View Full Version : Bug out communications options

Colin M
July 29, 2008, 09:08 PM
I apologize in advance if this is posted in the wrong place.

So those of us in Southern California had a 5.4 magnitude reminder about the importance of being prepared for natural disasters. I live about 20 miles from the epicenter from today’s quake (my parents live only 3 miles). No real damage… this time.

I try to be prepared as possible. I keep a Bug out bag at my place, and one at my girlfriends, food and water for at least two weeks at each location at all times. I thought I had it more or less covered, until today.

The last major earthquake to strike Southern California was in 1994, pre- wide use of cell phones, internet, email etc. The biggest problem in the hours after today’s quake was the inability to get a hold of anyone via cell phone, text message or land line. Understandably so, millions of people picked up the phone at the same time.

So my question is this… what are my other communications options? Specifically what can I equip my girlfriend and family with that will enable us to communicate if a quake knocks the power to a wide swath of Southern California?

Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated! Thanks!

July 29, 2008, 09:18 PM
FRS and GMRS radios. Google it and you'll see. Buy name brand and try them out now to see what actual range you can get in your AO.

July 29, 2008, 11:17 PM
Great reminder why Ham radios and portable generators are important. You could have communicated quickly with a dozen or so truckers in your area who could have relayed any message. In that way a trucker near a disaster woulc call and in ten minutes the knowledge would be 500 or so miles away. Great communication system.

July 30, 2008, 01:32 AM
If money is not an issue you could get a couple of satphones. They aren't cheap but they will work.

July 30, 2008, 02:25 AM

This is an area I know very little about but want to equip two vehicles with a cb and a base station at the house. I have a farm and when I am out on the other end of the property would like to have coms with the house. As well as when the vehicles are on the road together having coms between them. Is there a recommendation on gear to get started?

Thanks in advance.

July 30, 2008, 02:33 AM
Common advice is to have a contact outside the area to whom you and your loved ones have agreed to report. You can often get an outside connection easier than trying to contact someone within the affected area.

Bill DeShivs
July 30, 2008, 03:14 AM
I have a communications consulting business. Give me distances and terrain and I'll be happy to advise you, as well as sell you radios if necessary.
Business band, GMRS/FRS, CB, and ham radio are all options.

July 30, 2008, 10:27 AM
Holy Cow Bill, I thnk a bunch of us might be interested. A trucker bud said that a usable rig is quite inexpensive. We wouldn't need much as there seems to be someone in every part of the country with a fairly powerful radio.

July 30, 2008, 10:42 AM
Great reminder why Ham radios and portable generators are important. You could have communicated quickly with a dozen or so truckers in your area who could have relayed any message.

Have I missed something or don't truckers use CB radios? 10 mile range on a good day. Ham radios require a tested license and the users are pretty sharp on radio etiquette/rules.

July 30, 2008, 10:42 AM
You say Bug Out as in disaster, you only have one real choice right now, Iridium. The other similar satphone is Globalstar and I DO NOT recommend them because they have serious problems with their network as in you cant get on the network to make a call.

Iridium is reliable and although they are not the cheapest, they are the only thing you will find usuable if the power and cell sites are out. BTW- who you planning on calling if it isnt another sat phone?

July 30, 2008, 11:16 AM
"You say Bug Out as in disaster, you only have one real choice right now, Iridium. The other similar satphone is Globalstar and I DO NOT recommend them because they have serious problems with their network as in you cant get on the network to make a call."

+1, Sidewinder6. We take them on remote canoe trips, and after using both, I'd never take another Globalstar phone -- not reliable at all.

But, yes, they are fiendishly expensive, not only to buy the units, but for the monthly subscription: $35-40 per month for a basic subscription, and no minutes included with that -- calls are billed at rates starting around $1.30/minute for calls to other iridium phones, going up from there to about $10.00/minute for calls to phones on that other sat network... :eek:

You can get prepaid cards, but they're time-limited: e.g., a one-year card with 500 minutes costs $625.

That's a big ongoing investment, for something you hope never to need. I'd go with CB radios, myself.

Colin M
July 30, 2008, 11:45 AM
Thanks to everyone for your feedback!

Well the distances would really range from 30 - 100 miles. Both my Girlfriend and I are on the road all the time for our jobs so that range is constantly changing. My folks house on the other hand is 22 miles from my office.

Cost is somewhat of a consideration. I dont mind investing in something that i'll have for years, I just hate monthly payments and avoid them whenever possible.

July 30, 2008, 12:24 PM
Bill, I would also be interested in emergency communications...mostly flat or gently rolling hills here in Mississippi. Range probably less than 100 miles...thanks in advance for any suggestions...and thank you Colin for starting this thread.

I'm pretty well prepared, but being a paraplegic...it's hard to get anywhere to make contact if needed in an emergency situation. Portable communication gear would be a plus for sure.

Edit: In some areas, I might have to contend with thick wooded areas too.

July 30, 2008, 01:37 PM
Woods have the effect of sponges on radio signals. Also low terrain is a killer.

If you dont require a telephone, CB is certainly one way to go and I suppose HF or Single Side Band would also work. Vehicle mounted radios have the advantage of providing service via the car/truck power system, but I dont really think of that as "Bug Out" capable. Bug out to me, means your on foot and not constrained to a particular vehicle.

Regardless of that, CB could give you a few mile range and I understand this could be enhanced with a power amp ( but not FCC compliant) if you care at this point.

There are the PRC family of hand held radios that are much more popular and give about the same distances using AA batteries. Everybody uses them for additional comms. They can scan channels and that would also be a big help.

Bill DeShivs
July 30, 2008, 01:55 PM
Ham radio is a great option, but requires a user license under normal circumstances. I recommend anyone seriously interested in emergency comms make the effort to get a Technician-level amatuer radio license. You will then have a working knowledge of radios and what they will and won't do. Hams are very well prepared for emergency scenarios.
Remember, ANY radio service is legal to use in an emergency.
GMRS/FRS radios are inexpensive and readily available. Don't believe the 15-20 mile range claims-they might do this on water or from mountaintop to mountaintop-but not under normal circumstances. Usual GMRS/FRS range is amout a mile. These are great for car to car comms.
CBs are handy to have, inexpensive and widely used. Drawbacks are LONG antennas on hand held units, AM radio frequency, and low power. Stay away from CB "linear amplifiers," as they are illegal and unless expertly set up don't work well.
Business band radios are very good for establishing medium-range local comms. Licensing is required, unless you are a customer of a private-carrier systems operator. Licensing requires no testing, and any commercial radio shop can assist you. Should you subscribe to a local system, make sure your radios have a direct channel that bypasses the system so that you can talk radio to radio should the system fail. Mobile-mounted business radios are higher-powered, and are capable of good distance without system or repeater use. Range is generally 10-20 miles.
Nextel-type systems are subject to failing, leaving you with a radio that is useless, as no direct radio-radio communication is allowed.
Directional antennas are very good for increasing range from specific points.
Antenna height (not length) is paramount to range with two way radios, as most radios are line-of-sight. Shortwave radios bounce signals off the atmosphere to get tremendous range, but require proficiency testing and licensing.
Need more specifics, just ask.

Bill DeShivs
July 30, 2008, 02:02 PM
Reliably talking 100 miles via radio is highly unlikely, unless one of the radios is on a mountain, and both radios are using directional antennas. You would need high power- 75-100 watt radios and need to be able to use the remote radio from an elevated vantage point.
It can be done with repeater systems, but systems go down. Reliable radio-radio comms will be relatively short range, unless shortwave is used. This is where the hams come in.

July 30, 2008, 02:07 PM
Thank's for clearing us (me) up Bill. So there are actually several relatively inexpensive options. CB in a pick up would allow for some communications in an outlying area and much commo near a highway.

Bill DeShivs
July 30, 2008, 02:20 PM
CB is a good local comm device. Lots of people have them. SSB will give you more range. If you have a fixed base, get the antenna as high as possible to increase range. Use quality antennas and have the radios set up by a professional. I believe FCC regs on CB state 50 feet above average terrain, maximum.
CBs can be used to relay information, as stated earlier-but these relays may not be reliable.

July 30, 2008, 02:25 PM
I have an amature (ham ) license and can talk on 2 meter from Vegas up into wyoming and idaho via the repeater system. I use my 2 meter mobile base to talk from Kingman AZ to Vegas daily....the tests are not that hard for a Tech License and will allow 2 meter use. I have a handleheld that has 7 watts and my mobile base has 75 watts.
I also use a mobile base (12 volt) HF radio to talk all over the USA.
there is no more Morse code requirments for the license...

Bill DeShivs
July 30, 2008, 02:33 PM
"From reading some of your posts, I wonder what would be a reasonable expectation for GMRS gear that would help with longer ranges. I have the hand helds, & I have a license WQBX689.

I just did not know what to look for to use as a base station, or mounted rig for trucks or jeeps.

Is there a good source for that type of equipment, or should I move up to some form of Ham radio?"

Commercial business band radio can be used on GMRS. There are output power limitations, but the limits are adequate for much longer range. You can use a mobile radio as a base (with DC power supply), and higher-powered mobiles in your vehicles.
Using directional "Yagi" antennas will help for specific direct comms.
Simply using a gain-type antenna on your car attached to your hand-helds will drastically increase range. Any radio shop can accomodate this-if your handhelds have removeable antennas.
I will check into pricing for mobile radios set up for GMRS and post the info here.

Bill DeShivs
July 31, 2008, 02:56 AM
I did a little checking, and mobile radios for GMRS would run about $280 each. These radios are 255 channel radios, but each channel is dedicated to a specific frequency and CTCSS/Digital code. You don't have the option to change freq/code, but you can change channels to same freq/different code, as programmed, or to a different freq/code. Most GMRS radios give you the option to change the "privacy" code on each frequency channel. This would not be an option on the mobile, but with 255 "channels" many combinations would be available, as well as channels with no "privacy" code.
You would need mobile antennas. These would run $20 to $50 each. Base station antennas run about $50-$75. For base operation, you would need a dedicated 12V power supply-another hundred bucks or so. You also need a mast or tower.
So, it can get expensive-and you still can't talk a really long way.
If anyone is interested in going this route, you can contact me via PM.
Ham radio is probably the best option, but for those who don't want to go that route, GMRS/business band will work for dedicated comms.

Spade Cooley
July 31, 2008, 07:05 PM
Visit a local Ham Radio Club and find out what it takes to get the basic license. It's not that hard, just a few weeks of sapre time and study. You might end up with a great hobby for the rest of your life.


August 3, 2008, 02:40 PM
GMRS would be the best, cheap option...but range is limited.

Ham radio is great, IMO. There are already ham radio organizations dedicated to emergency comms, so there is a wealth of expertise available. The basic "tech" license is fairly easy to get (if a 6th grader can pass the test, you can do it fairly easily). Technician licenses allow a wide range of VHF/UHF comms. The higher licenses also allow HF.

August 16, 2008, 04:11 PM
Emergency Communication: - - (AA5EM de W0IPL)

1) Cell Phones - absolutely wonderful, until something happens. Then every one within 50 miles is on theirs and you get NO service.
2) FRS/GMRS - another good option - IF you never need to talk more than a few miles.
3) CB - Flat out lousy. 40 channels that WILL be over crowded in the first thirty seconds. Then add the idiots with their "lin-e-kers", useless.

4) Amateur Radio. - Not inexpensive. Initial costs run from $200 on up. You will need to get the entry level license (Tech.) which will take about twenty hours of study (on average) and cost you about $50 in study materials and test fees. The basic hand held two-way (2 meters) will be $150 to over $250, depending on features (SAME communication capability, just that you can do other "things" with it).

Mobile radios (again for 2M) run from $150 to $500 depending on features (once again, SAME communication capability) plus antenna (about $50).

Reliable communication distance - from next door to 50 miles, virtually anytime. From next door to a thousand miles, with the proper equipment, any time.

I could post about ten times this much, but it would not relate to the base thread, but rather to Ham radio. As was said above, look for your local Amateur Radio Club. They will help a lot.

August 18, 2008, 05:18 PM
Hi Guys,

I'm new to the forum, but this thread caught my attention as I have been an amateur radio op. since I was thirteen. While amateur radio does indeed provide for an effective means of communications, there are a few things, with regard to the original post to keep in mind.

Colin was looking for a means of comms. specifically for family and his girlfriend. Amateur radio, requiring a license, would require each person he wanted to be able to contact directly, to be licensed. Granted, during an emergency, it is legal to use any radio frequency and mode to establish comms., the FCC narrowly defines an emergency as an immediate threat to life or property.

Also keep in mind that during an emergency, local hams frequently mobilize to provide assistance with communications. A person that got their license "just in case" could easily cause interference to emergency communications already in progress, by being unfamiliar with radio capabilities and procedures. Untrained operators can really cause havoc in an emergency setting.

None of this is meant to say that someone should not pursue the amateur radio service out of a personal interest to what it has to offer. I have been active in the hobby for a number of years, and would encourage anyone to investigate it for themselves. But for someone to get their technician class license, and then not further their knowledge level both through study and on-the-air experience, because they only got their license "just in case", invites trouble where it already exists in a disaster stricken area.

GMRS offers many of the same advantages as a 70 centimeter radio, as used within amateur radio, does. Maximum allowed power for GMRS is 50 watts. This is actually a higher power rating than many amateur radios possess. Many areas have repeaters available to extend the range of mobiles. There is no test required to get a GMRS license. Many GMRS radios are also equipped to communicate on FRS frequencies, and it is legal to do so, as long as the pwer requirements for FRS are observed. I am not sure what the licensing fee is, but I am pretty sure that it is modest. All in all, for personal radio communications, GMRS is a pretty good choice.


August 19, 2008, 10:45 AM
Pardon my ignorance, but what is FRS/GMRS and Business Band?

August 19, 2008, 11:49 AM

These are various radio services available depending on the intended use. While I am not an expert in what the regulations are for each, this may get you started...

FRS= Family Radio Service-low powered UHF radios for short range communications. I believe they are limited to 5 watts and that use of external antennas is prohibited. They are not intended for business application, and that may well be prohibited by regulation. Requires no license.

GMRS= General mobile radio service-operates also in the UFH spectrum but with higher power limitations. 50 watts max. Use of external antennas is allowed and there are various areas served by repeaters. I am not sure, but I think these can be used in business applications as well as personal. FCC licensing required.

Business band is exactly what is says. This is a service intended for business use. I am not sure what regulations are in place, but i do know that licensing is required.

The FCC website provides all information pertaining to these services. Go check it out if you are interested. Just google one of the services and you can get a lot of good info.


August 19, 2008, 12:19 PM
Thanks for the info. The only radio comm stuff I'm familiar with is the digital 800Mhz system we use at work. So a lot of the terminology in this thread was a little new to me.

August 19, 2008, 02:52 PM
gmrs use needs a license.....it is 80 bucks for 3 years, i think
but not sure...expensive....yes...but you are illlegal if you use
it without a license (might be 5)....fcc has the info

frs needs no license...less bands, sometimes coupled with gmrs radios

most of the cheapest ones work okay, but you still need the license
to be kosher

of course, most catalogs that sell them dont mention the license
because they want you to buy them

they work okay...basically line of sight....trees, buildings etc tend
to squash the signal

there are places that have repeaters to let you go farther but
they are good for short distances, but not the 20 miles that
the advertisements say

more expensive ones work better than the "bubble packs"

definitely handy for closer local communications....

September 1, 2008, 10:13 PM
Anybody have any first hand experience with eXRS?

"TriSquare has revolutionized 2-way radio communication with eXtreme Radio ServiceTM (eXRSTM). eXtreme Radio Service (eXRS) two-way radios use proprietary Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) in the ISM band (900 MHz frequencies)."