Emergency Communications

If you have ever been to an area where you had no cell phone service and needed to make a phone call, then you realize how important having that link to the outside world is. Now imagine that it was an emergency situation, and you needed your cell phone. How different would the situation be? Having more than one way to communicate or receive information in a disaster is critical.

You should have a Family Communication Plan so that everyone knows who to contact and when. Some great things to discuss are what to do should cell phone or internet services be disrupted, as they often are, during a disaster. Writing down important phone numbers should be the first step, as most people these days don’t have important phone numbers memorized.

In 2019 a tornado hit the community of Smith’s Station. It destroyed a cell tower, causing limited cell phone service coverage that lasted for days. This created a big problem for people trying to get in touch with loved ones, as well as disaster recovery efforts.

A cell tower in the road after a tornado in 2019

So what are my options?

Often times, when you are unable to get through with a voice call, you can try to send a text message. They require a smaller amount of bandwidth (usage) to the cell tower, and they are sometimes able to get through. For more helpful tips, visit www.fcc.gov/emergency

Around the world, the most common backup emergency communications are analog radios, such as CB, walkie-talkies, HAM, and GMRS. We would like to inform you that the primary methods of communication, such as cell phones and internet, would likely be down after a disaster. The more you know and the better you are prepared, the better off you could be. Below are options and explanations should you find an interest in radio communications.


Family Radio Service is short-ranged and commonly referred to as a walkie-talkie. Regardless of what the manufacturers put on the packaging, these radios typically can only cover 1-5 miles with little to no obstructions. Without the use of a repeater, most two-way radios can only cover a maximum distance of the radio horizon, which is seven miles. These radios are easy to come by, with most big box stores carrying them. There are no license requirements for these radios. This would be ideal for family members of one household to have.


The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a licensed radio service that uses channels around 462 MHz and 467 MHz. The most common use of GMRS channels is for short-distance, two-way voice communications using hand-held radios, mobile radios and repeater systems. This type of radio service can reach longer distances than that in the Family Radio Service (FRS) or two-way radios; thus you are required by the FCC to obtain a license to use it. It is easy to obtain a license for this service and if you receive a license, any family member, regardless of age, can operate GMRS stations and units within the licensed system for up-to 10 years. For more information on GMRS visit the FCC website. This would be ideal for families or friends within 50-100 miles.

CB Radio

Surely you have heard of a CB radio, they have been around since the 1940’s. These types of radios are still used today and can be useful in an emergency. There is no longer a license requirement to purchase or operate this radio. They have become synonymous with truck driving because they can reach vast distances and are ideal for short conversations. This would be ideal for someone who travels to different areas.

Amatur Radio (Ham)

Finally, we will mention Ham radio. Ham radio was adapted as a communication system as far back as the 1890s. Back then, it was primarily used for telegraph and Morse code systems. By 1914 the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was founded to better organize these amateur stations and help them reach longer distances, while staying within the legal limit of the Radio Act of 1912.

This type of radio will give you the longest range an may prove to be quite useful in an emergency. Although, this may be overwhelming for some inexperienced users and you have to pass a test to obtain your license. If your interested in getting started with ham radio, there are many websites you can look to for study materials, such as https://www.arrl.org/licensing-education-training


There are many options one may take for emergency communications. The biggest consideration is what is best for you and your family. What is too much and what is not enough? How much will the equipment cost? Most of the radios mentioned have an affordable option for those who are looking to get started. Once you buy a radio of your choosing, have a look at radioreference.com for a list of radio frequencies in your area. But, be warned: Transmitting on frequencies you do not have a license to do so will get you in trouble with the FCC and other organizations! It is NOT illegal to listen, only to talk/transmit.

Regardless of which avenue you decide to pursue, at Russell County EMA, we want everyone to have a communication plan. NOAA weather radios and battery powered radios are a great start for monitoring situations, but if you need to keep in touch with friends or family, we encourage you to look at one of the options listed above.



Do you already have a ham station in Russell County?

We are trying to compile a list of stations that may be used during a disaster to participate in RACES or ARES. To register your station please use our Ham registration form.