The most important component of staying safe during an emergency is the ability to give and receive information. When the power goes out—which it often does, not only during wildfires but also during hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and tornados—the internet doesn’t work and cellular networks crash with increased demand. In Northern California, we often have our electricity cut to prevent fire during high-risk times, leaving millions of customers in both metaphorical and actual dark.
When people need information the most, they can’t get to it. So what’s the solution?
Shortly after I started dating my boyfriend, Martin, a windstorm knocked out power in my Missoula, Montana, neighborhood. The electricity was only out for the night, and the contents of my refrigerator survived. I had a backup battery charger for my phone, and thanks to zero internet distractions and a fully charged Kindle, I read an entire book in a sitting, which I hadn’t done since the iPhone took up residence on my nightstand.
The next time Martin came over, he asked what felt like a personal question, considering we were just getting to know each other. “What kind of emergency supplies do you have?”
I was 41 years old and had kept myself alive thus far, so with moderate confidence I opened my pantry and revealed my full cache of emergency supplies—a box of Kind bars and a 12-pack of La Croix. I soon became the owner of a Lifestraw, headlamp, and list of things to consider.
A couple of years later, we moved from Montana to Northern California. When the Camp Fire blazed through Paradise in November 2018—just 50 miles northwest of us—we felt the potential consequences of being cut off from information. The following spring, Martin got his amateur radio technician license, creating a lifeline for us independent of infrastructure.
When preparing for a natural disaster, most people think of the basics—food and water—but those are only two pieces of a more complex puzzle, and I’m not talking about toilet paper.
Do You Remember Walkie-Talkies?
My best friend and I received a set of walkie-talkies in the fourth grade. The range was short, but because we lived across the street from each other and weren’t exchanging life-saving information, we were able to share facts such as “my mom is making cinnamon rolls.”
Two-way handheld radios have evolved. In 1996 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized the Family Radio Service (FRS), which designated special radio frequencies for walkie-talkies so users can communicate without interference from radio stations or cordless phones. Bets of all, there’s no license required to operate.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is similar to FRS, though it requires licensing through the FCC. The GMRS license costs $70 and lasts for 10 years, but doesn’t require an exam. One license covers an entire family, though operators must be over 18.
FRS and GMRS are both walkie-talkies, but GMRS radios have the potential for increased range and clarity due to better antennas, higher transmit power, and access to repeaters. (Repeaters are basically relay stations that allow amateur radio operators to reach further than they can radio to radio.) FRS and GMRS don’t transmit information to or from non-paired devices, but they’re a great way to stay in touch with people you know, either in your home or around your neighborhood.
Patsy Haggerty-Sollars, formerly of Paradise and now of Auburn, California, only knew to evacuate during the Camp Fire because a neighbor knocked on her door. Patsy left her mobile-home court with a friend—each in their own vehicle—but they got separated at the main road where police diverted traffic in multiple directions. “They weren't even trying to put the fire out,” Patsy said. “They were just trying to get the people out.”
Haggerty-Sollars and her neighbor, Judy, were never far from each other, but first Judy lost her cellphone signal and then Haggerty-Sollars lost hers when she drove through flames—despite being in a rag-top convertible—because at that point there was no turning back. It’s not surprising they lost service. Seventeen cell towers burned the first day of the fire, which became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record in California.
Two-way handheld radios could have provided a backup option, and some GMRS radios can transmit text messages and GPS locations, though only to other GMRS radios, not to cellphones or computers.
If Martin and I have to evacuate, we’ll each have a walkie-talkie in our car in case we lose cell service. Evacuating is a realistic possibility as the worst of fire season hasn’t even started in California. Even so, since August 15, 3.5 million acres have already burned, which shatters the previous record of 2 million acres set in 2018..
On the other side of the United States, East Coast residents brace for what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) anticipates to be a more active hurricane season than usual. Forecasters predict the number of named storms to almost double this year, and they may extend into the Greek alphabet.
Martin and I have been practicing using the radios room-to-room within the house and around the neighborhood, which is not exactly fun, because aren’t we already close enough during quarantine?
How About The Cannonball Run?
Another option for two-way radio communication is Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS), which you may know as CB radio. Films like The Cannonball Run and Smokey and The Bandit popularized CB radios in the 1970s and 1980s. Since most new cars come hardwired with modern technology, it’s unlikely those devices will once again be mounted inside passenger vehicles (though truckers keep the CB dream alive), but they are an option for those living in high-risk areas who want to stay connected.
People from coast to coast use dozens of apps, all dedicated to emergency preparedness. When hurricanes churn in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, apps can help with navigating evacuation routes, locating temporary shelters, finding gas stations, and tracking the storms themselves. A phone full of apps feels like security, but when cellphone signals are spotty or lost entirely, they’re more like a debit card without a PIN.
That’s where CB radios come in. While they seem like a dated form of communication, knowing that channels 9 and 19 are dedicated to relaying emergency information and traffic/road conditions boost their utility. Despite having a Subaru equipped with Starlink, I want one and Martin is down to install it.
Do Regular People Use Scanners?
Celine Negrete, of Grass Valley, California, recently bought a couple of police scanners for her six-person household. Negrete’s family doesn’t have a landline or cellular service inside their home, but thanks to a tree climber willing to shimmy up a 150-foot Ponderosa pine, they do have internet access. Celine can get a cell signal outside, but in the middle of the night she can’t receive alerts.
Because Negrete’s house has internet, they can check social media groups for emergency information, but when the electricity goes out, the internet goes too. Their house is built from straw bales and the walls are thick, so they don’t receive a clear radio signal inside the house. During times of high fire risk, the family takes shifts going out to the car to listen to the radio, but now that they have scanners, they can monitor local emergency channels from bed. They just have to remember to keep plenty of batteries on hand.
A Revved Up Form of Communication
For someone wanting a more complete package, amateur radio (a k a ham radio) is the way to go, although it involves a bit more planning and preparation before you can start using it. Before legally getting on the air, users must pass a 35-question written exam in order to receive their technician license and unique call sign from the FCC. After that there are two more levels—General and Amateur Extra—which require additional exams. Licenses are good for 10 years and almost anyone can hold one, with the exception of representatives of a foreign government.
Although I spent most of my life thinking amateur radio was for geeks and grandparents, I now sit with Martin for twice-weekly check-ins with the local amateur radio club. It’s a way for ham radio operators to not only touch base with each other, but also to test their equipment. Amateur radio operators not only help themselves, but in emergencies they deploy to assist organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross, and local public safety offices communicate and coordinate with the public, and with each other.
Ham operators gain access to all of the amateur radio frequencies, which are almost infinite, while FRS and GMRS have limited access. It’s like FRS is a bicycle, GMRS is a scooter, and ham is a rocket that can reach the moon.
That's not hyperbole. With the Amateur Extra license, amateur radio operators can communicate not only with other amateur radio operators around the world, but they can bounce messages off the moon.
Do we need our messages to go to the moon in an emergency? Probably not, but a ham operator at any level can do something even better. In addition to all of the talking and listening capabilities, they can send texts and emails via their handheld radios. A text might say “we’re OK,” or it might say “send help.” Either way, it might be just the lifeline you need when other, more modern options have failed.
The American Radio Relay League is a great place to get started exploring amateur radio, regardless of whether you’re interested in it as a quirky hobby or potential lifeline. ARES is the Amateur Radio Emergency Services, which has local groups across the United States and Canada. Amateur radio was critical during 9/11 and during devastating hurricanes like Katrina, Maria, and Sandy, where key infrastructure was destroyed. Even if you don’t think the time and investment is worthwhile, even looking into these options may transform the way you think about emergency readiness.