Christmas 2020 AT&T Disruption
In the early morning hours of Christmas 2020, a bomb exploded in Nashville near Second Avenue and Commerce Street, outside an AT&T building. In the hours following the explosion, Tennessee AT&T customers and customers across the U.S. were unable to call, text, or access the internet.
Early statements made by AT&T indicated that service would be restored that evening. However, the outage continued into the next day, with services only being partially restored on Sunday.
Importance of Communications
With the pervasiveness and general reliability of cellular communication, it’s hard to image life without it. We are electronically communicating with others throughout our day in the form of phone calls, texts, GroupMe, Facebook, etc. We coordinate meetings, call for emergency services, and stay up to date on the whereabouts and status of family and friends.
Fragility of Cellular Communications
Generally speaking, we have the ability to communicate anyone all over the world. However, imagine if you woke up one day and all or most forms of civilian communications had failed. You couldn’t make a phone call, send a text, respond to emails, or check the news online. You couldn’t call 911 or check on the status or whereabouts of your immediate family. The reality and realistic possibility of a large scale communications failure should motivate each of us to develop an Emergency Communications plan.
These obstacles became a reality for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans last weekend for about 1.5 days. Emergency Services communications were down, prompting the need for an alternative emergency number. Although updated emergency contact numbers were published online, access to this information required internet connectivity.
Last weekend’s communication outage was not the first occurrence in recent history. Other examples include 911, Katrina, The Boston Bombing, and others.
Cellular communication failure can occur due to network overload, physical damage, and/or electrical damage. Network overload can occur when many subscribers connect to the same tower. If too many subscribers do this, the tower’s bandwidth will be overloaded and calls will be dropped.
Physical damage can be natural or man-made. This can further compound the problem if many people are trying to contact loved ones on damaged networks after a disaster.
Electrical damage can result from electromagnetic interference or software failure. Electric interference can occur in the form of a natural or man-made Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP). Software failure can range from a simple bug in the system to malicious software (malware).
Normalcy Bias is the tendency to deny the possibility of a catastrophe or indications that an emergency is unfolding. Normalcy Bias is the polar opposite of paranoia. It causes you to dismiss the sounds of gunshots or ignore the shady individual walking into the bank.
We can sum up Normalcy Bias in one statement, “it’s probably nothing.”
The challenge with combating Normalcy Bias is that, depending on where you live in the world, “it” probably is “nothing.” Those gunshots likely are not a mass killing. That shady individual probably is not going to rob the bank. And a complete loss of cell service usually does not indicate that an EMP detonated or that the grid is down.
The statistical reality that “it” usually is “nothing” means that our Normalcy Bias is reinforced. The last time you heard gunshots, nothing serious happened to you, so this time is no different. None of those shady people you have encountered have ever acted out of the norm. Each time you lost cell service, it was restored within a few minutes or hours.
However, that gunshot may be the initiation of a mass killing, that suspicious vehicle may be rigged to explode, and an internet or cellular failure may be something more serious.
Developing a Comm Plan
Developing a Comm Plan with your family should be finalized before an emergency occurs for obvious reason. Each family’s context is different, such as work/school location and times; therefore, your Comm Plan needs to be tailored. If you cannot reach a family member during an local or national emergency due to failed cellular service, there should be an alternative communications plan.
In addition to alternate communication option, it may be useful to incorporate Comm Windows into the Comm Plan. For example, from xx:xx to xx:xx time, you will attempt to make contact over xx.xxx frequency.
You likely will never know when an emergency will occur and when cell service will fail. Therefore, your Comm Plan should have predesignated times, such as every hour or odd/even hour after the emergency occurred.
Comm Windows can preserve battery life of communication equipment, while also giving members of your group the opportunity to seek an elevated position to transceive.
As with firearms, you must train with your emergency communications equipment and practice your Comm Plan prior to needing it. You cannot simply purchase a radio online with plans to unbox it during an emergency and expect it to work. Some alternative communications options are technical; requiring hours of training, licensing, and practice.
I will link various training and educational resources at the end of this article.
There exist many communications options, ranging from high tech to low tech. Each with varying degrees of reliability and range. As with investing, avoid putting all your eggs in one basket.
Consider diversifying your communication assets, should one or more of them fail. We will now discuss various means for communication and how you can implement them into your emergency preparedness plan.
For the vast majority of cases, modern cellular communications is the fastest, easiest, and most reliable form of communication. Most people have cell phones, and most developed countries have extensive cell service.
If you or someone else is experiencing a medical emergency, calling 911 is the best method for getting help. If you need to coordinate a meeting with someone, texting or calling their cell phone will likely put you in touch with them at any time of the day or night.
I would estimate that 99% of the time, cell phones are the optimal form of communication, generally speaking. However, as we have seen this past Christmas weekend in Nashville and during other national emergencies, cell phones don’t always work.
NOTE: It may still be possible to send SMS Text messages when networks are overloaded, but this may not always be reliable. Therefore, I recommend that you research and acquire alternative means of communications.
Though I just stated how cell service can fail during a wide-scale emergency, it could prove useful to have access to an alternate cell carrier. This could be in the form of a work phone that uses a different service provider, or a “burner phone” that is only intended for emergencies. Either way, having an alternative cellular option may prove useful and is preferrable to more archaic forms of communications.
CB, or “Citizens’ Band”, is open to the public and requires no license to transmit on. CB is primarily used by the commercial transportation industry and CB transeivers are relatively affordable.
The FCC regulates the power output for CB radios, and if you are found violating this, the fines and punishment are steep. Some may respond that in a total grid down scenario, laws do not apply. Though, I cannot think of an instance where emergency comms would have helped and this was true. Not every scenario requiring emergency comms will come in the form of a zombie apocalypse.
Furthermore, to prepare yourself for emergency communications, you must practice in peacetime. This requires that you obtain proper licensing and use legal equipment to avoid large fines and jail time.
The Family Radio Service (FRS) radios were designed for non-licensed consumer use. They are commonly referred to as “Walkie-Talkies.” FRS radios are sold at many retail stores and are typically used for camping and other outdoor activities.
Currently, frequencies between 462 and 467 MHz are reserved for FRS radios and they use Frequency Modulation (FM) rather than Amplitude Modulation (AM). This is to prevent interferrence with other frequencies, like CB, radio stations, cordless telephones, and baby monitors.
FRS radios operate on low wattage (less than 500 milliwatts) and have limited range. The advertised range for most FRS radios is in the ballpark of 1 mile with a clear line of sight. However, trees, buildings, hills, and other obstacles interfere with the signal and reduce the range.
This limited range can be both a disadvantage and advantage. The disadvantage being that they cannot be used to contact your group over long distances. The advantage being that you can maintain Operational Security (OPSEC) if you are in close proximity to your group, such as traveling in convoy or foot patrols. If you need to communicate with someone in another county or state, FRS is not the answer. However, if you are traveling on the interstate and do not want to broadcast your communications for others to eavesdrop, a low power option may be best.
One of the objectives of amateur radio usage is to use the least amount of power necessary to communicate a message over a given distance.
GMRS stands for General Mobile Radio Service. GMRS can be thought of as the big brother to FRS. Like FRS, GMRS operates on FM, but it can use up to 50 watts of power, compared to the 0.5 watts limit on FRS.
Most GMRS radios operate with 2-5 watts of power. The line of sight range for most GMRS units is 1-2 miles, but this will be reduced by obstacles.
Thanks to Wide Area Service (WAS), the range of GMRS has expanded. WAS is basically a network of repeaters all across the country, similar to cell towers, that boost the range of GMRS. Rather than a signal being sent directly from one GMRS radio to another, the signal is sent to a WAS repeater and then sent to the receiving radio. Each WAS repeater can have a range up to 20 miles, dramatically improving the range of a handheld GMRS unit.
Channels 1-7 are shared by FRS and GMRS, but channels 15-22 are reserved for GMRS traffic only. It is important to know that use to GMRS requires licensing from the FCC. Licensing does not require a test, but there is an $85 fee that is good for 5 years.
MURS stands for Multi-User Radio Service. Until 2000, MURS was reserved for professional communications, but the FCC has since opened it for public use, keeping 5 channels free.
MURS handheld radios can achieve ranges from 2-8 miles, depending on terrain, while MURS base stations can get up to 20 miles. The FCC restricts the power of MURS to 2 watts (4 times that of FRS), but any antenna may be used so long as the height does not exceed 60 feet.
An added benefit of MURS is its use of Private Line (PL) codes. PL codes are sub-audible tones that allow many users to transceive on the same channel without hearing cross-talk from other users. Basically, if you and a friend are on the 151.820 MHz frequency with a given PL code, you will not hear or be heard by another person operating on that same frequency with another PL code.
This both adds security and provides even more channel options, as there are 38 PL codes making for a total combination of 190 unique MURS channels.
Comparing the range of MURS to FRS and GMRS, MURS operates on a lower frequency, enabling it to bound over hill tops better than FRS and GMRS due to the wavelength of its frequency. However, the higher frequency of FRS and GMRS will penetrate walls and building better than GMRS. FCC rules do not permit repeater use with MURS, compared with the use WAS for GMRS.
HAM refers to Amateur Radio Operator. The etymology of “HAM” dates back to the early 1900’s when it was used by professionals to pejoratively describe amateur radio operators. The name stuck, but has since lost its pejorative meaning. In spite of being “amateurs”, technologies such as telephone, internet, satellite, broadband, and digital communications were advanced by amateur radio hobyists.
Compared with the aforementioned radio options, HAM radio provides the most versatility, power, and range. While FRS, GMRS, and MURS transmission is limited to a few miles, HAM enables you to communicate across hundreds and even thousands of miles, depending on your training, skills, and equipment. Due to its capabilities, the FCC requires than anyone operating on HAM frequencies be licensed.
There are three levels of licensing for amateur radio: The Technician License, The General License, and The Amateur Extra License. The entry level license is the Technician License. To obtain a Technician License, you must pass a 35 question test covering both technical and legal topics relating to amateur radio operation. Tests are administers by local HAM clubs. Earning a Tech License permits you to use all VHF/UHF frequencies along with limited HF band use.
*Include links to study guide and club finder
Line Of Sight and Iconography
Visual communication can be either active or passive. Active being any communications where the receiver views it in real time, such as Morris code with a light or smoke signals. Passive being any communications left behind for someone to see at a later time, such as a note or spray paint on a wall.
Education and Training
- Ham Radio Crash Course Emergency Communications Part 1
- Ham Radio Crash Course Podcast
- Technician License Course (I used this to study for my Tech exam in 2014, though some material may be out of date.)
- The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual
- ARRL Club Lookup (Amateur Radio Clubs Proctor ARRL Tests)
- Baofeng UV-5R $40-$50 (Price recently increased due to supply and demand)
- BaoFeng BF-F*HP (UV-5R 3rd Gen) ~$110
- Nagoya 15.6-in. Whip Antenna (Increased Reception and Transmission) ~$26
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2 thoughts on “Emergency Communications”
Good article, with the exception of only mentioning Baofengs in the ham portion. Why not go at least a little ways into the better radios? Yaesu and Icom make some great radios, both handies and base stations. Plenty of others, including Motorola, if your budget and specific needs call for it.
Thanks for speaking of all the options and making it clear that ham requires a license.
Thank you, Tom. You are right, there are many more great options beyond the Baofeng. Thank you for listing some!