Two-Way Communication Options

[Note: Much of this material has been taken from my book, The Urban Prepper’s Guide.]

One of the key elements of two-way communication is the ability to ask questions and clarify information. When you watch something on TV or listen to a news report on the radio, you’re limited to what they tell you. They may inadvertently omit a piece of information that for you is particularly important or even critical.

Being able to request more information, ideally from a source you know to be trustworthy, is a luxury that you cannot overlook in an emergency.

Cell Phone

For most folks, the first thing grabbed for communication is a cell phone, even if they don’t use them much for calling anymore. Text messaging as well as any number of social media apps allow for instant communication anywhere a signal can be had. Which, of course, is the crux of the matter. One of the first thing affected in a catastrophe is that signal. Depending on the nature of the disaster, it could be that the cell towers become compromised. Even if they’re still working, they might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people trying to get in touch with others.

If the signal is weak or if the network seems to be overloaded, stick to texting rather than attempting voice calls. A text message will often make it through where a call cannot. If you’re able to get online and utilize a social media service to send or receive messages, so much the better.

One thing I recommend every person carry in their pocket, purse, EDC bag, or wherever, is a charging cord for their phone as well as a USB to AC adapter. Both of these items are very inexpensive, but could prove priceless in an urban area during a crisis. All too often, we find that just when we truly need our phone, that’s when it is down to about 12% battery. If you have the space, a small battery pack is also a great idea. But if not, having the cord and wall adapter gives you options when you’re out and about.

Amateur Radio

Known as ham radio, this network of radios and operators often serves as the backbone for emergency communication during a disaster. There is a learning curve with the equipment as well as studying involved to obtain the necessary license to use it.

There are some who say they’re not going to worry about the license, as the applicable agencies aren’t likely to be enforcing those regulations during a disaster. While probably true, the license is needed to practice with the equipment beforehand, which is a necessary step in the learning process. Not to mention the networking you’re able to do with other ham operators ahead of a real emergency.

Make no mistake, you can listen all you want. The license is only required if you are going to transmit over the air. However, the latter is how you’ll connect with other operators now as well as how you’ll be able to share information in the wake of an event.

You can get by without a huge investment in gear, though the sky is the limit if it becomes a serious interest. Many ham operators end up with entire rooms devoted to equipment and spend hours every week talking to people all over the globe.

What I recommend as a starting place is to seek out a local ham radio club in your local area. In the United States, there are over 700,000 licensed ham operators, and odds are good that there’s a club in your area. Almost all operators are extremely helpful to those new to the hobby.

Knowing the role ham radio can play in disaster communications, many clubs as well as individual operators will regularly practice using their gear in less than optimum conditions, such as improvising antennas and such.

Citizen’s Band (CB) Radio

These days, CB radio is largely used by professional drivers, such as delivery trucks, semi-trucks, and the like. For a brief period in the 1970s, though, it was all the rage, largely influenced by movies like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit. Almost overnight, every car and truck driver in America had a clever or funny CB handle or nickname and the airwaves were filled with slang like, “bear in the air” and “go-go juice.”

By the early to mid-1980s, the popularity has died off considerably. Today, with the advent of cell phones and other communication tools, CB is back to being mostly used by over the road truck drivers. One major downside to these radios is the limited range. At most, we’re talking roughly 20 miles, and it can be considerably less depending upon terrain.

The other drawback is that the communication isn’t private. If someone is having a conversation on channel 8, anyone with a radio in range tuned to that channel can hear everything being said. Given that there are only 40 channels from which to choose, it doesn’t take much for someone to scan through them all and see who might be talking. Plus, with the range limitation, they’ll know that whomever they hear is in the immediate area.

Where it shines, though, is that truck drivers may have information others do not, simply because they’re on the road and have a unique vantage point as a result. The equipment is relatively inexpensive, too. So, while I wouldn’t suggest it as any sort of primary means of communication, if the budget allows it wouldn’t be a bad addition to your preps, simply as a data gathering tool.

Handheld Radios

These have come a long way since we were kids playing army in the woods, using cheap plastic radios to fill each other in on “enemy” movements. The two-way radios in use today operate using either Family Radio Service (FRS) or General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) frequencies.

To avoid getting too deep into the weeds with the technical side of things, here’s what you need to know about the differences between the two types of radios. As a general rule of thumb, GMRS radios have greater range than FRS radios. However, GMRS requires a license from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), where FRS does not.

Whichever type you pursue, ignore whatever the package says in terms of advertised range. The only way several miles is realistic is if you’re in a desert and there’s absolutely nothing between you and the other radio. In an urban area, rife with tall buildings and other structures, you’ll be lucky to get several city blocks in most cases.

That being the case, the only real use these would have for the urban prepper is to stay in touch with neighbors.

1 Comment

  1. Master Marksmen says:

    CB is really just in the HF Band , you can get decent skip and power to push the signal further out.

    Brushbeater has a excellent book on communication with Radios and sells plenty of the gear.

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