services in all 50 states. More about this as we learn it!

Another option for keeping in touch locally — walkie-talkies.

When all phones are down, maybe for an extended period, you’ll want to consider walkie-talkies, or hand-held radios.

They are an inexpensive and practical way to communicate within a neighborhood between family members, emergency team members, etc. While their range is limited to a mile or less for most inexpensive units, that is usually sufficient for communicating within a neighborhood.  After all, since the frequencies are public, you really don’t want to be receiving other communities’ conversations in the middle of your activities.

Why are walkie-talkies able to communicate when telephones can’t? Simple. These two-way radios are self-contained, providing their own power from rechargeable or replaceable batteries. They broadcast directly, point-to-point on the Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) assigned frequencies without the need to go through any central office or computer.

Action Item:  What are the chances your neighborhood could be hit by a storm? What about your workplace? Could you could be trapped? Consider keeping a walkie-talkie in each room of the house or office so that you could communicate with rescuers on a pre-arranged radio frequency.

There’s much more here at Emergency Plan Guide on the subject of communication and the discipline of emergency response team volunteers in using the different radio frequencies. Check out the links below, and consider picking up a pair of walkie-talkies for practice. You can get basic ones starting at around $20 a pair. We use ours in emergencies, but also when we’re camping, at conventions or the fair, and certainly at big entertainment events. They are an alternative to your cellphone that you may never have really thought about.

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

If radio communications are of interest to you, you may want to review these Advisories:

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