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How to communicate with out of town family during a grid down situation?

I need to resolve how my family will communicate with my parents and teenage sister who live three hours away should the grid go down. I’m not technical, so it’s not something I know where to start researching. But, my husband is technical enough to set systems up since it’s not my strength.

If cell towers and land lines go down during hurricane season (common where we live in North FL), a possible Russian cyber attack (increasing likelihood given the current global situation), or EMP, how do you communicate with others from a distance?

Having done humanitarian work with refugees in Italy and Ukraine, I know how to use blue tooth technology to communicate when cell towers aren’t available. We don’t have HAM radios and I imagine walkie talkies have a short range. But, if the electric is out entirely? For months?

Are satellite phones dependable during an EMP situation (if stored in a faraday)? What are other options? I’d like to invest in this for all family households, totaling three families (my husband’s parents as well in Kentucky), so I’d like to not break the bank, but if I have to…

This is one of those things that keeps me up at night as we have a toddler and are very close to our families. I’ve only found vague or shallow information on this issue. Nothing that breaks things down with clear directions.

Many thanks in advance for your time!

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  • Comments (21)

    • 5

      A satellite phone or space-based internet like Musk’s Starlink might possibly work but CME or EMP or hacking or other direct attack could possibly take them down. Large-scale active warfare would likely target any communication satellite. Starlink will have thousands of tiny satellites so maybe not kinetically targetable but there is always hacking and solar/EMP damage. The initial investment for sat-phone ($1,[email protected]) and/or monthly charge would be high (for my budget) for a low probability event and no guarantee of functionality when needed.

      Starlink is only available in limited areas so far. You can buy a satellite internet transceiver if money is no object but same vulnerabilities apply. Bluetooth is very short range-30 feet. Ham radio is pretty involved, expensive to be reliable, requires licensing to be able to practice, in other words it is a full-time hobby and requires dedication.

      The best thing I feel is a prearranged plan for particular contingencies, ie “if you can’t get through, walk to my house” or whatever. If your family members are approachable on such topics simply discuss the options and write down the conclusions and give everyone a copy. Many people simply won’t talk about bad things happening in which case a person could write down what they plan to do and what they hope the loved one will do in whatever event and give each family a copy, seal it in an envelope even, “To be opened in a communication limited emergency.”

      I understand your concern, my kids are spread all over, have varying levels of resilience and I worry that in a widespread event not only would my ability to help be limited but I’d simply lose touch, that would be rough. Which of course is how it has been throughout human history but that doesn’t make it better.

      P.S. My experience in a couple of instances is SMS text messaging can get through an overloaded cell network when voice calls can’t. As well, the text can queued or stored on a server somewhere awaiting delivery. I don’t know how long they last, I assume it is up to the carrier. No help in a true grid down like widespread EMP but for run of the mill armageddon like natural disasters, unrest, war they are pretty reliable.

      • 5

        This is a great, through, answer. We take communication so much for granted now we don’t even think about it. We literally have the ability to reach anyone we want, anytime, anywhere — and a collapse could instantly change all that.

        Since your family is relatively local Pops idea of a written plan could be very solid. Again, it’s unlikely that it’ll ever be needed, but we’re preppers and we want to be prepared.

        My family is also widely scattered (I wish they were only 3 hours away…). As Pops said Ham is involved, both in time and energy, it’s not just something you buy and have it covered (definitely not ‘plug and play’). It is the one BIG prep I haven’t tackled yet — off grid communication. II think this is a reminder for me that it’s time to go down that path and get Ham certified and get that all figured out. I feel that Ham radios, whether communicating with family (who would also need to be Ham certified) or just staying in touch with others around the area/country to have a better understanding of what’s going on in a collapse is invaluable.

        I have 2 Baofeng handhelds I bought a could years ago, but haven’t done anything with them yet. And now that the pandemic is “over” (sort of) the local club is meeting regularly again, I hope to get involved there. 

        There’s also a lot of good resources here on TP for Ham: 

        Beginner’s guide to amateur (ham) radio for preppers

        Best handheld ham radios

        and there’s many others.
         

      • 2

        Thank you for the links! Ham radios are outside of my knowledge base – at least for now. It seemed more intimidating than it seems to be. I think this is something I could get my husband to nerd out on, too, since he loves to tinker. But, the bigger issue would be on my parent’ side, neither (otherwise very capable) parent is technical, so teaching them could be the barrier to entry here. 

        I’d send smoke signals if I could. 

      • 2

        Thanks so much to you both. Money is definitely an object after seeing the price tag for the satellite internet receiver. Having a toddler sucks up all of our time once spent on hobbies, so the Ham radio would be a challenge right now between two full-time, remote jobs. 

        Because I am a former refugee (long-time US citizen) who lived through communism and an expert in Eastern European and Russian Studies, the current situation abroad has our family feeling particularly tense, worried even that we may need to house family members (who would need to claim asylum) from our native country that borders Ukraine. My parents are definitely open to prepping with us on some fronts, communication especially. They are incredible grandparents and I’m afraid they’d foolishly override their common sense and try their luck on the road to get to us. Both of my parents are very capable and have several skills, but a 1 ton truck cannot make it over several miles of blocked roads, even country roads that few knew about. If I can prevent them from taking such a risk, I’m willing to do what it takes. We otherwise prep only for things that make sense for our location, health concerns and dynamics. 

        We’ve been able to communicate through apps like Whatsapp or Firechat during political unrest (ex. when I was stuck abroad conducting research and found myself in the middle of a riot during a work day) or hurricanes (Andrew, etc.). But it’s the true, rare grid down that we’d be prepping for here in terms of communication. I started creating a family communication guide this morning before work per your suggestion; however, I needed to understand a bit more about Ham radios. Please forgive my total absence of knowledge here. I know they’re tricky and need to be mastered to work well, but what’s even the range? If we’re three hours away (exactly 188 miles), would the Ham even work?  I’d not only have to master the Ham, but also my dad, who is extremely handy, but not technical with computers or radios. 

        I’d be willing to learning something difficult, especially with my husband’s joint interest, since I’m good at learning quickly, but this is an area (ham radio) where I have zero knowledge base. 

        Thank you again for your measured response. 

      • 5

        A handheld radio is not likely to get far, think of the signal as a powerful flashlight, it doesn’t go through buildings or hills and eventually even the curve of the earth limits the range. There are lots of flavors but I’d bet none get past 5 miles in practice, even HAM band portables probably won’t get beyond 10.

        More power in a table-top HAM radio and big ole antenna could get you farther for a price, still no guarantee because it depends on conditions and obstructions. A big plus with Ham radios is they can get farther by transmitting to an intermediate receiver (maintained by a ham club) sitting up high that then re-transmits the signal. But again, it gets pretty involved and the relay would need to be operational.

        Only under certain conditions and in particular “bands” or channels does the skipping phenomena occur where the signal bounces between earth and atmosphere boundary and go hundreds of miles or more..

        I had a technician test date as well pre-pandemic and had studied up. Much of the amateur test is electrical engineering related. If a person is familiar with such the test is pretty easy. You can do a study test here ,  or here, just to get an idea.

        CB radio doesn’t require a license and might get out there a few miles. It is as easy as picking a channel and push to talk. I understand CB channels are really crowded now. I listen in on ham frequencies sometimes and they badmouth CBers, but they are radio nuts and likely monitor at least the CB emergency channel, which actually might be a positive. It might be possible to daisy-chain a message down the line 50 or 100 miles: “I really want to check on my momma! Can you relay a message to Tupelo for me?”

        Many HAMS are preppers and the national club is called the Radio Relay League. They have a field day in june where they go mobile and practice setting up emergency comms.

        Makes me want to get back into it Renata!

      • 3

        Guess I coulda just linked to The Prepared’s Beginner Radio Guide!

      • 3

        Thanks so much for this, Pops! 

        So, what I’m understanding is that if I want to communicate with my family 188 miles away, I would have to:

        1. have buckets of money to set up my own satellite and phones, which would have varying success even in a faraday

        2. have my family move closer to us (we’re the ones with more ideal prepper conditions on our property)*** working on this one positioning our toddler as grandparent reward (they love our area, so it wouldn’t be loss for them, but neither are yet retired and their work is very place-based)

        3. get so awesome at using HAM radios and imbed myself in the prepper HAM community, so that I could hopefully, maybe relay a message to my family in a true SHTF communications down situation. 

        Beyond having an agreement to bug in place for months and an outlined communication plan that relies on texting, that would be it for now. 

        That said, the HAM radio idea is growing on me for other reasons. 

    • 5

      Renata–in my opinion, having discussions NOW, BEFORE they are needed is the best route.    There is no substitute for family members being able to say, “Hey!   Renata was really smart!  She told us if there was a communications black out that we should text (NOT call, TEXT) Aunt xxx or Uncle xxx in (distant location/state).   She told us that if we can’t communicate, we should all try to meet up at (local destination 1) or (local destination 2).   Once we reach either location 1 or 2, leave a specific note if anyone has to go out to try to look for others.   

      I live in Southern California, wildfire and earthquake country.   Dad and I were burned out completely in 2003, and dad burned out again in 2007.   In 2011, there was a 3 state and part of Mexico blackout.  That’s 3 different occasions in the past 19 years when there was ZERO communication.  

      In 2003, I didn’t have a cellphone, nor did many of my family or extended family–it was all landlines, and the telephone lines burned.   No internet.  No facebook.   No Twitter. 

      The Cedars Wildfire displaced about 2500 families and businesses in a few days.  Nobody had even thought of not being able to communicate in 2003.    I knew people who were unable to locate family and friends for weeks.    I was fortunate and had 3 family homes that didn’t burn, so we all went to one of those homes.   It took about 6 months before the electrical and telephone lines were re-strung and operational.    Not surprisingly, the wealthier, in-town areas were a priority over rural towns.     The hour-by-hour news focused on the wealthier, in-town areas and virtually nothing was said about the 1,000’s of people in what San Diegans call “the backcountry” or where safety could be found.

      In 2007, it was better, but again, the backcountry areas which burned were barely covered by the news.    A lot of folks had cel phones by now, but the cel towers and landline towers/lines burned again.   Virtually nothing in the hour-by-hour disaster news had information for 1,000’s of people looking for information and safety.

      The  Massive 2011 Southwest Blackout was terrifying.  Everybody panicked, tried to use cel phones at the same time, and crashed everything.   Zero communication.   Lots of rumors:   North Korea nuclear attack?   Cyber attack?   Terrorist attack?   

      In 2011,  I was the Auntie who picked up the 3 grade school kids if mom or dad got caught in traffic.    The power went out at about 3 pm on a week day.   It was hot, and I figured I’d cool off at the local Denny’s.   Denny’s was dark.    Tried to call, cel phone dead.  Drove to kid’s elementary school and saw total chaos.  Teachers were ok for the most part, but some were crying.   Nobody could reach the parents.   Parents couldn’t reach the school.  Nobody knew why there was no electricity or phone of any kind, landline or cel.   Nobody knew if we were being attacked.

      I collected all 3 of my kids and waited there in case I needed to stuff other kids in my car and take them home.   Once the parents for the additional 5 kids showed up in person, I headed for home.   Normally, the trip took 13 minutes.    It took 55 minutes to get home–gridlock.   The parents didn’t get home for nearly 5 hours.    They knew I would have gone to the school, because I was the emergency backup to get the kids, so they drove by the school, saw it deserted, then went to their house.

      When the parents got home, I was at their house with all 3 kids.   I made a dash home for medicines and my pet.   We locked the gates and went into full prepper mode.   The only way to get news was on the car radio.  It said it could be days or weeks before power restored because nobody knew what the H*** was going on.   Power was only out for 12 hours, but, it was a loooooooong 12 hours.  

      I couldn’t sleep because I use a CPAP for breathing.   At 2 am, the 5 year old came and crawled in with me because she was scared.  I took her outside with some blankets and pillows and we laid in the driveway and looked up at the constellations and I showed her Orion.  I told her to remember this night of total darkness with no electricity and enjoy the stars and remember not to be afraid if it ever happened again.

      • 2

        Glad your family survived and made it out ok – all times. California fire season has no season anymore, but is year round. It was, however, an important experience for us – it taught us to have BOBs by our beds with boots (earthquakes) and in the car, along with a multi-friend evacuation plan. We lived near UCLA and saw the fire less than a mile from our home several times. That was the final straw for me. At least I can predict when hurricanes are coming in FL. No place is ideal unless you have buckets of money and can take a plane to NZ. 

        We lived in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years. With a heart condition, it was the air quality and constant concern over living in such a dense city that helped me make the decision to move cross country closer to my parents. Watching massive hurricanes cover FL while in CA also concerned us. So far away, we couldn’t help my parents or extended family other than be an out-of-state point of contact. Nerve wrecking as I’m sure it was for your family scattered about in a smaller distance. 

        Most of our preps revolve around concern for helping the youngest in our family survive – and hopefully, thrive. Glad to hear your plans worked! 

      • 3

        What a lovely idea to show the kids constellations! Really touched my heart

    • 5

      One thing my family has talked about, is that no one should ever put themselves in danger just for peace of mind, either our own or a family member’s.  If you’re safe where you are, and travel is unsafe, don’t risk your life trying to get to a relative’s house just to see if they’re okay or reassure them that you are.  We are all capable of taking care of ourselves, and if tragedy has befallen, knowing a few days sooner isn’t going to change it.  Assume the best, and make peace with not knowing.  Keep in mind that your loved ones are doing the same.

      In your case, this would mean getting your parents to promise NOT to try to drive to your place if doing so is unsafe.  Wait the situation out, and be around to watch their grandchild (who has capable parents and is probably safe) grow up!

      This doesn’t apply as much to TEOTWAWKI, but don’t assume TEOTWAWKI has come the moment the lights go out.  Give it a few weeks, and communication networks will probably be up and running again.

      • 2

        “Make peace with not knowing”. I absolutely love that.  If everyone, worldwide, could follow that advice, so much could shift for the better. 

      • 2

        This is really good advice… maybe the best I’ve read for what to do about having geographically scattered family. Some of us might have the time and money to invest in buying and learning to use long-distance, disaster resilient modes of communication, but even those have limits— and one of them is our family members who aren’t willing to make the same commitment. Given the challenges detailed in this thread, one of the best things we can do is talk with our far-away families about the risks that aren’t worth taking.

    • 3

      I have been giving this a lot of thought in the business world, too. So many companies have become completely dependent on electrical and comms connections. I wonder which ones have a “resilience plan” to keep functioning, communicate with employees and customers, etc. should everything electric disappear?

      Thank you so much for bringing up this topic, and I hope it is one The Prepared will dive into seriously and perhaps put together a guide for. I’d love to see an example of someone who has done it well, that we can use as a template. (And by this I mean an example with zero electronic communication – not even ham radios) I’ve been thinking about things like sending snail mail into the ethers hoping it will arrive, etc. A small thing I have done is made a printed list of my friends’ and family’s snail mail addresses – it is amazing how few of us actually know addresses any more.

      I once toured a country where they had rock piles at the top of every visible hill.  Apparently that culture had used the rock piles as “communication markers” for other settlements, and in times of trouble would light a fire on top of one of the piles, and the next settlement would do the same, etc., passing the message on.  Thinking differently about communication could go a long way.  

      • 2

        Good point! In place of traditional written language, Romani culture and several other cultures have visual ways to communicate with one another. They use designated drawings and markings to mean different things, drawing on fences, trees, houses, statues, rocks and the like, to communicate to their families where they’ve been, where they are going and if the place they left behind is safe (and if not, in what ways). Since I studied this, I thought how useful it would be to do so. However, it all depends on the situation in which we find ourselves. Rock piles are definitely communicative – but only to those who know what different representations mean. New language like this would require a brief packet/dictionary of visual terms the whole team/family would need to learn and practice. At the very least, it can become a fun family activity – convince the kids it’s special family gibberish. I am an expert in language learning and teaching at the uni level and studying different ways of visual communication isn’t taught as deeply in the West. 

        For work, I’ve been hardening communications somewhat by requiring colleagues to use Lastpass, 2FA and apps that work when cell towers are down (better than texting through regular phone service), but that doesn’t change or protect a fully remote business, dependent on the internet, to continue. We have a way of working, unplugged but still on computers, offline and then uploading later as service permits. We can text uploaded docs encrypted for others to upload if they have more service, once our text hopefully goes through. 

        This is why our immediate family has been working on multiple income streams to sustain ourselves in the event of a total loss of income due to things beyond our control. Like not being able to work without the internet. 

    • 2

      Hi Renata,

      Have you thought about something like a Spot messenger service that works through satellite? It seems a lot cheaper than a satellite phone .

      https://www.findmespot.com/en-us/products-services/spot-x  Here is a link to their site .

      I haven’t tried it myself but I have had customers ( I work as a tour guide in South America) who used it and they were happy with it.

      There are other brands out there like Garmin https://discover.garmin.com/en-US/inreach/personal/

      Good luck with it, very interesting topic.

      • 2

        If you go this route, I’d recommend looking into Zoleo which seems to offer the best two-way messaging options of the current satellite devices.

        https://andrewskurka.com/review-zoleo-satellite-communicator-seamless-messaging/

        There are, of course, downsides to using satellite messenger services during a widespread SHTF scenario.  But for something localized, like a hurricane taking out all of the cell towers in your area for several weeks, I think Zoleo would get the job done with much less fuss than some of the other devices.

        Both Zoleo and Garmin, by the way, are routinely available at discounted prices.  So if you’re not in a hurry, definitely shop around and wait for a sale.

    • 2

      Speaking of grid-down:

      US agencies: Industrial control system malware discovered
      By Associated Press –
      4.14.2022

      Multiple U.S. government agencies issued a joint alert on Wednesday, April 13 warning of the discovery of a suite of malicious cyber tools created by unnamed advanced threat actors that are capable of sabotaging the energy sector and other critical industries.

      The public alert from the Energy and Homeland Security Departments, the FBI and National Security Agency did not name the actors or offer details on the find. But their private sector cybersecurity partners said the evidence suggests Russia is behind the industrial control system-disrupting tools — and that they were configured to initially target North American energy concerns.

      Link to original warning

      Expert

    • 2

      This isn’t going to be the answer your want and here’s why: We simply can’t know what will happen or when. That said, things like getting in touch with other people (especially over longs distances) may be difficult, if not impossible.

      Spare cells are good for BT comms (i.e., Briar); walkies are good for a very short distance; and hams are going to get you places, but maybe not nearly as far as you might need. Sat phones are great if you’re rich and can afford it -and if the stars haven’t fallen from the sky. While I’m here, if you’re facing a shtf situation, no one will care much about who’s authorized to use a ham. 

      In a grid down situation, you’re going to have to contend with the extent to which comms are out. Is it local? Is it city-wide? State? Is it nation-wide? Is it global? You may not know. You may never know!

      We might just have to do things the old-fashioned way. And that’s going to require tremendous patience on the part of any modern human.

      Preplan meetings points between you and out-of-town family members. You can start simply like whatever the halfway point might be, then talk about specific meeting places – like place just outside of town that burned down, a park, or a parking lot with a line of sight. Talk about what situations would force you to BO, discuss possible routes each party might take (general vicinity, direction, etc -in case roads are blocked), and preplan establishing comms for when you may be in range of each other (check your ham radio at 12noon every day or sunrise or sunset, whatever). Come up with a call and response, so both parties know you’re not compromised – kinda like a duress code.

      I know a lot of this seems kinda ridiculous, but consider how difficult things will be without technology, or even the transportation that depends on that technology. What if you have to ride a bike to your meeting point? What if you have to hoof it? How long will it take? What if roads and trails are blocked or unpassable?

      Consider that communicating with out-of-town family might not happen at all, or that it might take a very long time.

    • 3

      I just stumbled across a good video on youtube about short wave radio listening. Just what it sounds like, it’s just listening in. When I was a kid I has SW receiver and sat up many nights listening. Not exactly the way to contact family but certainly a way to get news if your local grid is down and dip one’s toe in the ham waters.

      • 1

        I have wanted to learn more about what the big deal is about shortwave, so thank you for sharing this video. I will be watching it here soon.