Communicating In Disaster Situations

Hurricane Katrina. The September 11 terror attacks. The 2010 Haitian earthquake. All of these terrible disasters resulted in major loss of life, property, and displaced thousands of people. They also provided clear examples of how communication systems can fail just when people need them most. When disaster strikes unexpectedly, the normal means of communication that we rely on are often the first services disrupted. The last thing you need during a zombie outbreak is an “all circuits are busy” message. This article will discuss the reasons communications fail, which methods are the most reliable, and how to ensure you can always get through, no matter what.

What causes communications to fail, anyway?Zombie nurse

With the advent of fiber optics, communication networks are far more durable today than they were thirty years ago, and one of the reasons for this is that much of telephone cabling is now underground. This has vastly reduced the failure rate due to accidents and inclement weather. You might hear a telecom employee referring to “the last mile”, which is a slang term for the final delivery leg of a telephone signal between local stations and your house. (Incidentally, if you live in a rural area, this distance may be much more than a mile.) Almost all telephone service disruptions caused by network interruption happen during this “last mile”. Physical disruptions to service caused by something as simple as an automobile accident can disrupt your phone service. Natural disasters, like floods and inclement weather, can also disrupt the physical network that allows your telephone to work.

Another common cause of outages is power loss. The equipment that powers your telephone line usually runs separately from the power to your house (that’s why you might still have telephone service when your home power goes out). Even so, the equipment on the phone network requires power, so is susceptible to long-term outages.

Still have a landline phone? Ask yourself this question – are all the phones in your house cordless? Most people would answer yes because of the convenience of cordless phones. That cordless phone is worthless even if you have a signal to your telephone jack once power loss to the base occurs.

Many people have switched over to carrying only their cell phone and have ditched their landline. (I’m one of these people.) Cell phone networks are a walking contradiction; the equipment is more reliable than many other methods of communicating, but cell phones are some of the least reliable communication devices during disasters. Why are they so unreliable? Cell phone carriers operate on the least amount of equipment they can because it is expensive. Cellular towers are designed to handle calls during normal usage times, which means that they support only a small percentage of customers are making a phone call at a time. During a disaster where the equipment to carry your call remains intact, the most likely reason you can’t get a call out is that everyone is trying to make a call. The cellular networks simply aren’t designed to handle so many calls at the same time.

Social networking’s role in recent disasters

The Internet is more durable, but not by much. By all means, if your cell phone doesn’t work, try your internet (both on your smart phone and PC). In recent disasters and political upheavals, text messaging and social networking has played a surprisingly important role. Lives were saved during Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian Earthquake because text messages were able to get through when phone calls could not. SMS text messages get through for one reason – they are very small pieces of information and it takes far fewer resources for cellular carriers to transmit these messages compared to full phone calls. It is important to recognize text messaging and social medial like Twitter as a potential option when nothing else works.

Wireless Radios

Wireless radio is one of the most established tools in disaster scenarios. Radios send signals via radio waves instead of through cables. Anyone within range listening on the right frequency will be able to hear your message.

The major limitation to consumer wireless radio is range. This table shows the basic radios available to the general public, and you’ll quickly see that the range on these radios isn’t helpful out of your immediate geographic location.

Service Channels Intended use Range
CB (Citizen’s band) 40 Private/business 10+ miles
Marine VHF 50 Maritime 20+ miles
Family Radio Service (FRS) 22 Personal 2 miles
Multi-Use Radio Service (MRS) 5 Personal 5+ miles

Many professionals, especially first responders and public safety officials, use more robust radio systems that have a greater range. Since the average citizen can’t get their hands on these radios, these are just not an option. So how can you always get through, no matter what? I’m glad you asked!

Amateur Radio

Amateur radio has moved from a personal hobby to become one of the most valuable assets in disaster management. You may have heard of amateur radio referred to as “ham radio”. Amateur radio operators, commonly called Hams, are able to call literally around the world given the right equipment and conditions. How far they can call depends on the strength of their radio, the type of antenna they have, the band they are operating on and atmospheric conditions.

Given these limitations, amateur radio enthusiasts and government agencies have set up repeaters stations that allow for local signals to be carried across states, countries, even oceans. Additional amateur radio technologies and protocols allow really neat tricks (for example, the D-STAR protocol, which gets bonus points for sounding like a certain sci-fi superweapon). Want to use your radio to call someone’s phone a few states away? No problem! Need to transmit a file or use the Internet? Yep, you can do that too. You can send text messages and morse code, too. This means that on a simple handheld 5-watt radio can be a lifeline when all other forms of communication fail.
So why doesn’t everyone use amateur radio? Well, it requires some knowledge, and in almost every country in the world it requires a license. In the United States licenses are issued by the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC), and other countries have agencies of the same nature. The good news is that the government wants you to have a license (at least here in the USA) because they know how effective amateur radio is in disasters. In the USA licenses are issued when an applicant passes a test, and the first license class (Technician) is 35 questions long. The good news is that those 35 questions come from a pool of 350 publicly available questions that you can study and memorize before taking the test. When you pass the test, which costs $10, the FCC will issue you a license with a call sign, and you’ll be authorized to start transmitting.

I recently attended an amateur radio class and I highly recommend that you do the same to prepare for the test. For me, it was the best way to dive into this community, and it gave me the background I needed to really understand what the test questions meant. There are many free classes available, so keep your eyes open for one in your area. Use Google to find a local Ham Club. I also recommend the site which (despite it’s dated look) has some amazing resources. Be sure to try out their practice tests which are excellent study tools.

Bonus: Zombie Survival Cell Phone

This article provides some very compelling arguments to purchase a zombie apocalypse cell phone. It recommends the Motorola Motofone F3, a phone which is designed for developing countries where cell signals are weak and the environmental conditions are inhospitable. The phone holds a charge for a very long time and makes a great backup to that smartphone you carry. Best of all, you can usually find one on Google Shopping for under 25 bucks. You don’t have to be trapped in a zombie wasteland to appreciate that.