What IS Survival Communication?

Worst Case Scenario:

The US has just been bombed into oblivion. Many major cities are glowing holes and vaporized material has begun to settle around the planet containing lots of radioactive fallout.

No one on the planet is currently communicating and everyone is unclear who did what, when, where, who is left or whether this is the end of the world. We don’t know if the attack was accidental, real, from a foreign country or from terrorists.

Televisions are out. Radio isn’t working. Your car is dead. No power. And you’re in a shelter with your survival gear planning to wait out at least two weeks before venturing out.

With whom are you going to communicate?

Basically, for the first few days, no one because anyone with a lick of sense is underground hiding. There’s no power anyway. You can’t get to your generators (and wouldn’t run them underground, in an enclosed shelter, assuming you’re actually in one) for fear of CO poisoning.

Two weeks later you venture out and check and find the radiation levels are much less than you expected, you can stay out a couple hours per day, as long as you decon on your way back in. Leaving elderly, and very young below you go out and check for fuel, damage, your generator and connect everything.

You bring up a solar panel you’ve protected down below and with luck you can bring your genset online long enough to charge some car batteries, connect up your solar panels and tonight you have lights in the shelter for the first time in two weeks.

You hook up a short wave radio and hear…. lots and lots and LOTS of static crashes. Storms perhaps in the distance, caused by the massive dust sent into the atmosphere. You might hear a faint signal, but it is unintelligible due to atmospheric noise.

This goes on, evening after evening as the noise subsides, likely another two to three weeks along you can hear a couple of weakly broadcasting stations, foreign languages and an occasional strong signal.

You guess (rightly) that the strong station is the Voice of America who is on the air only a few minutes each day. Probably if you check on the hour, you will find them broadcasting SOMETHING helpful, survival information, for about 5-8 minutes on the hour.

They may have other communications information, such as local area AM or FM stations to tune to.

Who are YOU going to communicate with though? You have a transmitter… think about it….

What precisely do I consider survival communications to be? First of all, let’s define some things.

sur·vive (s r-v v )
v. sur·vived, sur·viv·ing, sur·vives
v. intr.
1. To remain alive or in existence.
2. To carry on despite hardships or trauma; persevere: families that were surviving in tents after the flood.
3. To remain functional or usable: I dropped the radio, but it survived.
v. tr.
1. To live longer than; outlive: She survived her husband by five years.
2. To live, persist, or remain usable through: plants that can survive frosts; a clock that survived a fall.
3. To cope with (a trauma or setback); persevere after: survived child abuse.
In my mind, any survival situation that you find yourself in will be a life and death situation. With that understood, then we can figure out why we really need communications and with whom.

If you find yourself in, or are placed into a situation requiring that you use every ounce of skill you have to stay alive, your first concerns will be with staying alive. Second concerns will be water, shelter and food in that order. Communication will be the last thing on the list unless you believe it will rescue you immediately, then it will be first in your mind. Another thing that places it first would be the possibility of saving a life.

We’re going to assume that no matter what the situation is, you’re going to require, at some point, communications with other people. So, what would be the best way of ensuring you have communications with others?

Easy, chose a mode of communications that is COMMON to a lot of people. Barring the most common (which actually is the cellular telephone in today’s society) then chose the next common, and/or expedient method of communications. For example, currently there are around 700,000 amateur radio operators in the United States. My state has roughly 17,000 or so, and California has about 103,000 hams. Off hand, I don’t know the worldwide total of hams, but there are literally millions of us.

This gives you a base of folks with whom you can speak pretty much at any time of the day or night, given the right communications equipment, RF conditions (atmospheric) and other factors. Right now, I can turn on a High Frequency (HF 1.8-30 Mhz) and run it to a correct frequency dependent upon the time of day, solar weather conditions, and ionospheric conditions and perhaps speak with someone in another state or another country.

Amateur radio has a lot of various modes available. One of these modes is the UHF or VHF frequency modulation (FM handhelds) which can be used to talk radio to radio, or to another radio through a repeater system. Repeater systems effectively extend the range of your 1-10 watt hand held radio from 1-6 miles to as much as several hundred miles, depending on the location of the repeater system. One commonly used, rather famous repeater system where I live (146.970 Mhz) is located “West of the City” of Colorado Springs “in the mountains”… the exact location of which I shall not divulge here, has a footprint that can be heard as far as the Kansas border on certain days under certain conditions. It’s foot print covers a good portion of the Front Range as far north as Denver and as far south as Pueblo Colorado. I use it routinely when traveling the freeway to chat with friends.

Many modes of operation exist, from Morse Code (also called Continuous Wave, or CW) to Single Side band (SSB, a form of Amplitude Modulation), AM, FM, many digital modes including packet radio and others. You might like to try each of these modes as a ham radio operator, to play around with them and understand them. You might have a specific idea of what you like or want to use. But, keep in mind we’re concerned with “survival communications”.

If it were me and I were placed in a situation where I had need of a radio, I would chose a hand-held, multi-band (usually uhf/vhf) rig that will allow me to scan frequencies, and perhaps find a repeater system close at hand. This would give me instant contact with anyone in the receiving area.

If I were in an end of the world scenario, I would have HF radio equipment handy to keep in contact with others around the US. There will be, no matter the situation, survivors for anything, be it nuclear war, asteroid strikes or even some kind of horrible epidemic. Those people will probably be isolated from others. In this kind of a world, people will want to be in contact with others to find help, or perhaps inner-peace in just knowing there are others left alive. In a really serious situation, it would be gratifying to know someone else was alive, and perhaps close enough to pool resources. Either way, having something to be able to reach those distant people would be helpful.

Now, am I recommending Ham Radio? In a way, yes. Why? Well, it isn’t difficult to get your license, I want more folks to talk too, and we (as hams) would really love to see our hobby perpetuated among many people, young and old. I’ve heard of children as young as 5 years old and people many years my elder getting their licenses. So, anyone can do it. Here’s the benefit for doing this; you gain experience using your radios, you learn operating procedures, you learn how to pass message traffic, and you will gain a great number of friends that you didn’t have before. Friends, especially ham radio operators can be very good resources for information, intelligence and learning. In general, Amateur Radio Operators are pretty technologically inclined and tend to like gadgets. Sometimes, they give things away to new folks joining the hobby, including radios.

Some times they will lend you gear, teach you how to use new gear, or teach you (or help you) build equipment you might not have and can’t afford to buy new. Building a radio transmitter is not as difficult as one might think, and a receiver is even simplier. Learning these skills might not be a useful, money making skill, but then neither is learning to build a fire from a few pieces of wood and string. But these skills might come in handy, and one never knows where one might need such a skill.

As an Amateur Extra Class license holder, one of my jobs is really to convince folks to try out the hobby, to see what is good about it, and to perhaps learn something new, thus I will always suggest that folks work to obtain their ham license, even if they don’t actively use it often, at least we will grow the ranks of Amateurs all over. This can never hurt, and will always help the field of communications.

In case you do not know this, know that every disaster in the world is attended by volunteers called Amateur Radio Operators. When the Hayman fire hit us here in Colorado, dozens if not a couple of hundred of us turned out to assist. I took days off of my normal job to operate radios at the Red Cross Shelter in Woodland Park Colorado. We had Red Cross personnel there assisting people displaced during the fire, we passed Health and Welfare radio traffic, assisted in the coordination of fire services, and other emergency services by passing information that these services required.

Since the year of the Hayman fire there have been other, major wild fires in Colorado.  In each of them Amateur Radio Operators were called out in support of fire fighting and police resources.  We assisted served agencies like the Red Cross and Salvation Army as well as various Emergency Operations Centers throughout Colorado.  We passed information, health and welfare as well as emergency radio traffic.

When Katrina hit the South East a few years ago, ham radio operators were there. When the Asia tsunami hit amateur radio operators were there. Hams train regularly, without being asked to do so, to better their communications skills, to learn more about passing message traffic, to learn things about the weather (Skywarn) and weather spotting and many, many other skills.

So… who in my opinion is MOST trained at emergency communications? Ham Radio Operators, that’s what I know and believe.  The Government can’t field a radio system as quickly and efficiently as Amateur Radio Operators.  Indeed, the Government doesn’t HAVE trained radio personnel any more.  Not even the military can bring to bear so many resources on short notice to provide effective and efficient communications like the Hams can.  Most hams could step into any communication operations center and operate radios there, coordinate radio nets and traffic. Not ALL of them, but a good number of them could do so. Some of us have operated many, many frequencies at one time, coordinating message traffic on several nets at one time under professional conditions, military conditions and emergency communications. My advice to everyone is to get your Amateur Radio Operator license.

There are currently three classes of license available, Technician, General and Extra. All three require that you learn Morse code at 5 words per minute. This is very simple, and there are a ton of FREE programs out there to assist you in learning Morse code. You need to have a varying degree of electronic and radio competency based on the class of licensing.

The Technician Class license is currently the lower level license you can obtain. There are some testing requirements asking for you to show some general, simple understanding of how radios work and operate, and some operating procedures, as well as class frequency usage, restriction and operation modes on those frequencies.

General is kind of the “middle class” of licenses. It has a much higher electronics knowledge standard and gives you privileges to operate on HF frequencies – those you need to communicate around the world with radio waves.

Amateur Extra class is the highest class license and requires a vast amount of knowledge on electronics, radio systems, antennas and other subjects related to the hobby of Ham Radio.  It gives you all the privileges to all the bands (but not a significant number more than General).

Most cities have a monthly testing session that you can attend, and for a small fee (I believe it is currently under 10 bucks, but don’t know. I’ll give you some resources shortly to check current fees, and information anyway) you can test. You can also generally find someone to mentor you if you have no knowledge on radios at all. There are plenty of resources out there, if you just do a Google Search.

Somewhere along the way, you might have realized that this wasn’t just a talk on ‘survival communications’, but more of a talk on being a Ham Radio Operator. I did this for a reason. No one is more highly trained in emergency communications than your local, neighborhood ham radio operator. If in doubt, seek one out. If he/she can not help you right then, they can help you to focus on what you need to know. He can point out resources. She can help you find information on the internet about learning code, or how a radio works.

I’m not pooh-poohing other forms of communication, nor saying none of them are up to this standard, but I am saying that anyone who is interested in learning and understand EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS should consider getting their ham license and learning as much as they can now, today, while they have time to do so. That knowledge will ALWAYS be useful to you. So… take some time, look up information on Amateur Radio and consider it now. At the very least get your Technician license. Once you have done so, you will be proud to display that license and show it off to your friends – as well as show them how to talk to Japan, England or some other country. (Ok, well, you might have to get your General Class to eventually utilize all the available radio bands!)

Here’s some resources. Check the ARRL site first for everything, including testing and resources in your AREA of the world.
http://www.pdarrl.org/links.html – Some links
http://www.qrz.com (hint: Put my callsign – n0njy — in the box at the top and look me up)

Well, there are many more resources out there. I urge you to look and investigate. If you think it will cost a lot, you’re wrong. You CAN build your own equipment as a ham, you CAN go to swapfests and get things cheaper than new. You CAN trade, and buy equipment from others easily, and cheaper than you expect, and you do NOT have to have the most expensive, most techie type equipment in the world. Just get what you need to learn. Most importantly, get your significant other involved, as well as your kids, neighbors and friends. The more, the merrier!

3 thoughts on “What IS Survival Communication?

  1. Good; It’s good… But, what if there is no power? Basic infantry hand signals and rifle communication sign language. Maybe that’s the way I think? I just invented the wheel, and it’s only flat on one side (not Bad!).


    • There will be power. There will car batteries, solar panels and so forth. This isn’t necessarily just for when it all goes. This counts for blizzards, earthquakes, tsunami, volcanoes, hurricanes and the random Yellowstone Explosion…. the fact is, radios will work in the “Aftermath”. The government will have systems working in some areas, and the VOA will be working. BBC will be working, as will other shortwave stations. Believe me, the human race will bounce back after just about anything.

      When you’re using local communications it’s just for your advantage, not really talking about tactical comms and such. This is for people that want to understand it a bit better, and if we’re talking about, say… militia groups, they already have a grasp of this stuff. This isn’t for them. I train them differently :)


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