I’ve been a Ham for almost 20 years and held an Extra class for about the last 15 years. I’ve been involved in public safety communications for over 10 years and developed communications plans for a large number of public safety as well as public service events. I’ve developed numerous emergency response exercises, including exercises specifically designed to test and evaluate communications procedures, plans, and systems. I’ve written prior articles for SurvivalBlog on the different communications systems that are available and how to obtain your Amateur Radio license. This article will step you through developing and exercising a communications plan for your preparedness group.
First, your group should identify “trigger points”, which are events that will cause you to start moving personnel and equipment to a predetermined location or checking equipment, like generators, topping off rechargeable batteries, et cetera. Most SHTF events will have some warning signs. You should identify levels, such as perhaps a “prepare” level at which time you:
- begin to assemble any items that may need to be moved to your group’s primary location, making sure your vehicles and any spare cans are full of fuel,
- pull all the cash you can out of your bank account,
- test various communications methods, and so forth.
There could be a secondary level before you go into full blown activation. The best way to list/show these is a simple table with three columns, headed with a level name. Underneath each, provide a description of the trigger events and actions that need to be taken. You can add an additional column that would include a code word or phrase to indicate the level. A phrase that could be passed in a normal conversation is much better than a single code word, i.e., “We’re having a cookout at Bill’s tonight” can be part of a conversation and is less likely to be understood as a “secret message” than a code word like “wolverine”.
You need to make an assessment of all the communications means available to you. While most people work on the assumption that cell phones and land lines will not be available when SHTF, 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 legally 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. Your plan should include a method to confirm that the message has been received. An “old” technology but very useful one is a pager, but cost and availability may be an issue.
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 was received.
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.
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. Use resources such as www.repeaterdirectory.com or www.artscripub.com, and publications such as the ARRL Repeater Directory. Bear in mind that those resources are as only as accurate as people who supply and update the information. Some Amateur Radio frequency coordination groups also maintain a list of repeaters they have coordinated. 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 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 with 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, et cetera). Have each person complete the spreadsheet and 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, and that’s 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 GMRS repeaters in your area. Sometimes they are listed on http://www.mygmrs.com/ and/or www.artscripub.com. However, there are many that are not listed. You can set your scanner or radio up to scan the GMRS repeater frequencies in your area to see if there is any activity. If you have GMRS licenses, you could contact the repeater owner and obtain permission for your group to use the repeater. This might entail a small contribution, but there may be very few people on the repeater, certainly less than on an Amateur repeater. If you have a suitable site and you have the money and expertise, you may consider setting up your own GMRS repeater. Even if you do, remember that it is not secure; 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. GMRS rules can be found in Part 95, Subpart A at https://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/rules-regulations-title-47
You should also identify any simplex frequencies that may reach between various locations. This should include MURS, FRS, and GMRS frequencies. (For a full explanation of these services, see the article http://survivalblog.com/communications-for-when-shtf-by-n-m/ .) Remember that you do need a license to transmit on the GMRS frequencies. (Note: the FCC has reduced the license fee for GMRS to $65 for five years.) Also remember that if you use FRS frequencies the power limit is ½ watt, which will not travel far but are ideal for local, “tactical” comms. However, a lot of people have FRS radios, and there could be a lot of people listening or interference.
Create a spread sheet with your group’s members in the left column, starting in row two. Copy and paste these names into row 1, starting at column B. You should then have a matrix. Create a duplicate matrix for each band and/or frequency that you plan to test. Don’t forget 6-meters and 10-meters FM (a General class license is required for the FM portion of 10-meters), as well as any SSB frequencies you have privileges on (another very good reason to at least get a General class license). Each member then sees who they can contact on the different simplex frequencies, placing an “X” in the appropriate row that corresponds to their name and column of the person they contact. You then collect these sheets and merge the results.
There are now several quad band radios on the market for under $300 that, in addition to amateur 2 meter (VHF) and 70cm (UHF) capabilities, also have 10 meter and 6 meter FM capabilities (such as the mobile TYT TH-9800. The only current hand held with 6 meters is the Yaesu VX-8DR (2 meter, 70cm, 1¼ meter & 6 meter).
This opens up the possibility of using simplex frequencies on these bands, and there is a high degree of probability that there will be very few people on those frequencies. Search for your local Ham frequency coordination group, and they usually publish a list of agreed FM simplex frequencies for their region. Note: Make sure that you are operating within the restrictions of your Ham license; a Technician can use 6-meters but not 10-meter voice. This is another reason why you should encourage everyone in your group to obtain at least a General class license. I will hazard to guess that you find that you would be the only people using 6 meter and certainly 10-meter, FM simplex in your area.
Another band that has very few Hams on is the 1¼ meter (220mHz) band. Even 1¼ meter repeaters have very few users on, especially if it is not linked to a 2 meter or 70cm repeater. There are several radios that are dual or tri-band with 220mHz in. Those are the the tri-band Kenwood TH-F6A with full power on 220mHz, the Yaesu VX-6R and VX-8DR (but only 1 or 1½ watts on 220mHz), and the dual band Baofeng UV-82X (2-meter and 220mHz). Alinco makes the DR-V47T which is single band 220mHz.
There are a couple of considerations, when you are purchasing radios. If you have a lot of repeaters or frequencies you plan to have in your radio, look at the memory capacity of the radios. Many of the entry level radios, such as Baofeng, only have about 128 memories, so other brands, such as Wouxun, have some nice models, such as the UV8D, with 999 memories for a reasonable price. You can quickly fill these with repeaters, FRS, MURS and GMRS frequencies. Ideally you don’t want to have to try and program a repeater or simplex frequency into your radio from the keypad in an emergency situation. The Yaesu FT-60 (http://www.universal-radio.com/catalog/ht/0060.html) has over 1,000 memories and is a very sturdy radio.
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. Most dual band (2m/70cm) mobile radios are going to run you around $300-$350. The TYT TH-9800 referenced above gives you four bands and 800 memory channels. A good site to compare radios and features at is Universal Radio.
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, et cetera. 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, et cetera, that you could use. Make these pocket sized, and laminate them.
Your comms plan should include authentication code words as well as identify the frequencies by different designators, such as a name or number. These would only be used when in a SHTF situation. An excellent manual on authentication and some sample formats is the Signals Handbook found at http://citizenmilitem.com/.
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 too. 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 on a 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 license but at least General. In the event that SHTF, you should add codewords and an authentication procedure to your plan and change these on a regular basis but at least every 30 days.
Beal, Ronald. “Signals Handbook for Small Teams.” 2015. http://citizenmilitem.com/. June 2015.
Culper, Samuel. Security; A Primer for Freedom Fighters. Forward ObserverPress, 2013.
Federal Communications Commission, General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) Rules. https://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/general-mobile-radio-service-gmrs. n.d. September 2015.
Hogwood, Charley. The Survival Group Handbook; How To Plan, Organize and Lead People In A Short Or Long Term Survival Situation. Personal Readiness Education Programs, LLC, 2014.