Eight tools for communicating during an emergency

During a disaster you will have a voracious appetite for news and solutions. This article covers all the resources available for communicating with people during an emergency; and don't worry, learning morse code isn't one of them. 

I’ve also explored several ways to get support and catch up on important news. Many of these ideas you’re already familiar with, but human nature being what it is, we tend not to get familiar with them until a disaster has already occurred, and that’s a poor time to do research.

Mobile phone

Your mobile phone is an incredible resource during an emergency. Not only because it can be used to make phone calls, send text messages, and has an amazing number of apps you can use to get and send information, but also because it’s already so familiar to you. You don’t have to learn how to use your phone in an emergency.

Your phone also has accessibility features you can use to help out with tasks. For example, it can be a flashlight, or a magnifying glass. Pop in your headphones and use voice controls to talk or access other features on the phone hands free. You may want to use the voice recorder to keep track of important details or experiences. And of course the camera can be used to take pictures or videos, zoom in like a telescope, or see in low light.

Update your phone operating system (OS) whenever available so that this isn’t required during an emergency when battery power is precious. Set up your phone with wi-fi calling. This will allow your phone call to continue even when you lose cellular, if wi-fi is available.

Satellite phones

Satellite phones connect to orbiting satellites instead of grounded cell sites and can call, text, and load basic Internet sites. These are not good alternatives to your daily phone because of the expensive service contracts and limited app capabilities, but if you live in a remote area these could be a good backup option. 

Two-way radio

While a mobile phone has an incredible collection of services, there are times when cell reception is bogged down or unavailable. At times like this it’s nice to have a communication tool that is self sufficient, and operates on radio waves.

Two-way radios are designed for one way conversation, meaning only one person can speak at a time using radio frequencies. Instead of a unique phone number, the frequencies are divided into channels so that everyone doesn’t speak over each other. It’s possible for anyone to listen in on your conversation, but this also makes it easier to communicate with people you don’t know well.

Radio frequencies

Frequencies are unique to each country and some frequencies are reserved for government services. When looking for a two-way radio you’ll quickly realize more is better. The two key features you’ll see are range in miles, and something called FRS or GMRS. Both FRS and GMRS share the same 462 and 467 MHz frequencies in the US. 

All radios will promote how many miles they can transmit. Remember that radios transmit in a straight line, so trees, mountains, and even people can limit your range. FRS stands for Family Radio Service channels and are free for anyone to use. GMRS stands for General Mobile Radio Service, and requires a license from the FCC. FRS frequencies will reach a mile or two. GMRS frequencies have better clarity and reach farther.

Privacy codes

Thank the marketing guys for this one. Privacy Codes are not really private, but they do allow you to create a more unique channel which makes it more likely that you can have a conversation without being interrupted.

Privacy codes are actually Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System, or CTCSS. They are not actually sub-channels, but instead add an additional tone that allows other two-way radios to tune them out.

Decide in advance the primary and secondary channels, and privacy channels, your family will use during an emergency. Set the two-way radios to the primary channel so they’re ready to go. If that channel and privacy channel are busy you can quickly switch over to your secondary channel and privacy channel.

Radio user’s language

Something magical happens when someone starts using a two-way radio for the first time — they immediately start speaking like a truck driver. This isn’t necessary at all. Just speak in your normal voice, however, there are several phrases that you can use that have been developed over the years to work in poor audio situations.

In parenthesis I’ve translated it into the way normal people speak. These are definitely not the way you would want to speak on a two-way radio.
  • Go Ahead Resume transmission (Did you have something to say?)
  • Say Again Re-transmit your message (I can’t hear you)
  • Stand-by Transmission has been acknowledged, but I am unable to respond now. (Hang on a sec)
  • Roger Message received and understood (I got it)
  • Affirmative Yes (Okie dokie)
  • Negative No (Nope)
  • Over Transmission finished (Know what I mean?)
  • Out Communication is over and the channel is available for others (See you later) 

HAM radio

Have you ever noticed some of your neighbors have giant antennas on top of their homes? If you think two-way radios are cool you may want to look into getting an Amateur Radio, or Ham radio, license. Ham radios can communicate across hundreds of miles using repeaters. In major crises Ham operators have often stepped in when other forms of communication fall apart.


Don’t discount sending e-mails during emergency situations as a valid method of communication. Email servers are located globally, and it’s unlikely they will all be dead at the same time. But where do you get internet access if cell phone service is dead? Oftentimes, Wi-fi service will still be up and running, since the cables used for hard wired internet operate on different networks than cell phones. On the other hand, if the power is out, you may still get an email out through your cell phone.

NOAA weather radio

Many radios and two-way radios give you access to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA is not news, but is instead a government agency tasked with tracking the environment. This is your no-nonsense, super reliable source of weather information. You can learn more about NOAA at www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr.


There will be no shortage of news coverage during a disaster, or leading up to a disaster. The visual nature of TV is a great way to view maps and headlines. While it’s a low effort way to stay up to date on the latest developments, viewing crises news too long will increase your anxiety. Keep in mind that kids find it even more difficult to filter the news. You will never regret being disciplined in limiting how much TV you watch. Don’t worry, when you do turn the TV back on the news channels will still be there.

AM/FM radio

If all phone, cable, and internet lines go down, you can still receive emergency news updates through a radio. Purchase a radio that receives AM/FM radio signals and is battery, hand crank, or solar-powered. Radio is also a good way to monitor the news because listening is much more passive than watching TV, however, even radio news can be overwhelming so be sure to switch over to music once in a while.

Social media

Social media apps are yet another way to send and receive messages. Most government and news outlets have social media accounts which you can check for the latest news. Be sure to select a few reliable accounts to follow before there’s an emergency so that you don’t have to search when time or connectivity is scarce.


Midland 50 Channel Waterproof GMRS Two-Way Radio

Keep these in the base and they're always ready to go. It has a good range, lots of channels, it's waterproof, and includes a built in NOAA radio. Bring it on hikes, snowboarding trips to the mountains, or just playing around with the kids. The more you use it the more familiar you'll be with important features in an emergency. Check it out on Amazon.com

Eton, American Red Cross FRX3+ Emergency NOAA Weather Radio

This hand crank radio means you'll never be without a radio or even a light. You can even use it to recharge your phone. Eton is a great brand for emergency lights and radios. Check it out on Amazon.com

What can you do right now?

If you already have some of these items make it easier to find them when you need them, and add them to your Go bag. You can always get better gear later. The goal is not to be done, but to do one little thing today that makes you better prepared for the future.