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March 11, 2015
Totally Ready for Anything
Are You Okay? Prepare to Communicate
by Carolyn Nicolaysen

An earthquake strikes, and your neighborhood is badly shaken. Your house was rocking and pitching like the deck of a ship, and your knees are still wobbly.

Some of your neighbors' homes are damaged. Your chimney has a crack in it. The earthquake must have been centered nearby, you think. Electricity is out. Phones are out. Water is out. Sirens are approaching.

The kids are at school, and your husband is at work. You reach for your cell phone and dial his number. The cell network is down, or overloaded. What will you do?

When natural disaster wipes out the local infrastructure, emergency response teams may be minutes, hours, or days away. Having a plan for the possible scenarios will help your family feel more confident. If children know that whatever happens while they are in school, you will come to get them, no matter how long it takes to get there — they will be more assured in their distress.

When families are separated in an emergency, communicating can be next to impossible.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, cell phones did not work. Cellular companies lost their towers and/or the power to operate them. Temporary facilities were setup along the expressway, but when their generators ran out of gas, they were sometimes down again for long periods.

Internet service was down. And when power was restored to some areas, there was no cable service until the cable TV companies had power to their broadcast centers. Wired phones worked in many cases, but FEMA shut down some lines to assure that service was available for emergency use.

During the August 2003 blackout that swept the northeastern states, cell service was widely disrupted due to the loss of backup power when generators ran out of fuel, or cell phone batteries ran out of charge. Wired phone lines were overwhelmed by the volume of traffic, and millions of home users had only cordless telephones that depended on household current.

Many people, who had been prepared in prior blackouts with “transistor radios” to hear the news, no longer had a radio. They had all been replaced by computers or other updated devices. Most broadcast stations were knocked off the air momentarily, but returned to the air with backup power. Internet service was down, except for dial-up which could still be accessed by laptops — until the laptop batteries were spent.

So how can we communicate, when all else fails? One of the common and overlooked technologies for an emergency is radio, the same technology used by police and fire departments. But since ordinary citizens cannot legally use fire and police frequencies, there are basically three or four options: Family Radio Service, Citizens Band, Ham Radio, and Business Band.

Family Radio Service

If you've bought a pair of walkie-talkies at your local Big Box store to take on vacation or on a campout, they are probably made for the Family Radio Service (FRS). They require no license, run with common batteries, have minimal features, and low power. Usually, their range is limited to about one mile.

A good FRS radio has 14 channels, and a squelch control to mute the speaker when there is no signal present.

PRO – Easy to use. A child can do it.

CON – Too simple and common. During a real emergency, there might be so many signals on those frequencies, they will be virtually useless.

Citizens Band

Yep, 10-4 good buddy. One of your best sources for CB gear is your local truck stop. CB had a surge of popularity in the 80's, and many ordinary folks had to give it a try. These days, with amazing cell phones, text messaging, email, and video messaging via Windows Messenger, CB radio seems, well, passe.

But don't be deceived, CB is alive and thrivin', and has a lot to offer. CB frequencies are called the 11-meter band, which mean they are smack dab between VHF frequencies and shortwave. During a good sunspot cycle, they are known to bounce off the stratosphere and carry signals across the continent. But for daily and emergency use, you can only count on 4-5 miles.

CB radio no longer requires an FCC license, and is by law, limited to low power. There are 40-channels, so in many less-populated areas on an ordinary day, there is room for everybody. It is OK to employ a good antenna on your house, which can greatly improve performance. Truckers know all the ins and outs of a good mobile antenna. Check your truck stop or local radio store for the possibilities.

PRO — Widely available. Best for mobile (in vehicle) or base station operation. 40-channels.

CON — Because of the frequencies used, CB walkie-talkie antennas are too long and impractical. During an actual emergency, CB channels may be too crowded to use for family communication. For daily family use, there may not be enough privacy in some areas.

Ham Radio

The Amateur Radio Service, also called “Ham Radio”, has a long tradition of service and innovation. Users in the USA must be licensed by the FCC, and virtually every government worldwide subscribes to the treaties that protect their frequencies and license their operators. Our family has several licened operarors.

Three of our children, two children-in-law, four grandchildren, my husband and I (K6CJN) are all licensed. Our grandchildren received their licenses at 7,8,9 and 11 years of age.

Ham radio operators are involved in serving their communities during emergencies, through clubs and service organizations, such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). When public safety officials are overwhelmed, ham operators provide networks connecting emergency response teams all across the disaster area.

ARES and similar ham radio organizations have formal agreements with Dept. of Homeland Security (Citizen Corp), FEMA, National Communications System, Salvation Army, National Weather Service, and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.

Some of the recent emergencies served by hams from ARES and other organizations include Hurricane Sandy (2012), the February tornado outbreak (2008), Oregon storms and floods (2007), Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), Hurricanes Charlie, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne in Florida (2004), severe weather in Virginia (2004), tornadoes in Illinois (2004), earthquake in Central California (2003), Hurricane Isabel (2003), Midwest tornadoes (2003), and World Trade Center attack (2001). These are just a few.

ARES also helps provide communications for parades, marathons, races, bicycle tours and other big events where skilled and rapid communication can protect and improve safety for both participants and the public.

Gary Krakow of MSNBC wrote that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a call for help from 15 people stranded by floodwaters was relayed by a combination of cell phone calls and amateur radio. Unable to get through the 9-1-1 system, one of those stranded got through to a relative in Baton Rouge. That person called a relative who called the local American Red Cross.

“Using that Red Cross chapter’s amateur radio station, Ben Joplin, WB5VST, was able to relay a request for help on the SATERN network via Russ Fillinger, W7LXR, in Oregon, and Rick Cain, W7KB, in Utah back to Louisiana, where emergency personnel were alerted. They rescued the 15 people and got them to a shelter.”

Each amateur radio operator (“ham”) must be licensed. For many years, hams were required to pass a practical test in Morse code, but that requirement is now gone. There are various levels of licenses, from Novice to Extra Class. Each requires an exam testing the applicant on their knowledge of FCC regulations, operator practices, and radio theory.

But ham operators come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, and all ages. The Novice Class license is quite simple, and children under 10-years of age frequently pass the exam. Privileges are limited, however, unless you upgrade to a higher class license.

The really good news is that a licensed ham has access to frequencies all across the radio spectrum, from shortwave to microwaves. Hams communicate locally with handheld radios that fit in a shirt pocket, mobile units in their cars, and from home base stations that can be quite elaborate, contacting other operators worldwide.

Before satellites, internet, cell phones, fax machines, and email, ham radio was truly amazing. And in the face of widespread disaster, it still is.

Ham operators have many motives. To some it is just a fun hobby, to others it is a way of being involved on the air and in person to serve the community. It is never for commercial gain.

Many ham radio clubs have “repeaters” on hilltops around metro areas, which allow an operator with a walkie-talkie to cover hundreds of square miles with only the radio in their pocket. In an emergency power outage, many of these repeaters have backup power to keep them on the air.

Hams throughout the area will often report into emergency networks (“nets”), under the direction of a host operator who is trained to gather emergency reports from all over the coverage area, and report it to local public safety officials. Most of their training and rehearsing, is with emergency response in mind.

Because hams have many frequencies, there is room for thousands of users to operate in direct communication with one another, on many bands at the same time. Family communication between a husband and wife could be largely unhindered on a previously agreed frequency, keeping them in touch regardless of what goes on with cell phones, wired phones, and internet service.

Radio communication is not private, however, and anyone can listen in.

Ham radio equipment is available from specialty stores, mainly in large cities, or from many internet vendors. Local operators are glad to help newcomers. Many local clubs sponsor classes for new ham operators, to prepare for their license exams. Club meetings offer a forum for emergency preparation, and FAQ's.

Some LDS stakes have strongly encouraged local members to prepare and equip themselves with ham radio licenses and equipment. Church headquarters and BYU are both equipped for radio communication. In an emergency, operators within a stake boundary can report the condition of members to church leaders, so that service may be coordinated. Service to the local community is also strongly supported.

PROS — The widest array of operating capabilities and privileges. Voice, data, and video are possible, with technology ranging from simple to extremely sophisticated (such as tracking and talking with astronauts on the space shuttle or space station). Accurate information when media may be ill informed. HAMs love to pass along messages. Cost to get started can be as little as $100.

CONS — Requires some training and an FCC license for each operator in your household.

Business Band Radio

Another radio service, Business Band Radio, allows users under license of the FCC to operate VHF/UHF frequencies in addition to the Family Radio Service, with more power and full featured 2-way radios than the FRS. Range is still limited, but this would be a more reliable system than FRS under an emergency scenario. Business Band Radio equipment is generally of higher quality and more durable.

PRO — Better and more reliable radios than FRS. More frequencies with better privacy and availability during an emergency, than FRS and CB. Although a license is required, there is no exam.

CON — The number of frequencies are much more limited than ham radio, and range is still very limited — to two miles or so on an ordinary day. Under ideal conditions, range could be up to 25 miles, line-of-site.


For local communication under a wide range of conditions, nothing is more reliable than two-way radio. Parents can keep in touch with children running local errands, or while visiting friends around the corner, and there are no phone fees.

On vacation, radios are a way to keep in touch with friends in other vehicles, or with the kids when you split up at the amusement park. In an emergency, they are a potential way of summoning help, or reporting those in distress to authorities.

For limited range and inexperienced users, try the Family Radio Service employed by the inexpensive walkie-talkies sold at your local discount store. No license required.

For daily and more reliable local communication, buy radios with professional features that use the Business Band Radio frequencies on VHF/UHF bands. These require a license.

To tap into the world of Citizen Band Radio, consider equipping your car and/or your home with radios that can range out 5 miles or more, and which have many uses in emergencies, to alert others to road conditions, summon help to an accident, or just to chat with fellow travelers. No license required.

Amateur Radio offers the most sophisticated options, but is restricted to licensed users. There are hundreds of thousands of hams worldwide, and their capability to provide valuable communications in an emergency are well known.

Local communities rely on ham operators during an emergency response, to gather and dispense information outside of official channels. For your family, ham radio can provide contact with both emergency response teams, and with others in your local or global network using all kinds of technology — on VHF, UHF and shortwave.

When other resources fail, there is still nothing like two-way radio. It can be fun for all ages, too. Please consider it an important part of your preparation for power outages, natural disasters, and for whatever comes your way.

How are your prepararions coming? Be sure to check in at Carolyn’s facebook page several times each week for help and tips. Ask questions there or contact Carolyn at

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