A Multi-Faceted Approach to Post-Disaster Information Gathering, by D.C.

In a post-disaster scenario, good information will equate to life, while bad information or a lack of information could lead to death. I have recently been discussing the issue of post-disaster information gathering with many Christian/Patriot/Prepper friends of mine. We came to the consensus that while information on this specific topic is widely available, it is scattered around in different places, and we have not seen one definitive source that covers all the bases of effective information gathering. It is my intention to write this article in a way that a person that is anywhere on their prepper journey may glean something from it, whether they be new to this mindset or a veteran. This is not intended to be an in-depth technical article but rather a “how to” guide regarding multi-faceted information gathering.

There are many ways that information can be gathered and disseminated in a post-disaster environment. It has been my observation that most folks in prepping circles are aware of this, but we as human beings have a tendency toward tunnel vision on some things and ignore others. This is often to our detriment. Information gathering takes many forms and goes beyond the technology involved. By our nature, we, preppers, like to focus on mechanical, technical, and logistical solutions to problems. These are all important things, but it also means that we may inadvertently compartmentalize our thinking, and thus we don’t really see the big picture.

One of the most common sources of information is the Internet. Many preppers tend to overlook this area of information gathering in favor of other non-conventional methods, which will be discussed later. The typical prepper’s concern regarding the Internet is that the Internet is vulnerable to attack and disruption in a multitude of scenarios, such as an attack on the power grid, EMP attack, cyber-attack, or government censorship. There is validity to these concerns, but one must also remember that the Internet was originally designed to be a robust network that could reliably send and receive data for military purposes. The Internet is more robust than many in prepper circles believe that it is, since it was designed with the ability to re-route itself automatically in the event of a disrupted data communications path. I am not saying that the Internet should be relied upon 100% for all of your information gathering needs. Rather, one should consider the Internet as a single tool that is included within a tool box that contains many other tools. There are also concerns that the government may activate an Internet “kill switch” as authorized by executive order and federal legislation. While this is not out of the realm of possibility, this would only be done in a worst case scenario and would cause incalculable damage to our economy. If it does occur, then we need to be sure to have alternative streams of information available.

Internet information sources obviously include the whole gamut of websites. As most Internet-savvy people know, information that comes from sources on the Internet can be of unknown veracity. This includes major media news websites, which all have their own political and financial agendas. I have observed that many people (not just those in prepper circles) may read something on the Internet, and therefore tend to assume that it must be true. When it comes to information that comes from the Internet, or from any other source for that matter, I would encourage you to use an old journalist’s axiom for ascertaining the veracity of information. The axiom is, “If your own mother tells you that she loves you, confirm it with an independent source.” While this may sound excessive, the point of this hyperbole is to always confirm information with independent sources, regardless of how good you think the source or the information is. This keeps you safe and alive, by not taking inappropriate actions based upon bad information.

The next source of Internet information involves the use of social media. I know that many in prepper circles, myself included, believe that engaging in social media communications can be a violation of communications security (COMSEC) and operational security (OPSEC) principles. However, if you look at social media from an information gathering perspective, you will quickly see that it can be a valuable source of real-time information and intelligence. This is well demonstrated by events that have occurred in the Middle East during the “Arab Spring”. Social media was used extensively to coordinate activities amongst protesters as riots and gun fights occurred. What this means for the prepper is that this information can be used to our advantage. We can use information that comes in via social media information streams for our own purposes, while purposefully not providing information back out to the masses that jeopardizes or own COMSEC or OPSEC. As long as one receives the information but does not provide any, social media can be an advantage. This can be accomplished by establishing very basic and vague social media accounts that do not include identifying information and that are only used to observe other people’s posts for intelligence gathering purposes. Each individual must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of social media information gathering to decide for themselves if engaging in social media is prudent.

The other obvious area of Internet communications is e-mail and instant messaging. E-mail communication, while convenient and reliable, can be easily intercepted, thus violating OPSEC and COMSEC. Despite these drawbacks, e-mail communication can be advantageous for communicating with family members or friends during a disaster. I do not rely upon this method for disaster related communications with my immediate family, as we use amateur radio for that. However, many in my extended family are not amateur radio operators, and thus they rely upon commercial communications methods. The fact that they rely upon these method does not diminish my need to communicate with them. Surprisingly, to many of us that come from an earlier generation of Internet users, many young Internet users now consider e-mail to be blasé. E-mail still provides a unique store and forward messaging capability that is not completely duplicated by social media or instant messaging. Security concerns regarding e-mail are valid; however, encryption systems are widely available for free on the Internet. These encryption systems allow one to conceal the content of e-mail messages and assure that only the intended recipients are able to read the message content. These encryption systems include the GNUPG/KLEOPATRA system, as well as the AES256 software program. Depending upon the type of encryption system that is used, user training will be required to use these systems. As a technically-savvy person, I know that there are concerns that our friends at the NSA may be reading our e-mail. As to whether they have the ability to read encrypted e-mail messages, there is considerable debate in the information security world regarding this topic. What is agreed upon is that it would take an extremely well-equipped, funded, staffed, and motivated adversary to break this type of encryption. These types of resources are typically available only to nation states and their intelligence services, and are not likely to available to other potential adversaries.

Another source for communications and information gathering in a post-disaster environment is cellular phones. Cellular phones are but another tool in the information tool box. From personal experience, I know that cellular phones are not reliable for voice communications post disaster. The main issue with cellular phones is the overall system design. When engineers design parts of the cellular network, they must balance system reliability and capacity with economic reality. What this means is that at any given time, and depending upon the type of system, it is assumed that only 10% of subscribers that are within range of a tower site will actually be engaged in a call. This is an economic reality that cannot be ignored. If the systems were built to provide 100% capacity, 100% of the time, the costs of building and maintain the cellular network would quickly soar past what is economically feasible. The carriers would go bankrupt if they tried to build such a system. It is because of this system design that cell phones are so unreliable in a post-disaster environment. When nearly 100% of subscribers within range of a cell site attempt to make calls all at the same time, the system is quickly overwhelmed. One thing to consider if you find yourself in this situation is to utilize SMS text message capability to communicate and gather information. The reason for this is that the text message is sent as a compressed data packet and occupies less time and bandwidth on the cell site. SMS text messages also provide a limited store and forward message capability. Again, think of cell phones and text messaging as but a single pellet in a shotgun blast of information gathering options. Broadband data communications (3G, 4G, LTE) are typically slowed considerably post disaster, and it is likely that these types of data services will be completely unavailable. Cellular towers are required by the FCC to have back up power capability, but again, due to economic considerations, most cellular providers provide only the bare minimum. This often means that only back up batteries, and not generators, are on site. A responsible prepper should not rely on cell phone connectivity when the Schumer Hits The Fan.

A system that local, state, and federal government employees use for disaster response communications is called the Wireless Priority System (WPS). This is a fee-based system that is available from all the major wireless carriers. This system gives priority access to available cellular communications circuits to WPS users. If there is a queue built up waiting to access the cellular network, WPS gets priority access to the wireless carriers’ systems, if the circuits are still available and have not been completely destroyed. This system is available only to government users, but I mention it here with the purpose of adding to the readers knowledge base and that some SurvivalBlog readers may meet the criteria to use WPS. The responsible prepper should also be aware of cellular text to e-mail gateways, which allow a text message to be sent to a recipient and delivered as e-mail, and vice versa. The obvious advantage is that it allows cross connectivity between a PC user and a cellular user. Each cellular carrier has a different procedure for accessing its text to e-mail gateway, but it is readily available on the Internet.

The other type of telephone system that is available is the Plain Old Telephone (POT). There was a time when a home telephone was a staple in nearly every American household, but those days are over. Due to increasing costs, more and more people are dumping their landline phones in favor of going strictly to cell phones. While there are economic advantages to this, I would encourage readers to keep a landline phone in their home, if their budget allows it. The telephone companies are still required to maintain multiple backup power sources at their switching centers and central offices. If you use a plain old telephone at home, be sure it is the type that connects to the telephone company grid directly. This is because the power to use the telephone is provided by the telephone company, and it does not require grid power, as long as you are not using a cordless type phone. A newer type of technology that has gained popularity in many homes over the past few years is Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP). This technology allows you to connect a home telephone to your broadband Internet connection to send and receive calls. The problem with this set up is that it is only as reliable as your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Where I live, my ISP uses a combination of commercial, solar, and generator UPS to maintain connectivity. However, they also utilize 5GHz microwave links that are susceptible to disruption by tower damage, path loss, and power outages. The POT network still uses a combination of twisted pair copper and fiber optic technologies to interconnect the entire country. The cellular network still interconnects with the POT network to provide its point to point connectivity. This is why it is possible for a person on a cell phone in New York to call a person on a cell phone in California. Having a POT-type landline phone allows you to tap into this network directly. Again, the POT is certainly vulnerable to damage and disruption, so a responsible prepper should always have reliable alternative communications that do not rely upon the grid. There is a similar system available to government employees and elected officials for POT, similar to what WPS does for cellular. Federal, state, and local government may access a system known as the Government Emergency Telephone System (GETS). Using this system, a user is issued an instructional card that gives them priority access to landline telephone systems. Additional information regarding GETS can be found here. Again, the information is provided for the good of the order in hopes that it may be useful to the reader.

Commercial media outlets, such as broadcast TV and radio, may also be good sources of information. However, do not rely upon the media to provide accurate, up to date, and unbiased information. Commercial media sources will always have political, social, and economic agendas. Governments will typically rely upon commercial media outlets to communicate to the masses. Consider any information that you receive from the commercial media to be of questionable veracity if you cannot confirm it with an independent source, using other information gathering methods. As an example, there are many documents that the federal government has written and distributed ahead of time to various agencies within itself, as well as to state and local governments, to be used for media communications. One such document that I have seen is a post-nuclear attack public communications document. This document has pre-selected verbiage within it that would be used by multiple entities in a post nuclear attack environment. It is clear that as one reads the document, the federal government intends to heavily utilize commercial media sources to communicate their message, though it would be wrong to assume that ALL information that commercial media distributes is false or deliberately misleading. I believe that as preppers, we should be more pragmatic than that. Instead, take the kernels of information from the media that you know to be true because of verification from other sources, and disregard the rest as being a part of the media or government’s agenda.

Television and radio outlets typically do have backup power sources, as required by the FCC, but the length of time that backup power would be available for them to transmit varies greatly by circumstances. A fact to remember regarding television stations is that most major cities still have direct broadcast television stations on the air. Many people are already aware of this, but again, due to generational differences, many younger people are under the false belief that TV signals can only be received if they are receive through a satellite, cable TV, or the Internet. If you are in or close to a major metropolitan area, chances are you can receive DTV signals with a simple indoor antenna system. I live in a rural area in approximately 75 miles from the nearest metro area, but using an outdoor antenna on a 40-foot tower, I am able to receive 30 or more channels from the metro area at no cost. We were able to take the money that we would have wasted on satellite TV (money that would have fed the liberal media machine) and instead use that money for our preparations. Broadcast media is also connected into the Emergency Alert System (EAS, or formerly known during the Cold War as the Emergency Broadcast System), that is a primary mass communications tool used to inform the public of emergency information. This works by having certain stations act as a primary entry point for the state in which you reside. Other stations in turn monitor the Primary Entry Point, and the EAS broadcast is daisy chained across the state.

Also consider that newspapers or other print media may or may not be available, depending upon the circumstances. Typically, the lag time involved with the print media does not make them a good source for immediate, up-to-date information, but it can be used to form a general picture of the current world intelligence situation. In a prolonged event, traditional print media, such as newspapers, would quickly be unavailable due to logistical problems. As time progressed during an extended event, print media may again become available, as it is a media outlet for which some older technologies may still exist. I think of many churches or businesses that may still have old lithograph machines tucked away in storage. This would only come into play during an extended event but is a possibility that we may need to face.

There are also many non-traditional and non-conventional methods for information gathering at the prepper’s disposal. These include amateur radio, Multiple User Radio Service, Citizens Band (CB) radio, shortwave news broadcasts, utility monitoring, and NOAA weather radio. As a responsible prepper, one should have training and experience with as many non-conventional communication systems as possible. One thing that all of these systems have in common is that they do not rely upon an interconnected power or communications grid in order to function. They do require power sources, but this can be provided by battery backup systems, which in turn can be recharged by solar power systems. Amateur radio is very advantageous, as it allows communications over long distances without interconnecting wires or cables. It also allows you to collect reliable, real time information from local sources. Amateur radio has many other unique capabilities that are discussed elsewhere, but amateur radio systems are what I use to gather information “when all else fails”. You should also have the ability to receive on Multiple User Radio Service (MURS) frequencies, Family Radio Service (FRS) frequencies, as well as Citizen’s Band (CB) frequencies. Educate yourself on ways to keep from being located when you transmit a signal, as well as ways to encrypt your messages, if it is legal and prudent to do so. You should also possess and know how to utilize a good quality shortwave radio (HF) receiver with an external antenna. This will allow you to receive off-shore news broadcasts, which may be the only broadcasters still on the air in a post-nuclear detonation, EMP, cyber attack, or censorship environment. A good rule to follow is to keep any transmissions that you must make to an absolute minimum, while maximizing your time receiving information that is coming in. When it comes to information, with a few exceptions, “Tis better to receive than to give.”

From another information gathering standpoint, utility monitoring is highly advantageous.. Utility monitoring involves the use of radio receivers or scanners to receive police, fire, EMS, and other governmental communications. Utility monitoring also includes power company communications, as well as military communications. Utility monitoring allows you to tap directly into the unfiltered information stream between the personnel on the ground and the higher ups. In this way, you can compare information that you gather here with information that is being disseminated via other means, thereby allowing you to ascertain what information is true, false, or invalid. While most mission critical law enforcement and military communications are encrypted or utilize frequency hopping technology to deter eavesdropping, useful information can be gleaned from unencrypted communications, and can provide pieces of information that may not be available through any other sources. Different locales and agencies use different types of radio systems, and I would encourage you to learn as much about their operation as you possibly can. It is very advantageous to acquire the necessary receiving equipment and skills NOW, so that you can master it before the time comes when your life depends upon your ability to receive accurate information. Go to http://www.radioreference.com to find your state and county in the database. The database includes frequency and trunking system data for many agencies in your area.

You should also make sure to keep a functioning NOAA weather radio in your home. The NOAA weather radio system is owned and operated by the National Weather Service. Most of the continental United States is within range of this system. Not only does NOAA weather radio provide severe weather information, it is also used to provide EAS civil emergency messages of many different types, including Civil Danger Warning, Civil Emergency Message, Earthquake Warning, Evacuation Immediate, Fire Warning, Hazardous Materials Warning, Law Enforcement Warning, Local Area Emergency, 911 Telephone Outage, Nuclear Power Plant Warning, Radiological Hazard Warning, and Shelter In Place Warning. Every home in the country should be equipped with a NOAA weather radio warning alarm device, as a cheap and effective form of information gathering. NOAA information is also county specific, and allows targeted dissemination of information.

Another area of information gathering methodology is tried and true and involves little to no technology. It involves interpersonal perspectives. Our society has become very technically advanced, and it is my observation that our technological advances in the area of communications have altered the way that we interact personally. As a simple demonstration of this, just look at how teenagers communicate via text message. I came to this realization after watching a young relative of mine. We were at a family gathering, and my teenage relative had one of her friends from school with her. I observed that even though they were sitting right next to one another, they were sending text messages back and forth to one another but were not engaged in an interpersonal conversation. This may come as a surprise to many of us from an older generation, but it is a reality that cannot be ignored. Our younger generations must also realize that in many ways, the art of conversation is being lost, and with it, the ability to gather information that may not be available through any other source.

Other interpersonal perspectives involve your community and neighbors. I am very blessed to live in a rural area that is 10 miles from the nearest town of any size. I am at least 60 miles from the nearest metro area. It has been my observation, since moving to the country, that rural people rely more upon interpersonal communication than our urban brethren do. This is not a dig at urban folks, it is merely an observation of human behavior. My nearest neighbors live about a mile down the road, and they have been a real blessing to us. When we were new to the community, I expected to be treated as an outsider for a while, as this is another aspect of rural living. Rural people tend to be more tight knit, and it can take some time to earn their trust and friendship. This can be a blessing and a curse, but overall and over time, rural people are some of the best friends and neighbors you can have. Many folks see this as being “click-ish”, but I have observed that it serves an important vetting purpose that determines who is trustworthy and who is not. I suppose it just depends upon your perspective. Our experience has been positive; after a while of living out here, my neighbors have become some of my best friends. Having these good relationships with your neighbors, as well as the other people in your community, plugs you into an information source that cannot be duplicated in any other way. It has been said that all disasters, regardless of scale, are primarily local in nature. This is because it is what’s happening right now in your community that has a direct effect on your family. We should all strive to become an integral part of whatever community we live in, because the more integrated you are, the better your ability to not only receive information but survive and thrive, in general.

We should also strive to maintain true friendships. This may seem like a simple statement, but in this day and age, it is not. It is a common assumption amongst many people that they have hundreds of friends. This is due in part to the growth of social media, which allows people to see a number of “friends” that they have. This is a dangerous assumption to make. After a disaster or SHTF situation, interpersonal relationships will be tested to their limits. Stress and hardship have a unique way of refining relationships between people. I would qualify that by saying that it is my belief that I have hundreds of acquaintances, but I have very few actual friends. As technology has redefined the way we communicate and receive information, it has also redefined the word “friend”. We need to hold on to the traditional definition of the word and maintain true friendships that will weather the storms of adversity. We should also strive to maintain healthy friendships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, as it is our church family that we will all turn to in our hour of need. We should also strive to maintain healthy relationships with our immediate and extended family. As difficult as it may be, due to our differences, it is crucial to effective information sharing.

The last point to discuss is this. Use all the methodology heretofore mentioned to piece together the truth about any situation that you may be in. Think of it in this way. Your post-disaster situation is similar to a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces of information that you gather can all be assembled to form a cohesive picture of the current international, national, state, and local intelligence situation. Never rely upon one single source for information (especially the government or the media) to determine relevant action, except in obvious situations where immediate action must be taken to protect life and property. Relying on single sources of information in a post-disaster environment could be dangerous. This is because singular sources of information are almost always slanted or skewed in some way, in order to fit someone’s agenda, whether it be the government, the media, or a multitude of other people or entities. By assembling a comprehensive intelligence picture via multiple streams of information, you can compare and contrast all information. When comparing pieces of information, each single piece of information should be issued a “vote”. If you have three pieces of information that indicate a given thing and a single piece of information that indicates something else, the three pieces of information taken in their totality “out vote” the other single piece of information. After putting the pieces together and getting a whole, clear picture, do not hesitate the action that is required to guarantee the safety of your family, friends, neighbors, and community. Do not allow the normalcy bias to override good decision making. It is my hope that this article has been useful to you and has been worth your time to read. I also hope that you have already made plans to deal with the threats that you foresee and that you already maintain good situational awareness at all times. If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. May God bless you in your endeavors, and I hope that you communicate daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus.