While there are only a couple of scenarios where it seems likely the grid will all but disappear, they have the potential to most seriously damage our way of life. A terrorist attack on our electrical infrastructure would leave us with at least the ability to rebuild and remain in communication with each other. This level of communication would probably not include the ability to contact family and friends in other states, or for that matter, in other counties. A nuclear strike or an EMP strike (which is also likely nuclear in nature) could effectively wipe out all electronic devices. I’m still investigating if that applies only to active devices or all devices.
In the event that our communications systems are damaged at a larger-than-local level, there may still be some options. These options come into play when our families are not together at the time of the event. For instance, children are at school, adults are at work, and so on. Preparing for such an event means planning for alternate communication methods. Plural. There’s a saying in the community that I like. “Two is one, one is none, none is done.”
What does that mean? Well, if you have two ways of doing something and one fails, you end up with one. If you have only one means of doing something and it fails, you have nothing. If you don’t have a plan, you’re done. You don’t even have options.
Now for communications. Once upon a time ago, in what will seem like the dark ages to the teenagers of today, we didn’t have portable comm devices. We had a telephone that was wired to a wall.
If it was absolutely necessary to contact someone, and they were near a wired telephone, you either had to find another wired telephone or something called a pay phone. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find a pay phone today. With three gas stations within easy walking distance of my home, there is only one pay phone. The other big drawback to a pay phone, besides actually finding one, is the need for money. Specifically, coins. A nickel used to be enough to make a call across town. Then it needed a dime, then a quarter. The last time I looked at one, it wanted 35 cents. So now you had to have a quarter AND a dime! How inconvenient! I’ve seen pay phones in Europe that accept debit cards and phone cards.
Along came the advent of the portable phone. It was a version of cellular technology and found its way mostly into cars, hence the name car phone. Most of these were terribly expensive. Actors and politicians could get them. They became the envy of the general public. They were also huge, it was easy to spot one driving down the road. In our envy, we called them bricks, trying to make them less appealing.
Before long, the technology improved, making circuits smaller, displays more flexible, keypads tinier. The birth of the common cell phone was upon us. These little miracles no longer needed to be tied to their power source. They could travel with us at our leisure. We could talk to anyone from anywhere.
But our thirst for mobility seems insatiable. We wanted them smaller, lighter, more powerful. We had become so connected to our internet lifestyle that we want not only voice and messaging, but also email, social networking, games, the whole shebang! Voila! The Smartphone!
Now we had, for all intents and purpose, portable computers! The functions now available to us in our palms soon outweighed the primary intended purpose of the device. Nobody (figuratively) uses their phone to make telephone calls anymore. And it turns out that’s not such a bad thing.
In a grid down scenario, the power to the cell towers may be compromised. It may still have some limited functionality. Some cell sites have backup generators. Those generators will only last as long as the fuel supply, but they’ll keep trying. Anybody that has been through a natural disaster also knows that the “circuits” upon which these marvelous devices operate can easily become overloaded. In those times, even the landlines become congested.
And yet, cell/smart phones may still have a use during an emergency. Text messaging, the bane of many high school teachers, requires less bandwidth than voice calls. Bandwidth, put simply, is the pipe through which signals travel. Only so much information fits in this pipe. The smaller the packets of information, text messages, the more it can accommodate. As a result, it may be possible to send a brief text message to a contact outside the affected area. For instance, I could send a text message to my daughters in California and vice versa.
There are a few alternate methods of making contact, at least locally. One of the oldest is the Citizens Band (CB) radio. Unless Dad is a trucker, I doubt many teenagers have heard of this archaic device. I have. I still have mine. I even have a base station, for use in the house. I dug them out last week to see if I still had them. Turns out the base station can also be operated from a 12v source, so it could also be used as a mobile.
40 channels from which to choose. Likely to be very busy when the grid goes down. The radio pictured, the Cobra 148 GTL, adds a function called Single Sideband (SSB). Basically, it shifts the signal just off center, upper and lower, which both increases the number of “channels” and slightly increases the power output. You can talk farther and with a bit of privacy. Another CB nearby would likely hear your signal but only as garbled messages. My mobile is this model. The base station doesn’t have SSB capability.
Citizens Band radio, CB, has its origins in the mid-1940s. In the days when radios were constructed using vacuum tube technology, there weren’t very portable. As advances in electronics evolved, so did the radio. The system expanded from 23 channels to 40, who used which radio frequency band changed based on FCC regulations. Eventually, although there was a licensing requirement, it appears the FCC gave up trying to track down the millions of mobile users when CB use bloomed in the late 70s and early 80s. One advantage of CB is the regulation from the FCC that channel 9 is to be used for emergency purposes only. As long as there are emergency responders still listening, this could be a life saver.
Another option, one that is relatively inexpensive and available at many big box stores, is the FRS/GPRS radio system. FRS stand for Family Radio System. It’s very much like CB in that it uses a specific set of frequencies, or channels, and is free to operate. You can usually find such radios in the same section of the store where you find walkie-talkies. They even look like walkie-talkies.
I haven’t been able to find FRS radios that don’t also include GMRS functionality. General Mobile Radio Service has one advantage over FRS. It can transmit at a higher power output. This can cause problems with users of the dual function radios. The FRS frequencies are not permitted to transmit at the higher GMRS output and can be fined. GMRS transmitters are also restricted from using the middle of the range of channels on these radios, 8-14. 1-7 and 15-22 are available for use. It’s all a little bit confusing, thanks to the regulations and the construction of the radios.
Speaking of regulations, the GMRS band of frequencies requires an FCC license in the United States. The GMRS license currently costs $85 and is good for five years. The process is not difficult, except for finding the information and the links on the government website. Processing takes about two weeks and the license arrives in the mail. It is the responsibility of the licensee to adhere to all regulations, especially if using a hybrid radio.
FRS/GMRS has its beginning in the 1960s with changes in power output limits and frequency allocation in both the 60s and 70. In 1987, the system and its users were revamped and Business Radio Service was separated from Family Radio Service.
The final option I’ll mention is also a radio system. Compared to everything before this, HAM radio, known originally as amateur radio, is probably the most flexible and beneficial. It is undoubtedly the oldest. It is an international standard of radio communication that encompasses the RF (radio frequency) spectrum, making it possible to communicate next door, across town, across the state, across the nation, across the oceans and into space. This makes amateur radio very powerful indeed. When catastrophe strikes, it is often the HAM community that links services to needy locations. Probably of greater importance is the distribution of information in devastated areas. Amateur operators have relayed personal messages across the continent assuring loved ones that there are survivors. Sometimes, they are the bearers of unpleasant news, but even this can lend closure to the fearful and grieving.
Amateur radio can trace its beginning to the late 19th century, but as it is known now the early 20th century is the time of its birth. As an outgrowth from telegraph technology, early operators used a system of dots and dashes, called Morse Code, for communication. Until recently, Morse Code proficiency was a part of the licensing for HAM operators. The use of Morse Code is still encouraged because voice communication can be unreliable, when taking into account possible electrical interference and the differences in dialect and language.
Licensing for amateur radio in the United States is available in three levels, each progressively more complex. Technician Class, General Class and Amateur Extra Class each require different levels of technical knowledge and proficiency. There are exams for each level. Local HAM radio clubs in the US often offer classes and exam space. Similar to GMRS, there is a license fee paid to the FCC. Once the exam is passed and the application submitted, a $10 fee provides a license for 10 years. This is in marked contrast to the GMRS system and many wonder why there is such a huge difference. Don’t expect to find an explanation from the FCC. I can speculate, of course. Opportunity. The FCC had the opportunity to make more money and they exploited it. Also, because of the technical requirements of obtaining an amateur license, and the obvious benefit of amateur operators in a crisis, perhaps it seems “fair” to the government to not burden these potential assistants.
When it comes to how you’ll contact family or team members in an emergency situation, whether local, statewide or nationwide, there are options. If you need to contact family in another state, the best option will be for both sides to have the equipment and licensing for amateur radio.