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Communication is key to surviving a disaster


  • The National Guard
There’s always plenty of Monday-morning-quarterbacking after major disasters, criticizing the way it was handled is easy when everything is in full view after the fact, and there will always be the "what ifs." But disasters are inherently unpredictable — they wouldn't be "disasters" if they weren't. Nonetheless, there are precautionary measures that go a long way towards mitigating the loss of life and property during a disaster.

After 9/11, A lot more attention was paid contingency planning and disaster recovery. I was a contingency management/disaster recovery manager at Time Warner Telecom in Littleton, Colorado at the time, working with a table scrap budget. Money began pouring into departments like mine across the country — building network redundancies and backup data centers and hiring a wave of disaster recovery planners to perform risk assessments. My job suddenly became a high profile position, the executives who didn't even know my name before had realized they needed people like me in order to be ready for the next catastrophe.

But for some individuals and families, emergency planning and disaster preparation is still in the pre-9/11 era. According to a 2015 FEMA survey, 60 percent of American adults have not practiced what to do in a disaster, and only 39 percent have an emergency plan developed. Whether you have a plan in place or working on one now, communication should be at the top of the list.

Being able to communicate during a catastrophic event is one of the most important aspects of survival. Events like Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Sandy back in 2012, often knock power lines down, cut off cable and Internet services, and cell phone networks can fail from being so overloaded, possibly for long periods of time. Your best bet to stay in contact with loved ones and emergency services is to go old-school: HAM radio, satellite phones, and even crank radios.

In Texas alone, there are over 26,000 licensed ham radio operators. Ham radio operators uses 26 bands, from 1.8 megahertz to 275 Gigahertz, dedicated bandwidths that are impervious to heavy winds, flooding, or cut cables. Basically, Ham radios can reach anywhere in the world without relying on land lines or cellular telephone service. Emergency officials across the country even depend on volunteer operators to help them stay connected during disasters. Even Federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency have formal agreements with HAM radio operators.

For a small fee (typically around $15) individuals take a 35-question exam and get a level 1 license, and it’s worth the small investment. Radios start as low as $32.

For those wanting something a little more familiar, satellite phones are pretty much built for disasters; used in the harshest of conditions and designed to withstand various temperatures and climates. Taking a term we use in the military, they're "ruggedized.” Capability is one thing, but it's still not the best feature of a sat phone. These devices can give you much better coverage than a cell phone, especially in remote locations, using three existing satellite networks that cover most of the world's landmass. Sat phone are very popular among hikers, mountain climbers and those that like to go "off the grid." Calls on sat phone cost more per minute, but it's often cheaper than roaming charges on your cell phone anyways. Sat phones can be purchased online and range from $500 to $1200, about the same price for a smartphone these days, and invaluable in the event of an emergency.

Crank powered radios, obviously another old-school technology, is really good to have in an emergency. You can still have access to valuable information that could help in a disaster — shelter locations, reports, etc. — even if you don't have power. The drawback is the half-duplex (one way) communication. Many modern models have built-in USB chargers for cell phones, flash lights and a solar panel for passive charging, too. Speaking of cranks, there are hand cranks for cell phones as well. Even if a fully charged cell phone is useless for a time, I'd rather have backup power plan than not.

The danger of widespread, catastrophic communications breakdown is evident. As we watch the events in Houston unfold, brace for more in the near future and see the aftermath unfold, we will continue to learn from mistakes and be better prepared for next time. We may never be fully prepared for a disaster, but making sure you'll be able to communicate during a catastrophic event is a good place to start.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at, and his photography at

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