Crisis Comms: Group Communications During an Evacuation

Crisis Comms: Group Communications During an Evacuation

A bag with communication gear on top of it.As a ham radio operator, you are free to choose whatever equipment you wish that meets your communications needs. It can be complex and include advanced features with extended capabilities, or it can be simple and do the bare minimum to establish reliable communications.

Regardless of what you choose, you, as the sole operator, will eventually master it and become quite proficient. Put that same piece of equipment in the hands of someone who does not share your experience, and the results could be quite different.


In a group setting, a standardized piece of equipment, whether it is a weapons platform or communications gear, should be settled upon and consistently employed. Each member of the group should have experience using the same equipment and will be able to assist others if a problem arises (at least to some degree). Having a group standard also ensures that a part or accessory for that piece of gear—for instance, a charging handle for a rifle or a charging cradle for a radio—is interchangeable.

Man in a vehicle communicating via radio
Having a plan is not enough—practicing the plan together beforehand will expose any weakness and offer an opportunity to take corrective measures.

It is important to consider the abilities of the group as a whole when choosing communications gear. If there is little time (or willingness) for training and conducting field exercises, only the most basic equipment might be permissible; complicated radios will lead to confusion—and ultimately, failure—in high-stress situations. If all members are able to spend time in training, more-advanced gear might be suitable.

Of course, the equipment selected must be capable of meeting the requirements set forth by the group. It should have a minimum transmit/receive range of several miles simplex (not using repeaters) in the terrain in which the group normally operates, and it must be reliable in the environment in which it will be used (wet climates require greater water resistance than arid climates). These are just examples; your group might have additional specific requirements.

Another factor when deciding on gear purchases is cost. If members are expected to purchase their own equipment to comply with the group standard, something affordable to all members must be chosen (unless some type of financial assistance or other options are available). Consider making a group purchase: Buying several of the same items at one time can sometimes result in a discounted price.

Three handheld transceivers attached to three different bags
These radios can be recharged in the field using 12-volt batteries in the packs. These same batteries can also be used to power a mobile transceiver.

At a minimum, each group member should have some type of HT (handheld transceiver). If a group is broken down into teams, one member of each team could be selected to be equipped with more-capable gear in addition to the standard HT. This will provide enhanced communication capabilities for the team.

A good example would be to include a more powerful mobile transceiver, along with an appropriate antenna for the frequency on which it operates. This could greatly extend the effective communications range of the team when deployed far away from its home station. Batteries for powering the mobile radio could be distributed throughout the team to spread the added weight.


It is crucial that individual team members are able to effectively communicate with other members of the team, but the team must also be able to communicate with the rest of the group. Two different frequencies might require an additional radio to be carried by at least one member of the team. Separate “channels” could be used for different purposes—an intra-team channel for communications at the team level and a “command” channel to communicate with other teams in the group. Using a specific frequency at the team level will eliminate interference with “higher-level” radio traffic taking place on another frequency.

Team radios could be VHF (offering good range in open terrain) or UHF (for better performance in urban environments) and would normally be used for short-range communications. Using frequencies that do not require a license would allow anyone to use them. Having a licensed ham on the team could greatly increase the team’s communications capabilities due to the greater transmit power possible with amateur radio equipment that is approved by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).

6 radios, that can be used to communicate with each other in the field
The three radios on the left are capable of covering the 2-meter ham band, MURS and business bands, allowing them to interoperate with the VHF business band radios on the right.


Handheld transceivers operating on the amateur 2-meter band, depending on terrain and other factors, typically provide effective radio communications up to 10 miles—and sometimes, much farther—even with the original factory antenna. Replacing the less-efficient stubby antenna with a higher-gain model will dramatically increase the usable range, even on lower power settings. UHF radios operating on the amateur 70-centimeter band will offer similar results but might be less affected by structures in a heavily built-up urban setting and will also benefit from a better antenna.

Communication gear made up of a station and an antenna hidden in a tree.
A complete 2-meter station fits in a typical schoolstyle backpack. Using the natural environment to elevate and conceal the antenna reduces the amount of hardware required and provides some stealth.

In the United States, other radio service bands worth considering are MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) and PLMR (Private Land Mobile Radio, sometimes called “business band” radio), both of which are in the VHF region. MURS offers five channels of license-free, two-way operation but has a 2-watt maximum power limit.

PLMR provides more channels and permits higher power levels to be used but does require a license for legal operation. For UHF frequencies, the GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) offers 23 channels, along with a 5-watt ERP (effective radiated power) limit. GMRS has a few rules regarding antenna height but does allow for installation of external antennas—as long as the ERP does not exceed the 5-watt limit; ERP increases as antenna gain increases.

Due to rules set forth by the FCC, FRS (Family Radio Service) walkie-talkies must have permanently installed antennas and can’t exceed 500 milliwatts (0.5 watts) of output power. Many of these pocket-sized radios also include the GMRS frequencies, but the radio design must still conform to the non-removable antenna restriction, thereby leaving most of the GMRS benefit unrealized (for FCC-approved FRS/GMRS combination radios, the license requirement for GMRS operation does not apply).

Even though FRS radios are not the best choice for real-world field communications, they are very useful for training sessions or entertaining children. Given the profusion of these radios in use all over the country, the FRS and GMRS frequencies should definitely be included in any RF spectrum monitoring strategy.

(Note: The radio services, as well as the regulations discussed in this article, apply to the United States. Other countries might have different services and rules that have not been presented here.)

Many two-way radios have the ability to accept headsets or earbud-lapel microphone accessories. This allows the radio to be carried on a belt, backpack or vest, keeping the hands free for carrying items or performing various tasks. Some radios have voice-activated transmit capability— known as VOX—that automatically switches the radio between “receive” and “transmit” modes when the operator starts talking.

A survivalist using a radio on his shoulder to communicate with other people.
Using an earbud and shoulder- mounted microphone allows only the user to hear the radio, as well as transmit voice communication at just a whisper. The more effective whip antenna is a direct replacement for the factory “rubber ducky” antenna.

VOX operation can be tricky in a noisy environment, because the radio might start transmitting anytime a loud noise is present. This can make other communications impossible until the noise stops and the transmitting radio switches back to “receive.” VOX could still be valuable in situations in which background noise levels are usually low and any hand movement required to press a transmit button would be a concern. Using headsets will also reduce the chance of sounds from the radio’s speaker being heard by anyone other than the wearer.


Amateur radio rules prohibit any type of encryption of signals to be used (with only a couple of exceptions that do not pertain to this topic). Consequently, any communications carried out on amateur radio will be clearly received by anyone listening on those frequencies.

If your communications require secrecy for whatever reason, you will need to seek out equipment that does what you need. Alternatively, you might want to devise a communications plan that uses words or phrases to convey your meaning without compromising your group. So-called “privacy codes” or “private line tones” (PL tones) offer no privacy—any receiver tuned to the frequency will be able to hear all transmissions, privacy coded or not.


An evacuation, whether voluntary or mandatory, might immediately drop you into a survival situation: You are being forced to leave the safety and sanctuary of your home, traveling with only the belongings you can fit in your vehicle or on your back. Your security and that of your loved ones rest squarely on your shoulders.

Fortunately, you belong to a group of like-minded people who share this burden. All members of your group have the gear necessary to increase their chances of survival. You have sat down together, discussed the possibilities, and have planned and prepared for them. You have practiced—individually and as a group—for this scenario. You have the means to defend yourself and the group as a whole. Unfortunately, this all falls apart if you can’t stay together as a cohesive group.

Communications play a vital role in cooperative groups. Being able to convey your intentions, pass information or issue warnings all require both you and the other party to be able to understand one another. This can be accomplished with speech or hand signals when you are close together. However, a different means of communicating must be used when far apart. Radio communications fulfill this requirement.


When travelling in a convoy of vehicles, each vehicle should have, at a minimum, a handheld two-way radio. If there is a mobile radio installed in the vehicle, there should be a handheld radio present, as well.

A man adjusting the radio antenna located on the top of his vehicle.
Antennas with magnetic bases allow attachment to most any vehicle in seconds and can be instantly transferred from one vehicle to another.

All handheld radios must be set to the same frequency so vehicles can communicate with each other, as well as monitor communications among other vehicles in the convoy. If there is an alert or instruction that needs to be passed to all vehicles, it can be done in one transmission; if any vehicle has a problem or request, all vehicles can immediately be made aware via radio.


Mobile radios should be free to work on frequencies other than the one dedicated to group communications; there will most likely be abundant radio traffic concerning the event that prompted the evacuation on area repeaters by hams participating in an Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) or a Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) network.

Both of these volunteer services are active throughout the United States to assist local authorities
during emergencies. Monitoring these repeaters can provide warnings, advisories and other crucial
information. At least one vehicle in the convoy should be doing just that.

While important news and information will be broadcast on AM and FM radio stations, it will usually be old information and will most likely omit many facts. In contrast, information coming over the amateur repeaters will be more timely and can provide additional details regarding what is happening or might be about to happen. This information could be indispensable for decision-making.

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of ASG.

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