Most SHTF events will have some warning signs. It helps to identify these trigger points that will cause you to start moving personnel and equipment to a predetermined location, checking equipment like generators, topping off rechargeable batteries, etc. You should identify levels at which time you begin to assemble any items that may need to be moved to your groups primary location. Make sure your vehicles and any spare cans are full of fuel, pull all the cash you can out of your bank account, test various communications methods, etc. There could be a secondary level before you go into full blown activation.
The American Redoubt Radio Operators Network (AmRRON) uses communications conditions with different levels indicating actions and preparations that should be taken. A similar chart should be developed for your group.
You can add an additional column that would include a phrase to indicate the level that could be passed in normal conversation, ex., “we’re having a cookout at Bill’s tonight”. This can be part of a conversation and is less likely to be understood as a secret message than a code word like “wolverine.”
You need to make an assessment of all the communications means available to you. Most people work on the assumption that cell phones and landlines will not be available when SHTF. Although they may be available in the early stages of an event. Cell phones and landlines should be your first line of communication, you don’t want to communicate your preparedness alert over a radio. Remember that you cannot pass any type of communication over Amateur Radio (ham) frequencies that is intended to disguise the meaning. You can’t call each other “wolverine”. Landlines and cell phones with text messaging are a more secure way to pass a code word or phrase. In most emergency/disaster situations, cell towers may be flooded with people trying to make a call but text messages will usually get through. They could be delayed though so don’t rely on them. Your plan should include a method to confirm that the message has been received.
Develop a phone tree where one person calls two people, who then call two more, etc. Develop the tree so there is overlap in the event that one person can’t be reached. The people who they would normally call are called by someone else. Develop a priority order based on things such as the distance someone might need to travel, so the further away they are the earlier they get called. It’s possible for one person to send a text to multiple people. Again, make sure your plan calls for an acknowledgement that the message was received.
Another technology tool is some of the push-to-talk applications for cell phones such as Zello. You can create a group channel in many of these applications that’s password protected so it only lets in members of your group. These applications use the digital channel side of the cell phones so may work even if you cannot make a cell call. This should probably be next in your communications plan (CommsPlan) as it’s more secure than Amateur Radio frequencies.
Your next line of communications when cell service is no longer available is the radio. Develop a list of frequencies that are available to you and make sure to consider the limitations of each. Assuming that most members of your group are local, say within 50 miles, you should list all Amateur Repeaters that may be available. One way to do this is create a spreadsheet of repeaters in your area. A good resource is www.repeaterdirectory.com. Also, search for local clubs web sites as they will list any repeaters they maintain. Consider repeaters that have less traffic on them, especially 220mHz repeaters. These tend to have very few hams on them. Next, determine which ones you can reach with your home radio and external antenna, with your hand held from both home and work, and your mobile radio from likely places that you might be. Make a column in your spreadsheet for each location and radio. Be sure to note hand held and/or mobile, etc. Have each person complete the spreadsheet then combine the results. Wide-area coverage repeaters and linked repeater systems will allow you to keep in touch but remember this allows a large number of people to possibly hear your plan or activities. This is something you don’t want to do, especially in the early stages of an event.
If you can locate a copy of any local Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) plan you will be able to determine which repeaters they have identified for emergency events. You should, if possible, avoid using those repeaters.
In addition to Amateur repeaters you may also have General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) repeaters in your area. Sometimes they’re listed on http://www.mygmrs.com/. A GMRS license is $65 for 10 years with a single license covering all your family with you. Typically you’ll find less people on a GMRS repeater. If you have a suitable site, consider setting up your own GMRS repeater. They can be found for around $300. Remember that it’s not secure as anyone can listen in to what you’re saying. The rules about disguising your message that apply to the Amateur Radio service also apply to the GMRS service.
You should also identify any simplex frequencies that may reach between various locations. Usually 2-meter simplex is going to provide the best coverage. If you can talk to each other on simplex do so, less people will be able to hear your transmissions. Check your local repeater coordination council for approved simplex frequencies so you don’t accidentally transmit on the input to a repeater.
As mentioned above the 220mHz band (1¼ meters) has very few hams on it. The 1¼ meter repeaters in your area will usually have very few users on, especially if it’s not linked to a 2 meter or 70cm repeater. There are several radios that are dual or tri-band with 220mHz in like the tri-band Kenwood TH-F6A with full power on 220mHz. Unfortunately, this radio is discontinued but you can find them for sale once in a while. The Yaesu VX-6R, VX-8DR which is also recently discontinued, the dual band Baofeng UV-82X (2-meter and 220mHz) and the BTECH UV5x3 are all good options. Alinco makes the DR-V47T which is single band 220mHz and it’s a good choice too.
There a couple of considerations when you’re purchasing radios. If you plan to save a lot of repeaters or frequencies, look at the memory capacity of the radios. Many of the entry level radios, such as Baofeng, only have about 128 memories. Other brands such as Wouxun have some nice models. The UV8D with 999 memories is good for a reasonable price. Ideally, you don’t want to have to try and program a repeater or simplex frequency into your radio from the keypad in an emergency situation. Programming everything beforehand is a good idea.
Another consideration is mobile versus the portable handheld. I understand that most new hams buy a handheld as their first radio. However, a mobile is going to give you more power, usually 50 watts, and a better antenna. Most dual band (2m/70cm) mobile radios are going to run you around $300-$350.
Once you combine the results of your tests, determine which repeaters will reach most members of your group. List several repeaters in your plan based on priority. You should list at least four or five as well as any simplex frequencies that will reach between various locations and for tactical comms. List the frequencies as primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. If you have the memory space in your radio then add all the repeaters and simplex frequencies in.
Create a cheat sheet with the frequencies that are programmed in your radio and their memory location for quick selection. You should also create a cheat sheet of any other frequencies such as FRS/GMRS etc. that could be used. Make these pocket size and laminate them.
Your CommsPlan should include authentication code words as well as identify the frequencies by different designators such as a name or number. These would only be used when in a SHTF situation. An excellent manual on authentication and some sample formats is the Signals Handbook found at http://citizenmilitem.com/. Important information such as frequencies, codes, and details of your CommsPlan shouldn’t be sent over email or other unsecure means. Keeping it in a Rite-in-the-Rain notepad is a good idea. See the article Codes and Cyphers for more information.
Exercise Your Plan
It’s important that you practice. Practice adding frequencies from the keypad of your radio to become familiar. Practice talking on your radio!!! Get on repeaters and have regular conversations with not only the people in your group but other hams too. Get on regular nets and learn how they operate. Practice with written traffic on a local traffic net. Practice receiving and sending written messages as this is invaluable if you have to do a relay. Help with public service events. Probably most important is to practice with your group. Have a regular time you get on a simplex. Can you all reach each other? Get on a repeater and have an informal net with everyone.
Regularly practicing your plan will show if there are any problems with it, such as a repeater being off the air. Revise your plan as needed so it’s always current. A good group practice is to have a primary and secondary person responsible for your comms. These people should be able to provide training to the others in your group. Ideally at least one has an Extra class ham license but at least General.
In the event that the SHTF you should add code words and an authentication procedure to your plan. Change these on a regular basis but at least every 30 days. See the article Codes and Cyphers for additional information on authentication, etc.
Beal, Ronald. “Signals Handbook for Small Teams.” 2015. http://citizenmilitem.com/. June 2015.
Culper, Samuel. Security; A Primer for Freedom Fighters. Forward ObserverPress, 2013.
Federal Communications Commission, General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) Rules. https://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/general-mobile-radio-service-gmrs. n.d. September 2015.
Hogwood, Charley. The Survival Group Handbook; How To Plan, Organize and Lead People In A Short Or Long Term Survival Situation. Personal Readiness Education Programs, LLC, 2014.