What Should You Be Doing to Practice Your Communications Plan?

Many groups do actually have a communications plan, although it may not be written down, they have a “plan”.  This is obviously a great start, but have you actually implemented it?  I’m not talking about sitting down and simulating it, but really put it to work?  This is one of those questions you will not get an honest answer about.  Everyone says “yes! all the time”, but when you start digging, maybe, not so much.  HAMs do field day, and that’s the only time they “test” the emergency setups, and that is great, but only once per year, it’s not enough.

Here’s what I do, routinely I will get my gear out, inventory, inspect (PMCS for those military folks) and setup for a particular communications area… I might setup for HF and work some stations.  I mean *really* set it up.  Go camping or right in the yard.

Disconnect from the grid, no internet, no cell, use nothing but whats in your kit.  Stay there as long as possible.  Doing a test where you are forced to perform is eye-opening.  Then take it a step further…

Create Failures to Determine Courses of Action in Advance

You do quick reaction drills with your weapons right?  Clear a jam, misfire, stovepipe etc.. do the same with communications.

  • Have a knowledgeable buddy give you failure scenarios during the exercise, do the same for them (Payback!)
    • Low sunlight / overcast (Cover half your panels with a tarp)
    • Main antenna failure, do you have a secondary?
    • Antenna taken out by storm, can you fix it? Do you know how it works?
    • Coax is bad, what are your fixes, backups?
    • High SWR in HF rig, discuss the points to check to determine the failure, do you have a backup? how long does it take to deploy?
    • Your tuner just broke, what bands is the antenna naturally resonant on?
  • You need to think about contingencies for issues that may arise.
  • You need to know how your stuff works so you can fix it, explain it to your “tester”

Determine the Most Likely Use Cases You Could Encounter.

  • You get a health and welfare message from a remote operator about a family member.
    • How do you write it down? (You would not belive how many people don’t have paper and pen next to the radios..) (Throw in a pencil / pen doesn’t work failure to your buddy.. LOL)
    • How do you get it to them?
    • What about group messages? (I have a dry erase board and easel in the kit with markers)
  • You need to contact someone in the next county, they are 60 miles away.. What is the best way to do that? (if you know someone there, try to contact them)
  • Contact someone in the next state, what frequencies are best at what time of day?
  • You need to monitor a repeater in the next county for activity that might be coming your way, what are the frequencies for them?  Can you hit them and get a response?
  • Determine the Police and Fire activity for the county next to you, whats going on?
  • What FM Broadcast stations can you hear, where are they? (Call letters and locations would be in your quick ref guide)
  • Its night-time, do the same for AM, try to pick up the farthest station you can.
  • Fire up Win link (or other favorite digital store and forward messaging system) and send a message to someone, get the response.

From this I have Learned the Following..

  • *EXACTLY* how much will your power last based on consumption and sunlight (I’ve got solar chargers)
    • How much is this affected by overcast (Cover one panel with a tarp).
    • What are the major power hogs? (Massive Inverter for PC? consider a smaller one or a DC PC Power)
    • What transmitter output power levels do we need to be at to last a full 24 hours?
      • that’s assuming about 12 hours of light with a charge, and 12 hours of no charge.
    • What items are designated as priority and secondary power consumers for these needs? (No charging your iPhone isn’t a priority when your running close to the limit!)
  • What areas of knowledge did you need assistance on? did you forget something? (That now goes in the quick ref guide!)
    • Forget how to assemble that beam with proper adjustments? (Label the beam in advance)
      • Readjust your beam for a different part of the band, (CW to Phone, to Center), got the measurements?
    • Forget the call sign prefixes? (What country is this person giving updates from? updates from the UK, ok that’s probably fine, if it’s from Syria.. maybe not so much)
    • Forget the key frequencies for your SIGINT monitoring? (Quick ref guide)
    • Dont know how to put your HF rig in Spilt TX mode? (Quick ref guide)
    • Dont know how to program your HT? (quick ref guide)
  • Was your gear easy to find, access? Logically organized? (Maybe its time for a new load plan)
    • You should be able to tell someone exactly where the gear is without looking.
    • You should be able to get to your gear, and bring the pieces together blindfolded (Ok this might be excessive, but if you can do this… then whats stopping your deployment? usually nothing)
    • You should be able to assemble the primary pieces without having to unload the entire kit. (Primary items should be together, maybe sub-kitted and in an easy place)


regarding identifying a specific radio over the air, a measurement of their frequency accuracy and the (in case of FM) the deviation of the radio. These can vary widely and are a very good identifier as they are very difficult for most people to adjust.

good article

communication tradecraft


I want to start by saying, this is by no means an end all be all to intelligence gathering. There are many books and online sources that cover this topic in much more detail. This post is designed to help the beginner get started in a skill that is sometimes very confusing for those who have no prior experience.

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Personal Commo Quick Reference Guide

The Problem

One thing that I learned very quickly is that you need to actually practice your communications plan often.  In doing this you will learn areas that need improvement and items of information you need to know.  Much of this information is easy to forget, or is better to have on hand when you need it.  In the era of the internet, we are often spoiled by the sheer availability of information we need.  This is certainly a benefit, but it comes at a cost, we just don’t save information locally like we should.  Information is so easy to get on the net, we don’t bother.  When a grid-down scenario happens we’ve got a problem.  We can’t remember something we always just referenced, and there is no internet connection at all.

The Solution

You need a quick reference guide.  Im sure you got volumes of data in ARRL Antenna Guides, Amateur Handbooks, and other volumes of information you (should) have.  This simply wont due when your under stress and need information NOW.  For this i have created a quick reference guide that I have in the “Mobile Shack” (more on that later).  Its small enough to carry and easy to update when needed.

image-1 image-2 image

Every time I do a Communications test (read go boon-docking in my mobile rig and try to implement the communications plan) I keep a pad and paper and note items I need to change.  One such item was that I forgot what the FCC Emissions types meant, and they are used in many of the HF frequency lists I have.  They have been added to the quick reference guide.  There are also items that are obvious to me, but someone who isn’t as experienced may need if they are on radio watch.

So Whats in my Guide?

This may seem like overkill to most, but if you’ve spent any time browsing around the bands, its nice to be able to easily reference something you hear, or to quickly tune to something you need.

1. Reference materials for a low experience ham or other non-hams

  • The 3-3-3 Radio Plan Description
  • Phonetic Alphabet
  • Morse Code Alphabet
  • Q-Codes
  • RST Code Meanings

2. Key Survivalist Frequency Listings

  • These are the ones designated and “prepper” Survivalist frequencies, all on one page.

3. FRS / GMRS Frequencies, including

  • Channel number for our radio models
  • Service, FRS or GMRS
  • TX Power allowed
  • Common Names (IE FRS2)
  • Notes for the channels like “Local GMRS Talk Around”

4. CB, Free Band Frequencies, including

  • Frequency
  • Emission Type, AM, USB or LSB
  • Type of Channel (CB, Free band or RC)
  • Name of the Channel (CB Ch 1, Free band High Guard 3A, etc)
  • Comment, something like “Emergency Use” etc

5. Local Scanner Frequencies, including Details for radio programming if required.  This should include as many local government agencies as possible.

  • All local cities in my county police, fire and public works, I also have the next county over since i’m close to the border
  • All county agencies for my and neighboring county
  • All local airport frequencies, including ATIS, Ground and tower operations
  • Complete listing of Itinerant Frequencies

6. Statewide scanner frequencies state trooper or highway patrol, state EMA, or other state operations

7. National Interoperability Channel Listings this is all listed in the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide or NIFOG. (http://www.dhs.gov/national-interoperability-field-operations-guide)

8. Ham Radio Country Codes (ok this is more about Ham operations, but helpful none the less), including

  • Prefix
  • Country Name
  • Short path beam heading
  • Long path beam heading
  • Miles to country
  • Latitude (to center approx.)
  • Longitude
  • Continent
  • CQ Zone

9. US Coast Guard Weather HF Station broadcast schedules and Frequencies.  Times and frequencies for all broadcasts of weather faxes and information.  These are normally used by boaters, however they cover a large portion of the inland US and certainly the coastal areas.  This is an excellent source of weather data when your local weather guy isn’t on the air or you cannot receive them.  (http://weather.noaa.gov/fax/marine.shtml).  I have all of them..

  • NW ATLANTIC (Boston/NMF)

10. The Entire Marine VHF Frequency Listing (make sure you get the full, international set), including

  • Channel Number (1, 01A, 5, 05A)
  • Ship Transmit Frequency
  • Ship Receive Frequency
  • Common Uses (like port operations, or VTS etc)

11. Complete Listing of NWS Weather service Channels

  • WX Name or number
  • Frequency
  • Location if its in use within 1000 miles

12. Maritime Radio Telephone Channels for each band, including simplex channels and distress channels.

  • 4 mHz
  • 6 mHz
  • 8 mHz
  • 12 mHz
  • 16 mHz
  • 18/19 mHz
  • 22 mHz
  • 25/26 mHz

13. Ham Radio Band Plans.  Not just the simple ones, but the detailed band plans (http://www.arrl.org/band-plan)

  • 160 Meters
  • 80 Meters
  • 60 Meters
  • 40 Meters
  • 30 Meters
  • 20 Meters
  • 17 Meters
  • 15 Meters
  • 12 Meters
  • 10 Meters (Include repeater pairs)
  • 6 Meters
  • 2 Meters
  • 220 Mhz
  • 70 Centimeters

14.  AM Broadcast Stations in your state, and possibly adjoining ones if your a small state. (Generally I include anything within 600 miles)  Include,

  • Call sign
  • Frequency
  • Distance
  • Beam Heading
  • City
  • State
  • Format (what type of station is it, news gospel etc)

15.  FM Broadcast Stations in your state, and possibly adjoining ones if your a small state.  (Generally I include anything within 300 miles)  Include,

  • Callsign
  • Frequency
  • Distance
  • Beam Heading
  • City
  • State
  • Format (what type of station is it, news gospel etc)

16 Ham radio Repeaters within 150 Miles, 2M, 220, 440, 6M and 10 Meter, include

  • Output Freq
  • Input Freq
  • Tone Required
  • Callsign
  • Location
  • Description

17. Signal Flag Charts (International Alphabet Flag, Phonetic Alphabet, Morse Code and Semaphore Alphabet

18. Equipment Quick Reference Guides.  Stuff like programming your HT with a freq, Setting split VFO on HF etc

19. Simple Antenna building charts and construction details

  • J-Pole
  • Simple Ground Plane on SO-239
  • Multi-band Dipole with Coax and Ladder Line
  • Standard Dipole Construction
  • Straight Dipole Lengths for common bands
  • Inverted Vee Lengths
  • Full Wave Loop
  • Ground Plane
  • Simple Antenna Legth Charts for 1/4, 1/2, full wave dipoles for 160-2 meters

20. Abbreviated assembly guides for any antennas in your kit, Lengths, settings etc.

21. Time Conversion Chart, UTC to Local to Other Time Zones

22. ARRL Band Plan by amateur Class (Tech, General, Extra etc)

23. Copies of any Radio Licenses

  • Amateur Radio
  • GMRS
  • Other

The Role of Commo in Group Morale

Im often amazed how many people don’t understand how important communication is beyond the “reach out and talk” aspect.  I get some rather crazy looks when people see my load plan for communications.

Communications are more about group morale than reaching out and talking, you’ll be doing more listening than talking if your smart, and using that power is important to keeping your group psychologically healthy.


Information is more important than you think

Try something…. for just one day, disconnect yourself from all your normal sources of information.  No email, no text, no cell, no TV, no radio, nothing, nil, nada, NOTHING.  The only information you are allowed is what others tell you directly to your face.   Most people don’t realize that we are addicted to knowing whats going on.  We get great comfort from not only being able to reach out if we need to, but also other being able to get us just in case.  beyond the obvious “emergency only” use cellphone, are the types of communications we depend on every day.  News sources give us an understanding of the state of our city, state, country and the world.  Not that we care what the president of Bolivia is doing, but knowing that Bolivia wasn’t nuked is huge.

Its a well known fact that POWs during numerous wars have stated that the loss of connection to the outside world is catastrophic to ones well-being.  Not only being able to talk to someone, but being able to know whats happening.  I was awestruck about these guys who build simple crystal radio sets from stuff they had in a vietnamese POW Camp.. basic wire, a chunk or coke (from Coal heater), a couple nails and bamboo.  They even made the headphones… THEY MADE THE HEADPHONES! — Thats just EPIC..  Why all the fuss to make a radio?  They simply wanted to know what was happening, to hear news, a voice, a song.. anything other than their taskmasters.

The Goal of Communications is more than passing Messages

Communications in a crisis situation is more than just passing messages or coordinating within your group.  You are also a very important and key element of the Psychological well being  of your group.  Not everyone will have the opportunity to be around the radio and talk to others or hear news.  As the commo person, your job is to also keep everyone else informed about whats going on..

Have you thought about the best way to do this?

In my kit i have things that most people never considered… for example a white board and easel, markers, a bulletin board, and large sticky notes.  When i hear something I need to pass on, I write it on the white board.  Notes to specific people go on the bulletin board (or are hand carried) via the sticky notes.

I also have several HD TV Antennas 75 ohm RG-6 Coax, splitters barrel connectors, with DC TVs. (incidentally don’t go buy a TV specifically designed for DC operation, instead look at the TV wall at best buy or Walmart and find the ones that use a “power brick” see what the output voltage of the brick is, if its 12VDC you got a 12 VDC tv to run off batteries).  I have a large 20′ FM Broadcast Yagi, to pull in remote or weak FM stations.  Again all for Information gathering, not for transmitting.

Get Organized in Advance!

As part of my kit i have a quick reference guide. It has details about band plans, operating freqs etc (more detail on this later), it also has all the FM, AM Broadcast stations in my state and neighboring states. Common Shortwave stations especially those from outside my country.  This list contains the operating frequency, the format (type of content it plays, country music, gospel, news etc) and its azimuth (Degrees on a compass) to its location.. (remember the beam i have?).  All the HDTV Signals in your area with Azimuths.  Multiple antennas are important here as they are not usually in the same direction, you might have to point to multiple directions.

How you can use all this to improve your groups survivability…

So you’ve added all the pieces to your kit now what.  Just being able to set a radio up, and have it going in a common area will allow those who want to sit and listen a place to do that.  Personally I use a remote speaker or a GRA-39 (http://radionerds.com/index.php/AN~GRA-39) to get the audio from the radio to a remote place.  If you don’t you can loose control of the radio (someone will change the station or walk off with it) or it may get damaged.  Keeping those valuable resources safe is important.

If you want to start finding out whats going on, you can try the local FM/AM stations and see if they are on the air.  Thats the easiest way.  You may ask though, “Why do I need to have all the frequencies in advance, all i need to do is just turn the dial and see whats happening…right?” No! WRONG.  Knowing that a station is transmitting is only one part of the value here, other important aspects are..

  • Is the station still using the same format? If its a gospel station, are they still doing gospel or has it changed to news?  IS some foreign person now blathering on the air?
  • Are the Announcers ad-hoc or pre-recorded? (do the announcers sound like they are making it up, or is it highly scripted)
  • Is a station not transmitting? if the station is supposed to be there, but isn’t thats a clue to something going on.  The power may be out, the antenna down or the station damaged.
  • Stations outside your normal area might be the only ones still transmitting if your local ones are damaged.
  • Stations outside your normal area that are no longer transmitting would help to know the extent of destruction.
  • AM Stations can travel considerable distances at night, knowing what stations are around can help to get more information sources.
  • Hearing FM stations that are outside your normal listening area can indicate a band opening on 6M (50 mHz) or 2m (144-146mHz) that you can use to communicate outside your normal range.
  • Hearing AM stations outside your normal range can indicate a band opening for 160M (1800-2000 kHz)
  • Shortwave stations outside the country might be giving information about happenings outside your country that are important to understand the situation.

In Summary

Radio People are always so focused on passing messages and reaching out to talk to others they forget to focus on the most important part of radio operations.. LISTENING..