Emergency communications

Emergency Communications Information

During local, state and national emergencies the importance of our country’s communications system which includes telecommunications, broadcast, cable and satellite systems can become strained. When the power is off, phones go out and the internet is down, when police, fire, and hospital services are overwhelmed, amateur radio operators are there to take up the slack as emergency communications volunteers. They have, in fact, been there in virtually all disasters in recent memory.

With a little forethought and a few dollars, you can prepare yourself for similar events in the future and avoid being out of touch when you need it the most.

When it comes to setting up an emergency communications system:

1) It should be easy to operate
2) have effective range
3) have a modest amount of protection against interference
4) be inexpensive to start up and inexpensive to operate
5) be readily available
6) be able to operate “off the grid”

In making your choice, you should examine your own needs and match them with the appropriate system.

* CB Radio
1) Prices for complete systems are cheap and in many areas, the CB channels are relatively quiet. Advantages of using CB radios for emergency communications are considerable. Aside from the low price tag, lack of licensing and fees, they are operated on your car’s 12 volt electrical system and may be easily operated from home using a small, cheap motorcycle battery. Their range, depending on antenna type and placement, may be anywhere from one to fifteen miles.

Disadvantages of CB’s are few, but persistent. Antennas tend to be large (4′ to 8′ on vehicles and larger for “base” or home stations). While much smaller antennas can be bought, their effective range is drastically reduced. Transmissions tend to “leak” into all kinds of other electronic devices. In the home, CB’ers will often be heard on TV speakers, corded telephones, electronic keyboard speakers, etc. Another problem is that sometimes, during favorable atmospheric propagation, range may be as great as several thousand miles. Thousands of people all hitting their mike buttons at the same time sets up an unearthly squeal and nobody gets through.

Prices for CB radios range from US$50 to $150 for full-sized mobile-mount radios to $230 for handheld portable units with AM/Single Side Band (SSB) capabilities. Some units have built-in Weather Radio receivers which make them an ideal choice. Antennas must be purchased separately and range from $28 to $75 and usually have attached cables and connectors to simply plug into the back of the unit.

* 49MHz Personal Communicators
These are small, lightweight, self-contained, low power systems which featured a single headset with boom mike attached to the transmitter/controller which could be clipped to the user’s belt or pants pocket. Usually single channel operation only, some models can be found with as many as five frequency channels. All feature PTT (push-to-talk) mikes as well as VOX (voice operated) transmitters. The VOX feature makes them ideal “hands free” systems for cyclists, joggers or motorcyclists. Without speakers, the audio is heard only through the earphone. Early cordless phones, baby monitors and a few other devices share this band.

The advantage of this system is the extremely low power drain. Most sets are powered by only 2 or 3 AA batteries and may be in service for months. Their size makes them perfect for traveling light and taking up very little space. The big disadvantage is that the range is under a quarter of a mile (though this may be seen as an advantage when you don’t want to battle hundreds of other people on your frequency or to maintain some privacy).

Prices for 49MHz Personal Communicators range from $30 to $50 each.

* Family Radio Service
The FCC has tried to give the average citizen a chance to use the airwaves with what they call the “Family Radio Service” (FRS). They assigned the band frequencies in the UHF region (around 462MHz)with 14 channels and the output is one-half watt. Transmissions use Frequency Modulation (FM). All are small, battery-powered “handi-talkies” which can easily fit into a pocket.

Advantages of FRS units are that they are very compact (typically 4″ h x 2.5″ w x 1.5″ d) and weighing 6-10 ounces. The UHF frequency means they have very short antennas (typically only a few inches). Some units also have such useful features as optional headset/boom mikes for VOX operation, audible low battery alert and transmit LED. Some units feature 38 “interference eliminator codes” which are sub-audible tones which let your unit respond only to other units transmitting a designated tone. Other notable features include a programmable scan feature and automatic “power off” (shuts down if not used after a certain period of time). The main disadvantage of these units is the relatively short range. While manufacturers claim up to two miles, don’t expect more than a mile.

Expect to pay $50 each for basic FRS models, $90-$190 for higher-end models with additional features.

* General Mobile Radio Service
The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is like the FRS in that it operates in the 460MHz region, uses small handi-talkies and is meant to be used by individuals to communicate with immediate family members. The big differences are that GMRS requires an FCC license with a fee and users must be 18 years or older. In addition, the output of these units is considerably greater (1 to 5 watts), allowing a range of coverage from 5 to 25 miles, depending on terrain and antenna position.

There are 23 GMRS channels used on an unassigned basis and dependent on the cooperation of all users. The channels are split up for base, mobile relay and fixed station or mobile station use. Each license is assigned one or two of eight possible channels or pairs as requested by the license applicants. In order to avoid interference or conflicts in use, the FCC recommends monitoring existing frequencies in your area before making your application and requesting your channels.

The advantage of the GMRS is that this is the most useful of the previously listed services, but brings with it disadvantages of government oversight and stringent frequency assignment. GMRS radios are bigger than FRS units and have more features. Higher power means more batteries (as many as 6 AAs) and a higher price. Expect to pay $200 for handheld 2 watt units and considerably more for 5 watt base station transceiver.

* Amateur Radio
The Amateur Radio service, whose operators are known as Hams, has pioneered radio communications since the beginning of the 1900’s. as Amateur Radio (AR) is also the most regulated of the non-commercial services, it can end up being the most expensive, but it can also be the most versatile and powerful.

All hams and their stations must be licensed by the FCC, and to receive a license, you must pass a written exam. Any license above the entry level also requires a proficiency in Morse Code. There’s no fee for the license (which is good for ten years), no age requirement and operators are allowed to use any frequency for which their license qualifies them.

A nationwide system of repeaters on the 144MHz and 440MHz bands allows nearly seamless communications as hams travel around the country. These repeaters are built, installed and maintained by active and well-populated local amateur radio clubs. Traditional amateur frequencies in the shortwave bands provide excellent coverage for local, regional, national, and even international, communications. Unfortunately, there’s not one single radio with all these capabilities which is why hams typically have three or four separate radios and antennas.

The easiest way into ham radio is via the “Technician” class license which requires a written test based on a text available this 2010_Tech_Study_Guide. (If you wish to go further you can also download the
study guide for a General Class license.) The Technician class allows the user to operate(among others) in the 2 meter band (144MHz). Small handi-talkies for 2 meters are relatively cheap and give a range of 20-50 miles depending on terrain, power and whether or not you’re using a repeater. Many repeaters provide access to 911 services through the handi-talkie.

Expect to pay $200-$500 for 2 meter transceivers depending on features. If you’re planning to use Amateur Radio for your family, each member needs a Technician license and their own handi-talkie.

Note that the FCC has made it illegal to modify any of these radios to operate in any band other than the one for which they were intended or to make it possible to place telephone calls from the radios. Also be aware that none of these services offer privacy. Anyone with a similar unit or a scanner can tune into your conversations.

You don’t need to buy any of these transceivers to find out what’s happening in your area in an emergency. Any scanner capable of tuning the VHF or UHF bands can tune in. Any shortwave radio capable of tuning as high as 27MHz can monitor the Citizen’s Band. This is particularly useful in winter when you need to know about road conditions in your immediate area.

* Wind Up Radios
Wind up radios are available through a variety of sources however the quality in wind up radios varies. We suggest a radio that is water-proof and ideally has a rubber casing to make it more durable in emergency situations.

A radio using SAME technology is ideal for receiving alerts regarding your local weather or other emergencies. Once you program your radio to your location, when the National Weather Service (NWS) broadcasts a warning, watch or non-weather emergency, it also broadcasts a digital SAME code that may be heard as a very brief static burst, depending on the characteristics of the receiver. This SAME code contains the type of message, county (or counties) affected, and message expiration time.
A programmed NWR SAME receiver will turn on for that message, with the listener hearing the 1050 Hz warning alarm tone as an attention signal, followed by the broadcast message. At the end of the broadcast message, listeners will hear a brief digital end-of-message static burst followed by a resumption of the NWR broadcast cycle.

Network Damage and Black-outs

If the telecommunications network is damaged in a disaster, your traditional landline, wireless, or VoIP phone and text pager may not work. If only your electricity goes out (a “black-out”), your traditional telephone may still work. In a black-out, you still might be able to use your traditional landline phone because electricity and telephone transmissions travel on different wires. If you keep the battery on your wireless phone and text pager fully charged, you may be able to use these, too, in a black-out. Unless you have a backup power supply, your VoIP phone will not work if your broadband connection is down or in a black-out.

The Internet backbone uses shared rather than dedicated transmission facilities so that even during heavy usage the Internet will work, albeit perhaps more slowly. However, if Internet traffic is heavy enough, VoIP phones may not work. Cable modem and DSL users who have dedicated Internet access can generally get through to their e-mail systems, although dial-up Internet users may experience some blocking when they try to dial their Internet Service Provider (ISP), either because the local telephone system is congested or all ISP’s lines are busy.

The Emergency Alert System Radio and Television Updates

In the event of an emergency, many people rely on local radio and/or television stations to receive updates on what is happening and what to do.

There is a nationwide broadcast system in place for national disaster or other large-scale disasters. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) currently provides not only the President, but national, state, and local authorities with the ability to give emergency information to the general public via broadcast, cable, and wireless cable systems.

All broadcast stations and cable systems currently are required to broadcast emergency alerts and messages for national security emergencies initiated by the President.

In October, 2005, the FCC expanded its rules to require EAS participation by digital television (DTV) broadcasters, digital cable television providers, digital broadcast radio, Digital Audio Radio Service (DARS), and Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) systems. These rules are effective as of December 31, 2006, except for DBS, whose effective date is May 31, 2007. The FCC continues to consider ways to enhance the EAS to ensure that all Americans, including those with hearing and vision disabilities and those who speak languages other than English, receive EAS alerts.

EAS participants are not required to broadcast EAS alerts and messages initiated by state and local authorities, but the FCC encourages them to transmit emergency alerts as a public service. Information about local natural disasters is often broadcast via EAS. All EAS alerts should be accessible by audio and visual means, or simple visual means, including closed-captioning, open-captioning, crawls or scrolls.

Of course if your local television/radio tower or studio is damaged during a natural disaster like a tornado, you may not receive the signal. EAS was designed, however, so that if one link in the dissemination of alert information is broken, the public has multiple alternate sources of warning.

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