Contributed by Carolyn (K6CJN) and Don Nicolaysen (KR6US)

Author’s Note: As you know Operation Ornaments provides handmade Christmas ornaments crafted in several countries and 48 states (hopefully this year 50), to survivors of disasters. To date we have served over 5000 families. This year we are hoping to serve families in Rolling Fork Mississippi (referred to in this article), Tennessee, Guam, Ohio, and Lahaina Hawaii. It will not be possible to serve Hawaii if we cannot raise $5,000 for shipping, transportation, and distribution. If you can help, every $10 or $20  donation adds up, please help by donating on our GoFundMe page or Venmo or message me for an address to mail a check. You can also help by purchasing supplies on Amazon.

If you are not familiar with what we do, please visit our Facebook page or website at operationornaments.org. Survivors are quickly forgotten but we will not forget, and we will deliver love and hope to those still suffering.

A disaster strikes, and your neighborhood is badly shaken. Some of your neighbors’ homes are damaged. Electricity is out. Phones are out. Water is out. Sirens are approaching. The kids are at school, and your husband is at work. You reach for your cell phone and dial his number. The cell network is down, or overloaded. What will you do?

An unexpected derecho devastated Houston last week. Several electrical transmission towers were downed, and 540,000 homes and businesses were without power. Due to the complete destruction of the towers, power is expected to be out for weeks in some areas. Cell towers are equally susceptible to such destruction. We saw this is Lahaina last year.

On August 10, 2023, wildfires destroyed more than 1,800 homes and 400 businesses in Lahaina, Hawaii. According to Hawaii’s Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke in an interview the next day, “Thousands of people in Maui are without cell service as the wildfires continue to rage out of control on the island, preventing people from calling emergency services or updating loved ones about their status. It could take days or even weeks to get the networks back up and running. 911 is down. Cell service is down. Phone service is down.”

You may remember Rolling Fork, Mississippi hit last March by a tornado, with the story of the restaurant owner who saved those in the restaurant by leading them into the freezer to protect them. They survived. Sadly, 14 residents did not. Once again, power transmission lines and cell towers were lost, leaving residents with no way to communicate and/or to get help.

These two examples are not rare or unusual. They are in fact the norm.

When natural disaster wipes out the local infrastructure, emergency response teams may be minutes, hours, or days away. Having a plan for the possible scenarios will help your family feel more confident. If children understand that whatever happens while they are in school, you will come to get them, no matter how long it takes to get there – they will be more assured in their distress. They and your extended family should also feel confident you will communicate with them alleviating their stress.

When families are separated in an emergency, communicating can be next to impossible.

Many people were prepared in the past for blackouts with “transistor radios” to hear the news. They have all been replaced by devices requiring towers no longer intact following a disaster. Wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, derechos, floods, and earthquakes can all destroy the towers we rely on. Of course, there is also civil unrest and terrorism which may find us without the means to communicate.

So how can we communicate, when all else fails? One of the common and overlooked technologies for emergency communication is radio, the same technology used by police and fire departments.  Since ordinary citizens cannot legally use fire and police frequencies, what are our options? There are basically four options: Family Radio Service, Citizens Band, Ham Radio, and the GMRS radio band.

Family Radio Service (FRS)

If you’ve bought a pair of walkie-talkies at your local Big Box store to take on vacation or on a campout, they are probably made for the Family Radio Service (FRS). They do not require an FCC license, and are made to run with common batteries, have minimal features, and low power (maximum 2-watts). Usually, their range is limited to about 1-mile, maybe 2 miles on a good day, line-of-sight.

They have a fixed antenna designed for short distances.

A good FRS radio has 22 channels, some are shared with GMRS (see below), and a squelch control to mute the speaker when there is no signal present.

PRO – Easy to use. A child can do it.

CON – Too simple and common. During a real emergency, there might be so many signals on those frequencies, they will be virtually useless.

The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)

The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a licensed radio service in the United States that uses channels around 462 MHz and 467 MHz for short distance, two-way communication. It is used for both personal and business communication and is popular for activities like hiking, off-roading, and neighborhood coordination. Users must obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) if living in the United States, which is valid for ten years and covers the licensee and their immediate family members. No test is required merely an application and fee. A license is not required to use GMRS if living in Canada. GMRS radios typically offer more power and range than Family Radio Service (FRS) radios.

PRO – Better and more reliable radios than FRS. More frequencies with better privacy and availability during an emergency than FRS and CB. Although a license is required, there is no exam.

CON – The number of frequencies are much more limited than ham radio, and range is still very limited – to 2-miles or so on an ordinary day. Under ideal conditions, range could be up to 25-miles, line-of-site.

Citizens Band (CB)

Yep, 10-4 good buddy. One of your best sources for CB gear is your local truck stop. CB had a surge of popularity in the 70’s and 80’s, and many ordinary folks had to give it a try. These days, with amazing cell phones, text messaging, email, and communication apps like Facetime, WhatsApp, and Skype, the option of using CB radios is not top of mind.

Don’t be deceived, CB is alive and thriving and has a lot to offer. CB frequencies are on the 11-meter radio band, which means they are in the skip-zone between VHF frequencies and shortwave. During a good sunspot cycle, they are known to bounce off the stratosphere and carry signals across the continent. But for daily and emergency use, you can only count on 4-5 miles.

CB radio does not require an FCC license, and is by law, limited to low power (4 watts for AM and 12 watts for Single Sideband (SSB). There are 40-channels, so in many less-populated areas on an ordinary day, there is room for everybody. It is OK to employ a good antenna on your house, which can greatly improve performance. Truckers know all the ins and outs of a good mobile antenna – check your truck stop or local radio store for the possibilities – or just observe the antennas on the big trucks you pass on the freeway.

PRO – Widely available. Best for mobile (in vehicle) or base station operation. 40-channels. CB is used by the REACT organization for emergency response, and their members monitor CB Channel 9 for emergencies and motorists with car trouble. REACT is a network of committed people who assist their communities in times of emergency or disaster. Members provide their expertise when disasters strike and assist with supporting local resources with the goal of accelerating relief efforts.

CON – Because of the wavelength of CB frequencies, CB handheld radio antennas are physically too long and impractical. Mobile units are a better fit. During an actual emergency, CB channels are likely to be too crowded and chaotic to use for family communication. For daily family use, there is no “privacy” as every channel is monitored by a multitude of scanners nearby. It’s not a place to air family business.

Amateur Radio (Ham Radio)

The Amateur Radio Service, also called “Ham Radio”, has a long tradition of service and innovation.Ham radio operators in the USA must be licensed by the FCC, and virtually every government worldwide subscribes to the international treaties that protect amateur frequencies and license their operators.

Ham radio operators are involved in serving their communities during emergencies, through clubs and service organizations, such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). When public safety officials are overwhelmed, ham operators can provide networks connecting emergency response teams all across the disaster area. During the 9-11 attack in New York, ham radio provided backup communication to police and fire to a limited but important degree when police and fire frequencies did not enable them to communicate directly with one another.

Amateur Radio Emergency Services called ARES (affiliated with the Amateur Radio Relay League, ARRL) and similar ham radio organizations have formal agreements with Dept. of Homeland Security, FEMA, The National Weather Service (SKYWARN), and VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster).

Wherever there are hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, or other natural disasters, ham radio operators are trained and ready to facilitate communication for first responders. They are not normally decision-makers or incident managers, but practiced and prepared volunteers ready to relay critical information to those in charge.

Also, ham radio operators are eager to exercise their skills and equipment for non-emergency events like parades, marathons, races, cycling events and other big events where skilled and rapid communication can protect and improve safety for both participants and the public.

Gary Krakow of MSNBC wrote that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a call for help from 15 people stranded by floodwaters was relayed by a combination of cell phone calls and amateur radio. Unable to get through the 9-1-1 system, one of those stranded got through by ham radio to a relative in Baton Rouge. That person called the local American Red Cross.

“Using that Red Cross chapter’s amateur radio station, Ben Joplin, WB5VST, was able to relay a request for help on the SATERN network (Salvation Army) via Russ Fillinger, W7LXR, in Oregon, and Rick Cain, W7KB, in Utah back to Louisiana, where emergency personnel were alerted. They rescued the 15 people and got them to a shelter.”

Each amateur radio operator must be licensed. For many years, Hams were required to pass a practical test in Morse code, but that requirement is now long gone. Today there are three levels of licenses, from Technician to General to Extra Class. For the Technician Class license, each applicant must pass a multiple choice quiz of 35-questions (and answer correctly only 26 questions to pass) testing their familiarity with FCC, operator practices, and radio concepts.

Ham operators come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, and all ages. The Technician Class license is quite simple, and children under 10-years of age frequently pass the exam. Privileges are limited to UHF and VHF bands mainly, but with a little more effort you can upgrade to a higher-class license with more operator privileges.

The good news is that a licensed General Class Ham has access to frequencies all across the radio spectrum, from shortwave to microwaves. Hams communicate locally with handheld radios that fit in a shirt pocket, mobile units in their cars, and from home base stations that can be very simple or quite elaborate, contacting other operators worldwide. Before satellites, internet, cell phones, fax machines, and email, ham radio was truly amazing, and in the face of a widespread disaster, it still is.

Ham operators have many motives – to some it is just a fun hobby, to others it is a way of being involved on the air and in person to serve the community. It is never for commercial gain. It’s against regulations to use amateur “ham” radio for business. One-way broadcasting is not allowed, either.

Many amateur radio clubs have “repeaters” on hilltops and water towers around metro areas, which allow an operator with a hand-held radio to cover hundreds of square miles with only the radio in their pocket. In an emergency power outage, many of these repeaters have backup power to keep them on the air. Hams throughout the area will often report into emergency networks (“nets”), under the direction of a host operator who is trained to gather emergency reports from all over the coverage area and report it to local public safety officials. Most of their training and rehearsing, is with emergency response in mind.

Due to the many frequencies authorized for only amateur radio, there is room for thousands of users to operate in direct communication with one another, on many bands at the same time. Family communication between a husband and wife could be largely unhindered on a previously-agreed frequency, keeping them in touch regardless of what goes on with cell phones, wired phones, CB, FRS, GMRS, and internet service. Radio communication is not private, however, and anyone can listen in – regardless of the band.

Ham radio equipment is available from specialty stores like Ham Radio Outlet, DX Engineering, and other good choices, mainly in large cities, or online. Local operators are glad to help newcomers. Many local clubs sponsor classes for new Ham operators, to prepare for their license exams. Club meetings offer a forum for discussion and training, and the annual Field Day that combines outdoor operation with a contest atmosphere is a Ham favorite.

Some Latter-day Saint stakes have strongly encouraged local members to prepare and equip themselves with ham radio licenses and equipment. Church headquarters has a number of volunteer ham radio operators onsite and offsite, who practice and prepare to respond with local and distant networks weekly, usually with their own station equipment and on their own time. In an emergency, operators within a stake boundary can report the condition of members and missionaries to church leaders, so emergency response may be coordinated. Service to the local community is also strongly supported using the skills of Latter-day Saint radio operators as well as volunteers. Some stakes we know have 60 or more licensed operators in their stake.

PROS – Ham radio offers the widest array of operating capabilities and privileges. Voice, data, and

video are not only allowed but becoming more common, with technology ranging from simple to

extremely sophisticated (such as tracking and talking with astronauts on the ISS). The cost to get started can be as little as the FCC fee for the license, about $35, and your first radio for about $100.

CONS – Requires some study and training and an FCC license for each operator in your household.

Summary

For local communication under a wide range of conditions including emergencies and disasters, nothing is more reliable than two-way radio. Parents can keep in touch with children running local errands, or while visiting friends around the corner, and there are no phone fees. On vacation, radios are a way to keep in touch with friends in other vehicles, or with the kids when you split up at the amusement park. In an emergency, they are a potential way of summoning help, or reporting those in distress to authorities.

For limited range and inexperienced users, try the Family Radio Service offered by the inexpensive walkie-talkies sold at your local discount store. No license required.

For daily and more reliable local communication, buy radios with professional features that use the GMRS frequencies on VHF/UHF bands. These require a license, but there is no exam and the license covers immediate family members.

To tap into the world of Citizens Band Radio, consider equipping your car and/or your home with radios that can range out 5 miles or more, and which have many uses in emergencies, to alert others to road conditions, summon help to an accident, or just to chat with fellow travelers. No license required.

Amateur “Ham” Radio offers the most sophisticated options but is restricted to licensed users. There are hundreds of thousands of hams worldwide, and their capability to provide valuable communications in an emergency are well known. Local communities rely on ham operators during an emergency response, to gather and dispense information outside of official channels. For your family, ham radio can provide contact with emergency response teams, and with others in your local or global network using all kinds of technology – on VHF, UHF and HF shortwave. Ham radio operators are also willing and able to transmit messages to family and friends who do not have a radio or license by contacting Hams in those areas.

When other resources fail, there is still nothing like two-way radio. It can be fun for all ages, too. Please consider it an important part of your preparation for power outages, natural disasters, civil unrest and family security, and for whatever comes your way.

Have you had the experience of losing a child in a store or waiting up for a teen who is late getting home, or calling an aging parent and they don’t answer the phone for hours? Do you remember the sense of dread and the worry until you could speak with or hold them again? Imagine your feelings, of panic, if the reason for no news was a hurricane or tornado or earthquake or fire. Now is the time to prepare to communicate.

For help in meeting all your self-reliance goals join Carolyn on Facebook or her blog at totallyready.com. Help with weekly challenges for preparing and for storing food and more are available on both sites. Carolyn’s Totally Ready Emergency Binder is available to purchase and download at Totallyready.com and can be purchased complete or one section at a time.