*Basic Communications Planning*
29 April 2016
The first thing people should do in creating a personal communications plan is determine with whom they wish to communicate and what agencies/information sources they wish to monitor. People need to have a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish before equipment decisions can be made. There are numerous articles on the Internet about FRS, GMRS, MURS, CB and Ham radios and their capabilities/limitations, so we won't go into equipment details.
A lot of what we need to emphasize has nothing to do with talking on a radio - it involves listening. Our decisions are only as sound as the intel we base them on, so we need to learn how to gather reliable information from various sources. For the purpose of this discussion, we will assume local internet service has been disrupted, and local news media are either off the air or behind the curve.
Since we don't know ahead of time when things will go bad, we need to plan ways of contacting people as we go about our daily lives. If you work at location A and your spouse works at location B, how can you make contact if cell phones aren't available? Those who have tried to use cell phones after major events tell us that service generally is not available. Text messages sometimes go through but delivery can be delayed up to several hours. You need to know if you can reasonably expect to use personal radio gear to make contact. Depending on your locations, you may be able to use handheld (HT) or mobile (vehicle mounted) radios for contact.
This should be tested ahead of time, for example, during lunch hour if testing workplace to workplace. Testing should include sites that are commonly visited - home to shopping malls, major stores, etc. This is easy enough to do as you go about your normal lives. Spouse going to the grocery store? Pick a simplex (direct point-to-point) frequency and do a comms check from the parking lot to home upon arrival. Testing these links should give you an idea of your likelihood of making contact during an emergency.
Many amateur radio repeaters are designated for emergency service and won't be available for personal traffic. Others don't have backup power, so will be off the air if the grid goes down. Two-way comms testing should focus on simplex links. However, the designated ARES/RACES repeater should be one of the first places you monitor to get status information.
For example, when an earthquake struck Southern California, a friend was at work in Anaheim. He immediately switched his handheld transceiver (HT) to the local ARES/RACES repeater and quickly found out where the quake was centered and that there was no significant damage. From the reports, he knew there wasn't likely any damage to his home and his family members weren't in any danger because their normal patterns didn't take them into the quake area. Although he wasn't able to communicate directly with his family it didn't matter that much because he knew they should be ok. Without even keying the mic he was able to relax, while his coworkers were frantically trying to use dead cell phones to contact their families. He reports the cell system went down immediately, even though there was no infrastructure damage.
A stressful situation isn't the time to be trying to flip through forgotten radio menus. Have your common frequencies programmed ahead of time so you can just dial up the setting you need. Keep your HT batteries charged at all times and have a secondary power source available.
Scanning a lot of channels isn't likely to be useful during a major event - all channels are likely to be carrying traffic, so the scanner will be constantly stopping. Pick a service you want to monitor and stick with it. For example, the local ARES/RACES repeater or law enforcement dispatch, or both. For those of you who live where local law enforcement agencies use 700/800 MHz trunking systems, you won't be able to monitor Dispatch with your ham radio so you will need a trunking scanner.
Local two-way VHF/UHF frequencies need to be worked out among the people who will likely be within simplex range. Repeaters probably should not be considered for anything other then casual use or - more importantly - information gathering; they probably won't be available for your use when you need them.
To step back a little, one important thing is for people to do the homework now that will allow them to understand what they are hearing over the radio. It isn't realistic to think people can simply turn on a radio for the first time and understand what they are hearing on local law enforcement dispatch (or ham repeater). Fortunately, a lot of the information is available over the Internet, but it doesn't do any good after the Internet goes down. At a minimum, people need to do the following:
Determine who the primary agencies are that will respond to a 911 call from your location, including law enforcement, fire and EMS. If you can, determine who their primary mutual aid agreements are with. In a major emergency, responders may be coming into your area from nearby jurisdictions.
Determine what type of radio system they use - many areas still use VHF repeaters but others use 700/800 MHz trunking systems, both analog and digital.
Make arrangements to monitor your local system - and practice using it until you know what the jargon means. A VHF ham radio will usually monitor public safety VHF repeaters but you need a 700/800 MHz trunking scanner to monitor trunked systems. Some agencies use new digital trunked systems and others use older analog trunked systems. Orange County California (and perhaps others) uses a totally encrypted system for all law enforcement communications, so they can't be scanned at all.
Go online to your local agency's website and see what information they have available for review. Some agencies have their police beat maps online, so you can correlate radio calls to geographic areas. For an example of the significance of this information, if I am monitoring my county's dispatch on my way to the Post Office and the dispatcher says "County to 5-David-4, civil disturbance at intersection of ..." I know to pay attention because the "5" designates the nearby town where I'm headed. I may or may not be going through that intersection, but it will definitely be in the direction I'm going. On the other hand, if dispatch says "County to 6-David-4, civil disturbance at intersection of ..." I should listen just to be aware, but the dispatcher is talking to a town about 30 miles south of me. That's a big difference in the impact on my plans. I can tell you with some degree of certainty that if you don't figure this stuff out ahead of time you won't have a clue what they are saying when you need to know.
Ideally, each family would have a notebook with law enforcement beat maps, fire district maps, EMS coverage areas, repeater coverage maps, designated ARES/RACES repeaters (and which areas they serve) and cheat sheets of codes and jargon. Even though everyone is going to plain language transmissions (no 10-codes) you still have to be able to understand unit IDs and geographic designations. Did the dispatcher just send out a patrol unit or the Coroner/Medical Examiner? There's a big difference in significance, but if you don't understand unit IDs you won't know. It's relatively easy for me to keep most of this in my head because of the county I live in, but people in areas with far too many people living in endless suburban cities clustered around a big urban core have a more difficult chore - they have many more variables.
Find and record frequencies of less obvious sources of intel - public works departments, gas and electric utilities, FAA/airport, etc. Depending on the nature of the event, these may be useful. For example, in many areas barricades and road closures would be set up by the Public Works Dept. It has been reported that during a Seattle snow storm the best traffic information came from monitoring city buses; the drivers were giving real-time reports from around the city.
For our purposes, a personal communications plan should be as much about intel gathering as talking. Once you have established connections with your family or team members, your focus should change to gathering as much information as you can, as quickly as you can. Understanding radio traffic requires experience in interpreting what you hear - it isn't as easy as the TV cop shows make it sound.
If you want access to news from out of area, you could use one of the many inexpensive AM/FM or small shortwave radios available. This could help fill in if local TV and broadcast radio stations are off the air. A handy list of regional higher-power AM radio stations would be useful if local stations are down but stations farther away are still on the air. Some ham HTs have shortwave reception capability. Shortwave reception performance is always improved by using an external antenna. Make sure you have whatever cables or adapters that might be required for connecting an external antenna to your shortwave radio.
But, remember, all the radio gear in the world doesn't matter if you don't know how to operate the equipment, don't have anything to say or you can't understand what is being said to you. These aren't boxes on a preparedness checklist to be marked off. Developing and maintaining the ability to understand what you are hearing requires an on-going commitment.wmerrin
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