2020-11-22 update: Voice Over IP phones and Mesh Networks
2020-12-27 update: added link to Ham Radio on a Budge article
Most emergency events will have some warning signs. You should identify ‘trigger points,’ events that will cause you to start moving personnel and equipment to a predetermined location, or checking equipment like generators, topping off rechargeable batteries, etc. (see the article Preparedness Conditions for more information). There could be a secondary level before you go into full blown activation. The American Redoubt Radio Operators Network (AmRRON) uses communications conditions, with different levels indicating actions and preparations that should be taken. A similar chart should be developed for your group.
You need to make an assessment of all the communications means available to you BEFORE you need them. While most people work on the assumption that cell phones and land-lines will not be available during an emergency, they may be available in the early stages of an event. Cell phones and land-lines should be your first line of communication, you do not want to communicate your preparedness “alert” over a radio. Remember that you cannot pass any type of communication over Amateur Radio (ham) frequencies that is intended to disguise the meaning; so you can’t call each other and say “wolverine.” Land line and cell phones, and particularly text messaging, are a more secure way to pass a code word or phrase. In most emergency/disaster situations, cell towers may be flooded with people trying to make a call, but text messages will usually get through, but they could be delayed so don’t rely on them. Your plan should include a method to confirm that the message has been received.
Develop a phone tree, where one person calls two people, who then call two more. Develop the tree so there is overlap, so in the event that one person can’t be reached the people who they would normally call are called by someone else. Develop a priority order based on things such as the distance someone might need to travel, so the further away they are the earlier they get called. With texting it is possible for one person to send a text to multiple people, again make sure your plan calls for an acknowledgement that the message.
Consider the use of apps that provide a higher level of encryption, such as Signal. See this page for a more in-depth discussion on communications security.
Voice Over IP Phones
Voice over internet (IP) phones connect to your internet. If you loose cell service you might still have internet. If you have your router and wifi connected to an uninterruptible power supply you will still have phone and internet service even in a power outage providing that your providers hub still has power.
There are a number of free VoIP providers, you just buy an interface or VoIP capable phone. If you have a ham license there is Hamshack Hotline, a free service for ham radio operators. As it isn’t over the air anyone in your family can use it to call other phones on the network. From the research I’ve done it appears that a ham operator can have multiple devices, so its possible to have one at your work and home or other locations, all for the cost of a suitable VoIP phone, less than $100.
Push-To-Talk Radio over IP
Another ‘technology’ tool is some of the push-to-talk applications for cell phones, such as Zello. You can create a group channel in many of these applications that is password protected so you only let in members of your group. These applications use the digital channel side of the cell phones so may work even if you cannot make a cell call. This should probably be next in your communications plan (CommsPlan) as it is more secure than Amateur Radio frequencies.
Ham Radio Mesh Network
802.11b and g wifi routers operate just outside the 2.4GHz and 3.4GHz ham bands. The equipment can be modified to work in the ham bands and at higher legal power. These can then be used to create a mesh, a wide area wifi network, over miles. By adding a VoIP capable phone you can call anyone in the network.
The routes, or nodes, run off 12v and directional antennas can extend the links to around 10 miles, terrain permitting. As this is a mesh nodes interconnect, and all devices on the network can see each other. As these are data pathways any IP device can be connected, including cameras, and the network can send email between the users.
Your next line of communications once cell service is no longer available is the radio. Develop a list of frequencies that are available to you, and make sure you consider the limitations of each. Assuming that most members of your group are local, say within 50 miles, you should list all Amateur Repeaters that may be available. One way to do this is create a spreadsheet of repeaters in your area, a good resource is http://www.repeaterbook.com/. Also, search for local clubs web sites, as they will list any repeaters they maintain. Consider repeaters that have less traffic on them, especially 220mHz (1.25-meter) repeaters, these tend to have very few hams on them. Next, determine which ones you can reach with your home radio and external antenna, with your hand held from both home and work, and your mobile radio from likely places that you might be. Make a column in your spreadsheet for each location and radio (hand held and/or mobile etc.). Have each person complete the spreadsheet then combine the results. While wide-area coverage repeaters, and linked repeater systems, will allow you to keep in touch remember that you are allowing a large number of people to possibly hear your plan or activities, something you don’t want to do especially in the early stages of an event.
If you can locate a copy of any local Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) plan you will be able to determine which repeaters they have identified for emergency events, you should, if possible, avoid using those repeaters.
In addition to Amateur repeaters you may also have General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) repeaters in your area. Sometimes they are listed on http://www.mygmrs.com/ A GMRS license is $70 for 10 years (no test) and a single license covers you and all your family. Typically you will find less people on a GMRS repeater. If you have a suitable site you might consider setting up your own GMRS repeater, they can be found for around $300. Remember they are not a secure or encrypted means of communication, anyone can listen in to what you are saying. The rules about disguising your message that apply to the Amateur Radio service also apply to the GMRS service. How to apply for a GMRS license.
You should also identify any simplex frequencies that may reach between various locations, usually 2-meter simplex is going to provide the best coverage. If you can talk to teach other on simplex do so, less people will be able to hear your transmissions. Check your local repeater coordination council for approved simplex frequencies so you do not accidentally transmit on the input to a repeater.
What Radios to Buy
A couple of considerations when you are purchasing radios. If you all have the same radio make/model it is easier to keep them programmed the same and parts are interchangeable. For a more detailed discussion on what radios to buy see the article What Radio Should I Buy and Ham Radio on a Budget.
Another consideration is mobile versus portable (hand held). I understand that most new hams buy a hand held as their first radio. However, a mobile is going to give you more power (usually 50 watts) and a better antenna and will work much better in a vehicle or in a house.
Once you combine the results of your tests you will be able to determine which repeaters will reach most, or all, members of your groups most of the time. List several repeaters in your plan based on priority, you should list at least four or five, as well as any simplex frequencies that will reach between various locations and for tactical comms. List the frequencies as primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. If you have the memory space in your radio you might add all the repeaters and simplex frequencies into your radio.
Create a ‘cheat sheet’ with the frequencies that are programmed in your radio and their memory location for quick selection. You should also create a cheat sheet of any other frequencies such as FRS/GMRS etc. that you could use. Make these pocket size and laminate them.
Communications Plan Annex
FINAL THOUGHTS – Exercise Your Plan
It is important that you practice. Practice adding frequencies from the keypad of your radio, become familiar with your radio(s). Practice talking on your radio!!! Get on repeaters and have regular conversations with not only the people in your group but other hams to. Get on regular nets and learn how they operate. Practice with written traffic, find a local traffic net and practice receiving and sending written messages, this is invaluable if you have to relay messages. Help with public service events. Probably most important is to practice with your group. Have a regular time you get on a simplex, if you can all reach each other, or repeater and have an informal net with everyone.
By regularly practicing your plan you will discover any problems with it, such as a repeater being off the air. Revise your plan as needed so it is always current. A good group practice is to have a primary and secondary person responsible for your comms, these people should be able to provide training to the others in your group, ideally at least one has an Extra class ham license, but at least General.
In the event that SHTF event you should add code words and an authentication procedure to your plan and change these on a regular basis, but at least every 30-days. See the articles under Communications Security for additional information on authentication etc.