Communicating After Disaster: Systems And Devices

In any type of disaster, your normal means of communication will likely be limited or severed completely. This applies during a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, or other large-scale natural disaster. It also applies during a terrorist attack, EMP (ElectroMagnetic Pulse) strike, or nuclear war scenario.

Cell phones, landlines, Internet, and power will be shut down. You will no longer have the luxury of picking up the phone to call for help or scanning the Web for information.

When such a crisis happenes and the systems in place no longer function, you must be prepared to fend for yourself. If you don’t already have a backup communication plan in place, there is no time like the present to start.

A reliable communication system should be equal in importance to your guns, ammo, food, and other material preps. While these are essential to sustain your life, the ability to communicate could actually save your life during a disaster.

Below we will discuss a few of the most common communications systems available for civilian use and how they can help you in a survival situation.


The following devices will only allow you to receive information from outside sources. They are most effective as a means to alert you prior to a disaster, and keep you updated in its aftermath.

scannerScanners – Most handheld scanners have between 8 and 20 channels. These channels operate on a frequency between 30 and 512 megahertz. Handheld scanners can pick up police, fire, and ambulance traffic and allow you to monitor updates regarding the events in your area.

AM/FM Radio – Depending on the scale of the disaster, traditional AM/FM radio may still work after the kick. These stations broadcast using shortwave radio waves that can transmit across long distances. The range of the radio depends on the size of the antenna, power of the signal, and terrain of the area.

Weather Alert Radio – Weather alert radios are designed to automatically power on and emit an alert signal prior to a weather emergency. They act much like a fire alarm in that they only come on if a severe weather warning is issued. People living in areas commonly hit by tornadoes, hurricanes, or other localized storms should always have a weather alert radio on hand.


Transceiver radios can receive AND transmit information. They will be most important after a disaster to coordinate rescue efforts and signal for help. The devices below range in their effectiveness, but each should be considered as part of a well-rounded communications plan.

old marine intercomFamily Radio Service – The Family Radio Service (FRS) is what you use with everyday, consumer two-way walkie-talkies. They work well at short-ranges in most terrain, with little interference. This makes them popular on camping trips, job sites, and for other short-range personal communication tasks. The biggest drawback to FRS radios is their low battery life and limited range.

GMRS – The General Mobile Radio Service is another form of short-distance two-way radio communication. Unlike FRS, it requires licensing from the FCC to be used. GMRS radios cost more than FRS but have much greater range and power. A GMRS radio has a normal range of 10-15 miles. Tapping into a local repeater could extend that range to upwards of hundreds of miles.

Marine Radio – Marine radios are found on most boats, ships and homes along the water. They are used for ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore traffic in both coastal and open water areas. These channels broadcast important information about severe weather, criminal activity, and other suspicious behavior on and near the water.

CB Radio – When most people think of CB (Citizen Band) radios they think about the ones mounted in big-rig trucks. CB radios are also available in handheld, battery-operated form. These devices have 40-channels and ports for an external mic or antenna (to extend your range). Most trucker CB radios are in fact CB/SSB radios. SSB stands for Single Side Band and gives the radio much greater range with or without an external antenna. CB radios are normally quite cheap and do not require much practice (or a license) to operate.


HAM Radio – HAM radio is often hailed as the go-to means of survival communication. It offers the most range and can transmit via voice, text, or video communication. Though the strongest HAM radios are base station models, they can also be mounted in vehicles or carried as portable handheld radios. These portable devices have low output, but can take a charge from a 12-volt battery.

Operating a HAM radio requires a license from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). There are three levels of HAM licensing: amateur, general, and technician. Each level is given their own set of frequencies. Quite simply, you do not need a license to receive info via HAM radio. But if you want to transmit legally, you will need a license.When disaster strikes, HAM frequencies will no longer be regulated and you will be able to transmit freely. In any case, the FCC permits an individual to transmit via HAM radio in a life or death circumstance. The biggest drawback to HAM radio is the limited number of users. With so few HAM operators compared to the population as a whole, it will be difficult to reach other survivors who are versed in HAM radio.

The ability to communicate after a disaster will be crucial to your chances of survival. One day when you turn on your cellphone and nothing happens what will you do? Hopefully you’ll resort to one of these several backup radios, as they could be your only ticket to survival.

This article has been written by Cody Griffin for Survivopedia.

Photo sources: Dreamstime.

Written by

Cody Griffin is do-it-yourselfer, and avid outdoorsman. He is a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades and his work can be found across the web on several survival, outdoor, and lifestyle blogs. You can send Cody a message at editor [at]

Latest comments
  • Perhaps the most important part of a radio system is the antenna. There are a multitude of commercial antennas available, but in a simple wire antenna (dipole) is the most basic and can be tremendously effective. All they call for is copper wire cut to specific lengths, some insulatorss, and a means of connecting them to the radio (coax, ladder-wire, etc) and a balum (balanced/unbalanced) connector. To be able to use the typical high frequency (long distance communication HAM) rig, you need a number of different dipoles (or a more complicated antenna system which can cover multiple bands). Radio wave propagation varies greatly depending on the time of year, sunspot cycles, time of day and a variety of other things. Various frequencies (bands) are “open” at different times. At the “bare” minimum, a prepper who is not already into HAM radio should have several hunderd feet of bare copper wire, a couple of dozen ceramic insullators, hooks to put into buildings or trees, pulleys and ropes (for hoisting dipoles in place), and enough coax with connectors to service their various radios. Add in some basic books on Amateur Radio and some books on antenna design.

    in terms of short range communication, VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) are “line of sight” communication. Usually they are used with “repeaters”– fixed radios that receive a message on one frequency and transmit the same message on a different frequency. (A repeater mounted on the top of a mountain, hill or transmitter can be in the line of sight for an entire city.) There difference between receive and transmit frequencies are called “off sets.” These are basically standardized but radios allow them to be adjusted. Furthermore, most repeaters use a “tone” which is a separate signal send beside the carrier wave that says “this is the repeater I want to use.” (Two repeaters might use the same frequencies, but unless your radio is set to the correct tone, you will only hear the messages that are coming from “your” repeater.) Repeaters provide much more range for HTs (HandieTalkies). However, in a crisis, if the repeater is dependent on public power, it cannot be depended on. (Photovoltaic panels and battery storage can allow repeaters to function when power is out.)

    Amateur radio can be a great hobbie. It’s disadvantage for everyday use is that it is illegal to use them for business purposes. THey are for hobby and experimental purposes and emergency communication. I believe they are essential for a survival situation. Receiving may be more important than transmitting. A good shortwave multiband receiver can let you know what’s happening in other parts of the world. Antennas for receiving are much more forgivng than transmitting antennas.

    BTW, the cutting edge of HAM radio is computer communication. (It is illegal to encrypt HAM communication but you can compress a long message into a very short transmission).

    Get a radio. Turn off the TV and have some fun. BTW, the code (Morse code) requirement has gone away for General HAM licences.

    • There IS NO CW requirement now. However, in a survival scenerio morse is definitely worth knowing! Even if you can only receive 5 words per min. NOW then, there are 3 classes of license– to set the record straight— technician, general and extra. Technician class pretty well limits a licensee to VHF— line of sight/repeater/ satellite operation for voice transmission. Hey, great for short distance operation, anyway. World-wide? 10 and sometimes 6 meter bands (sunspot cycle dependent).

  • Tactical considerations could be of extreme importance if the trigger event was EMP related. To have some form, any form of communications shielded and operable afterwords wood be a huge force multiplier when virtually no one else has the capability. If they do have radio communications the ability to tap into their frequency could also be a huge force multiplier. The advantage of intel cannot be overstated.

  • Put some HTs in a 50 cal ammo can. That should work as a Faraday cage, or am I missing something. You might have to take out the rubber gasket to make a true metal box.

    • If you leave the gasket in place there is an electromagnetic leak where the rubber is but if you take it out there is the same sized gap anyway. Devise a replacement gasket that is a conductor. Mylar or aluminum foil would work. Don’t forget to insulate the item being shielded from contact with the inside of the box which is a conductor. Wrapping them in towels or putting them in zip locks would suffice.

      • I’m not certain there would be a gap when you pulled the can closed with the latch, but you are right that the equipment inside needs to be insulated, and a simple conductive gasket would hurt nothing. A metal trash can could function for larger equipment. I would be more concerned about a gasket there to make certain of the continuity.

        • Not knowing the frequency of the EMP, I can’t know how big a gap would be safe so I would rather be safe than sorry. I have a tri-fuel generator that my group built a Faraday cage for and we used metal window screening. It’s a pain because we have to take it out twice a year to charge the battery, start it up and change out the gasoline we usually use. Actually for small items like the radios, Mylar bags would work as well and be a lot cheaper!

      • Leave the gasket in place. Run a file over the top lip to remove the paint to get to bare metal. Then use a metal screen folded over the opening, then close and secure the lid. Better still, replace the screen with the screen from an old microwave door and fold that over the opening. Ground the can with a conductor wire connected to a copper or metal stake driven in to the ground.

        • Master Chief
          Great answer and right on. Also thanks for informing everyone about the importance of grounding their Faraday cage.

          • I just re read this thread. A question for both of you: Why ground a Faraday cage. Faraday’s Law says that the charge stays on the surface of the conductor. Picture a solid block of conducting material. Say a piece of steel the size of a 20 mm ammo can. Run a power source to one side and you need a ground to run a current through it. If you don’t have a ground, and touch it, you become the ground! Hollow it out until it’s a 16th of an inch thick, and the charge still flow on the surface. Poke a hole in the side, and now the inside of the thing is also a part of the surface so the charge is both inside and out.

            But we are not creating a conductor. We’re not running a power source to one side of the object. We’re talking about a charge induced by an electro magnetic pulse. This thing is not a capacitor that holds a charge. Granted that the wave length of the pulse defines the size of the holes allowable in a screen, why would the cage need to be grounded? If you took a conductor (say a wire) and suspended it by a non-conductor, and then ran a charge to it (with no ground) and then removed the charge, the conductor would not retain a charge. Isn’t this analogous to a Faraday cage that is hit by a pulse? The pulse is not a long term event. Help me understand. Thanks in advance.

    • Ammo cans have a rubber seal which eliminates the necessary metal to metal contact to keep out RF. Find a way to pull the rubber and replace it with a metal seal and it just might work, otherwise, throw your stuff in a used microwave.

  • Pretty comprehensive coverage, however your description of Ham levels contains an error. You wrote “There are three levels of HAM licensing: amateur, general, and technician.” The three levels are Technician, General, and Extra in that order. Technician is the entry level, followed by General and the highest level is Extra.

    • Thank you for your feedback. 🙂 You are right, those three levels are in reverse order considering their difficulty. But I understood that both Extra and Amateur name the same class licence.

  • The best part about getting your ham license is that if there is a major Fan event, the ones that are probably the best prepared are ham operators…

    • All true and amateur radio operators have always historically been there for us. But if the trigger event is EMP related, there will be precious few HAM operators because their gear would be fried and even those few that have the old tube sets will have no power to operate them.

      • “Field Day” is an annual celebration/demonstration of Amateur Radio functioning “off line.” EMP can occur naturally (sunspot), or is often a part of EOTWAWKI novels and movies. However, technology can be set up again once the principles are known. Anyone which a basic knowledge of college physics should be able to created a simple wind-powered generator. The parts are available in every auto-alternator– pulley, bearings, and wire. Power should not be a problem. Lead-acid batteries, should not be effected. It will be a while before we’re back to $29 multiban HTs, but there are lots of of CBs out there with cut crystals. It’s a matter of knowledge. In a plug and play, or plug-in-to-repair world, there may be some problems. Maybe it’s time to give a bit of honor to the older generation who learned to do a lot of these things before there were transistors much less integrated circuits.

        • Kudos to you and my hat off to those we follow who worked with analog gear, crystals, vacuum tubes and Morse code and on whose shoulders the rest of us stand.

          • I don’t want to leave the impression that I know all this stuff. I did get a BS in physics in “the transitor as the cutting edge” age. We need to remember that as commercial vehicles, radio is about 100 years old, television is 50-70, personal computers 25-30. Some of the pioneers of things we take for granted are still walking among us. Furthermore, used book stores are full of texts that explain it all. HAMS are among the most helpful people in the world. Most encourage anyone who wants to learn. USed book stores are full of old manuals, texts, and howto books from previous ereas. In terms of being prepared, many HAMS are hoarders who think, “Maybe I can us that for something someday.” I’ve been a HAM for about 20 years. I’m just beginning to learn.

          • Hey eastofaustin258
            You’re too modest but that comes with the territory for an Amateur Radio operator. People like you are desperately needed to disseminate the truth about EMP because there are so many self proclaimed “experts” abound giving bad info which if followed would hurt them badly. I keep reading BS like electronic ignition modules in cars would be safe and anything not plugged in or running would not be affected. Keep up the good work my friend – VE3BER since 1967.

          • Have your looked at the Baofeng multi bands on Amazon? I ordered a couple (different models), one for me and one for my brother. The TX/RX cover the HAM 2meter and 70 cm bands, but they also cover the Family Radio Spectrum. Apparently they are made for sale in many countries with many different spectrum dedications. The cheap one (less than 30 bucks) is powered at one or four watts. The more expensive on is one or five watts. You are supposed to program them to the frequencies you will use. The 2 meter has a transmit spectrum of 137 to something like 176 MHz– far more than the HAM bands and well up into the public service allocated frequencies. Certainly all HAMs would kill the extra transmit fuctions. 🙂 In case of the EOTWAWKI, to be frequency agile might prove very advantageous. 73 KC5MTX

          • Hey! Now we are cookin’ ! Telling us where to find an appropriate radio and the cost makes it so very possible now. You did way over the top GOOD!!! THANK YOU!!!

          • I’m not offering an endorsement of the Baofengs. I just got them and I have no idea if they hold up. I was asking another HAM about his experience. (That’s something that HAMs do alot.) I will say that the instructions that come with the Baofengs are pretty poor. They are made to be used with a computer disc and a cable to do the programming. I’m working to figure out how to do manual programing through the keys and buttons.

            Another thing that my brother and I are working on UHF microwave communication utilitizng baby monitors (which overlap with some HAM frequencies on the 23cm band.) THere are some people who have been able to get several miles out of them, and when correctly polarized (a function of how the antennas are arranged), create an almost private communication system. To intercept the signal, one would have to have a properly oriented antenna in the line of sight. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any way we can get line of sight between our homes. We plan on working between hill tops where we can set up in cars. However, in terms of survival technology, this could be a very low power means of communicating between various homes, observation posts, etc. They wouldn’t be portable, but they would be useful.

          • hey eastofaustin258 Great minds thin alike.

            I just bought a TYT brand transceiver; model #TH-9000 on eBay for $186. This particular model covers 136-175MHz. I’ll have to be careful not to accidentally transmit on police, fire and other emergency freq’s but it seemed to be a lot of bang for the buck. If course it’s made in China but is also has encryption for privacy. It’s just voice inversion but better than nothing. Otherwise I’ve had 2 meter and UHF sets for years now.

            Can I ask you a question? It seems with all the solar flare activity, I’m having a hard time with 2 meter because there are so many people from all over the planet on there covering me. Are you experiencing anything like this?

          • I thought that encryption on Amateur was illegal.

          • Well, all my comments on this particular forum are about after TSHTF. I have no use or need for encryption right now.

          • Our repeaters have had some static. I haven’t done any simplex on 2 meter for quite some time I’ve got a 2 meter rig in my pickup and it has plenty of power to hit the repeater.

            In terms of the question about encryption. It is illegal for U.S. Amateur operators to encrypt. THese Chinese made radios are being mass produced to be sold for a multitude of purposes in a multitude of countries. The radio I bought could be used for Family Service frequencies which I believe limit power to one watt. It would be illegal to use the four or five watt settings there. The radios can be used for fire and police departments which use single frequency (in contrast to frequency hopping systems). It’s illegal for fire or police to use the HAM frequencies. (In emergency situations, HAMS are dispatched to many crisis centers to handle communications with other HAMS. When I was a storm chaser for the National Weather Bureau, we had HAM radio equipment permanently installed at the National Weather Center at the Midland Airport but it required a HAM to operate it. We finally got some of their personnel to get Technicians Licenses so they could talk to people in the field at any hour.) The radios will do things that are illegal. It is up to the operator to know and comply with the rules. As has been noted, in an emergency, HAM operators are authorized to do whatever is required to save lives and property. fr u

      • Lots of handhelds would still be running around – shorter range, but if Big Fan, your range for everything just got smaller.

  • Really appreciated the info on the radios/communication post shtf. I haven’t had the opportunity to go through all that you have to offer. However whoever wrote the article re communication did an excellent job. It didn’t seem to be simply plucked as is from a variety of sources. He/she did good!

  • Q…would not telephone lines still be a means of using morse? If one had a way to send as in the early telegraph days, could not various relays be easily put in place to restore communication w/o too much trouble or am I a dreamer?

    • Any continous wires would be helpful. However, a modern telephone system doesn’t run a pair of wires from your house to mine. They run to a switching system in which the wires from your house are connected to mine. In the old days, there was an operator at a “switch-board” who moved plug in patch cords from one line to connect it to another. Now there are computers which handle the “switchgear” and make the connections. However, from a local perspective, the physical phone wires that run from house to house are a very valuable resource. Keep in mine that we are now in an age where lots of homes are not “wired”. My “land land” actually isn’t. It’s part of my cable system and comes in over an fiber optic system. I found that out after I subscribed last year. Up until I moved to this house, I could count on my phone working if the power when out. Now, they will work only because of a battery backup. Lots of folk only rely on cellular. One can’t count on “telephone wires” any longer. In terms of power lines, be careful. Even if the power is out for a city, the powerlines may still be “hot” if people have connected home generating systems (photovoltaic or wind) to the system without the required disconnects. More than one “lineman” has found that out the hard way.

  • In a post shtf scenario does it really matter if your licensed or not to operate a radio.

    • Al, in a word “No.” However, the learning curve on staying alive, and keeping those you love alive, will be very steep. If you’ve never eked vegetables out of a garden, which is not as easy as it sounds, it’s not a good time to learn. If you don’t know how to swim, a flood is not the best place to take your first lesson. If you don’t know how and AR or an AK operates and how to keep them operating, (I started to say good luck, but instead I will say get an AK.) In terms of radio, it’s not the license but the knowledge. It is not something that you will learn overnight. While I’m a great advocate of books and manuals, I believe that the community is critical. If you don’t have people to communicate with, you’re not going to do much communicating. If you want to be a part of the community, getting license and playing by the rules is a part of what you do. For an example of community, if/when the SHTF, and I hear VE3BER on the air, I will pay attention and probably put more trust on the information provided than I would if its somebody say, “Hello, hello. Can anybody hear me?” In fact, because of this thread, I’ll give more credence to VE3BER than to another license number which I’ve never heard of. And I suspect that he will feel similar things on hearing KC5MTX. No, the license doesn’t matter after the SHTF, but it certainly does as you are learning how to survive. At least that’s my opinion.

  • Greetings

    I realise that this article is about when you cellphone stops working but below are some instruction/notes do with your mobile before the cellular network stops working (barring EMP) based on post earthquake experience in NZ that took out mains power and left the cellular network masts on UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply – Battery backup.) and the main data centres intact. Before mains power was reestablished generator backup kicked and maintained the cellular infrastructure

    Applies to all phones. Some notes only apply to smart phones

    1. As soon as possible following an incident change your voice mail message to state your situation and the actions you are going to take, switch your phone to flight mode and then turn you phone off
    2. Turn your phone on, out of flight mode and update your message if there is change of status or once a day to receive any SMS messages; reply if required, switch your phone to flight mode and turn your phone off

    A. Callers will receive your voicemail message and be alerted to your status and plans (You will not have to repeat yourself for each caller!)
    B. The voicemail service uses a different system to the call delivery infrastructure
    C. As callers/your phone are/is not using the call delivery infrastructure/system (transmitting/receiving the signal to/from the masts to your phone) the cellular mastt/tower UPS will last longer
    D. As your phone is switched off you will not be placing a loading on the cellular infrastructure
    E. Emergency services regularly use cellphones to communicate – the longer the UPS sustain the cellular system the better. The less people using the system the better
    F. You can turn your phone on and access data without loading the cellular infrastructure (my iPhone compass works in flight mode)
    G. Your mobile battery will last for several days(weeks?) without charge following the above instructions

    I’m sure there are other advantages of the above that I have not written



  • As someone already said NO LIC. but for ham I know its a rule and after shtf more so…But a FRS/GMRS its up for grabs a simplex is easy here 1 on ebay..
    do not think it can not be use it can be the next thing is antenna here a youtube that will help
    part 1

    I hope this will help someone

    • Interesting mod. However, before the SHTF, this mod makes the radio illegal to use on the FRS frequencies. The FCC requires FRS radios be type certified, and one of the requirements is “no external antennas” are allowed. Likewise, someone noted on my comment about the Beofungs, their minimum power is over the 500 mws allowed on FRS. Likewise, the external/interchangeable antenna feature makes them illegal to use on those frequencies in the U.S. After the SHTF, I doubt anyone will know the rules, much less care about them. The problem is that testing equipment on their operating frequencies is illegal for most of us.