Saturday, March 19, 2011

Practical Preparedness - Short Range Communications

When people are bitten by the preparedness bug most of them start with buying food.  They stock up on wheat, MRE's and freeze dried wonder food in Number 10 tins.  The longer they are infected with this particular "virus"  other symptoms of preparedness emerge.  Family days no longer consist of going to the local park for a hike, but now entail putting as many precious metals (lead and copper) down-range as financially and humanly possible. Garages morph into high density storage units and road trips are planned with topographical maps lined with emergency routes home.  First aid classes are replaced with full-fledged EMT courses and researching uncommon diseases become a favorite pastime.  In a nutshell, you can sum up your life with the phrase "Beans, Bullets and Band-aids".  And then you get hard-core.....

One of the weaknesses of many otherwise well thought out preparedness plans is the lack of communications.  We spend so much time trying to cover the basics that we neglect one of the most basic necessities of all - the ability to communicate with one another.  Without the ability to communicate with your "group" or similarly prepared neighbors, you become intensely vulnerable to any number of grid-down hazards.   Sickness could sweep through an area and quarantine could be broken because of the lack of communication.  Invaders could use the element of surprise to ransack and plunder your retreat due to lack of communications.  A simple inconvenience could become a life or death situation without the ability to call for back-up.

After much research and consideration, we have chosen to use the MURS frequency for our local communications (2 to 3 miles, depending upon terrain).  MURS requires a VHF radio programed to MURS frequencies (there are 5 MURS frequencies).  The MURS frequency is a business band that the FCC released to the public to use without a license.  You are limited to 2 watts on these frequencies by the FCC, however, if you have the abilities to program these radios yourself (this requires software and a programming cable) you could bump the radios up to 5 watts in an emergency.  The reason we chose the MURS radios was that we were disappointed in the quality of the FRS and GRMS radios that were available.  They were cheaply made and often required AAA batteries (AA batteries are our group standard) to function and we had several sets fail in the field for no apparent reason.  I have no doubt there might be some good radios available but we decided to go with very reliable, rugged milspec radios, manufactured by ICOM.  We chose ICOM specifically because Sir Knight has two old ICOM FRS (.5 watt) radios (no longer manufactured) that are so tough that not even the children have been able to destroy them!  We went with the IC F3001 VHF radio.  It had very simple (not as likely to break) controls, is incredibly rugged (both water and dust resistant) and the alkaline battery pack (bought separately) took AA batteries.  The alkaline pack replaces the standard lithium ion battery pack and allows you to use rechargeable AA batteries to power your radio (remember, it is always best to have more than one way to do anything!).  Both the lithium ion and alkaline packs are rechargeable using either standard 110vac or 12vdc chargers, and most preppers already have AA batteries.

Alkaline Battery Packs

Replaces the Lithium Ion battery pack
Headsets and throat-mikes can make a handy option to your field radios.  We are currently testing two different models - one is a headset with a boom mike and the other is a throat-mike with an in-ear receiver.  To date, both have functioned very well. In reality, when it comes to headsets, it is completely a personal choice.  You have to go with what is comfortable and what works for your specific circumstances.  Both of our headsets work under hat or helmets and have good audio quality.  One thing we have noticed about the throat mike (which came without instructions) is that the microphone can't be too close to your windpipe or vocal chords or, when you talk, the audio will be somewhat garbled.  The best position for the mike is on the neck muscles below the ear.  You have to adjust the mike on your neck until you find the best transmission quality.

Throat mike

In-ear receiver

Headset with boom mike (we added the
lovely camo sweatband)
We chose ICOM radios, however, there are any number of other good radios available.  Many times business radios are sold on ebay, in large sets, for a very good price.  Companies going out of business or upgrading their communications are often an excellent source for acquiring used business band radios.

As you get squared away on your beans, bullets and band-aids, it would be wise to also consider the very important aspect of short range communications.  It's not just about preparedness - it's about practical preparedness.


  1. We use electronic earmuffs for hearing protection when at the range. They have a connector that we connect to our FRS radios. Works great. Thanks for the tip on the Icom radios, they look great and also cover the ham band.

    We love the electronic muffs because we coach and spot for each other, usually without the radios.


  2. LEARN non-technology dependent or low-tech communication. International Morse Code is a great starting point since if you have a "carrier wave" you can signal.

    If you have a lamp, you can signal.
    If you have a semaphore, you can signal.
    If you have two semaphore flags, you can signal. If you have a mirror, you can signal. Or if you only have two rocks, you can still signal.

    My advice, I would concentrate on learning Morse code and how to build a crystal radio transmitter/receiver and on flag semaphore.

    These were some of the things I learned in the Girl Scouts, back in the "dark ages" when we really were to "Be Prepared."

    Older handbooks (from the 1950s and earlier) have all sorts of useful information that is now left out for "new age" stuff.

  3. Enola,
    I highly recommend placing those battery packs and the unused units in a Faraday box, an ammo box with tight sealing latches can be used quite effectively.
    This is to protect your electronics from the possibility of an EMP destroying or enabling your electronic equipment.

    Consider doing the same with your backup cpu's.

    Redundancy in having multiple operable modes of communications is advised for emergency usage.

    Consider Hamm Radio (with licensure),if you are not a "jaw jabber" and dislike talking on live mic, there is alternate computer enabled software keyboard-only coms available like PKS.
    Also check out the use of Echolink.

    With Skype, you'll be able to see Maid Elizabeth live when she calls you from the Philippines and she will see your family too if you or she makes the call from a computer screen.

    Then there is the good ole transmission line of comm wire and two cans. A similar approach is available with old military phone equipment, some even has crank generators to transmit the call long distances over field and glen to the next neighbor or from a look out post wired into your home or barn.


  4. i think Buckeye Sandy has it right..good ole morse is easy to learn and fun. and it is a really good idea to get hands on those old boy scout/ girl scout books. the red cross had a really great handbook back in the '70s that we actually used for one year in homeeconomics class..never have forgotten the lessons taught in that and kept the book until we had one move too many and it got lost.

  5. Enola, you always have the greatest gear! I appreciate the info about the various types of 2-way communication radios. Having a set of FRS myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not the most reliable. I'll be looking online for a good deal on some of the MURS by ICOM. The head and neck sets are very cool, and hands-free is definitely a big bonus during a disaster of any type.

    In regard to the other forms of communication, they do have their place but they are not foolproof, either. It may be cloudy, so mirrors won't work. There may be a radiation alert, so going outside to do semaphore or smoke signals wouldn't be prudent. What if you know Morse code, but nobody else does? Everything has a weakness, so that's why having backups for your backups is vital for survival.

    However, something as primitive as tree knocking can be used for communication. If you live near large trees and have a baseball bat, banging out Morse code with the bat on the tree trunk could send a message for a couple miles, depending on the elevation and the wind direction. Then there are jungle drums..... :)

    NoCal Gal

  6. While MURS VHF is easy and accessible, I would argue that high quality GMRS or Amateur Radio equipment would be better due to the availability of higher powered transceivers, better antennas, and most importantly, access to repeaters.

    Of course, Amateur Radio would also allow access to HF frequencies for long-haul communications.

    The test is simple and no morse is required (alas).

  7. I have often thought about communication. Since your MURS only has a range of 2-3 miles, it would not work for us. We are about 7 miles from town as the crow flies, and how do you know what nearby neighbors have? Did you arrange with neighbors on what to use? We couldn't even approach neighbors with this thought- they would think we were nuts! What are other people doing?

  8. one other good form of communication is knowing and being on good terms with your neighbors..andthe mailman. even if you are rural like i am, everyone on the road should agree to an alert system of some a red hankerchief tied to a fence post where it canbe seen when someone goes by-and a neighbor who knows what that might mean. when i was a child we lived five mi. from town and 1 mi or more from nearest neighbor on a mountain top...we used this method for rides to town for grocery/medical necessities. it worked very we did not owna phone and no second car.

  9. This is fun to play with.

    NoCal Gal

  10. @Rose
    Consider CB Radio (11 meter) equipment. It was the FRS/GMRS/MURS of its day. While you are limited to 4 watts with AM, you can get up to 12 watts with SSB. With an inexpensive dipole antenna, you will be able to easily reach and hear your neighbors.

    CB has pretty much died as internet chat and cell phones have filled the need for casual conversation, so equipment can be had for a song at Goodwill stores. Make sure you get SSB capable radios, if you can.

    Lots of rural CB nets were used in the Seventies to keep track of neighbors, commodity prices, weather, etc.

    If you stay on SSB (use SSB on Ch 16 and 34-40), you can hopefully avoid all the Channel 19 overdriven AM riff-raf.

  11. I have been a "ham" for about 30 years now.

    I passed my morse code tests to get to my advanced license. I was also active in lobbying the FCC to remove the requirement from the technician class. I was wistful, but not alarmed when the requirement was dropped across the board.

    For morse to work, both the sender and receiver have to know it. It is true that very little power will "work the world" using morse code (called CW in the ham world), BUT you have to have somebody to talk to.

    Fast Forward to a TEOTWAWKI event. You need tactical (covered well enough by MURS, but I have further ideas on that) AND strategic communications. You will need the ability to reach out long distances (in excess of 100 miles to as much as halfway around the globe).

    If society stops operating, laws, regulation and norms are "out the window".

    My recommendations for preppers:
    Get licensed at the technician level and try for the General class. This will give you all modes just about everywhere a ham operates.

    Spend about $1500 for all you comm needs.

    $600 for an Icom IC-718 HF transceiver

    $200 for an auto-tuner

    $100 for some decent coaxial cable (at lease RG-8, prefferably 213 - quality coax cable makes a big difference in performance of the system).
    $100 for a G5RV Max antenna (all the bands the IC-718 has available adjusted by the tuner)

    $120 per handheld for Wouxun KG-UVxx (where xx is variant models running around all pretty much identical). These are dual band radios. They cover two ham bands - 144Mhz and 440Mhz.

    When the waste whacks the whirlers, all of this radio equipment can be easily modified to transmit anywhere it receives. This means most public service frequencies, Marine Band, MURS and GMRS/FRS are all in there. These are NOT legal to use outside of the amateur radio bands. Remember we are talking about TEOTWAWKI here. These radios will let you talk and hear big swaths of the spectrum. They will also give you AM (IC718) and FM (Wouxun) broadcast reception. You ARE supposed to have a battery operated radio in your prep supplies, right? Why not radios that can transmit as well?

    I would advise getting licensed, learning how to make all this stuff go - it is not all that complex. Get your antenna a set up and working. You can faraday cage your equipment -after- you know how to use it.

    Get and use equipment that allows the maximum communication - voice communication.

    All of the listed equimpnet runs on or is charged by 12Volts DC. you will need at least 25 AMPS of it - but if you are prepared with batteries and an inverter for your house, you are set - skip the inverter.

    This little radio with a 204 foot long G5RV antenna will allow communication around the world with the right conditions, time of day and frequency selection. I know, I do it from my car with a similar radio and much lesser antenna from my car!

    This is also something you should learn before the the waste is distributed by the air impeller. Prepare by obtaining and learning - just like in the other areas (food, water, shelter, defense, medical...).

    Sorry this is so long - please forgive a windbag and any typos that I did not locate.


  12. Thank you kindly, for this post. In it, and Proverbs 31, I have found just what have needed for some time. May God Richly Bless You and Yours.