Communication Devices for Emergencies

Landlines: While not as common as they once were, landlines are useful if you are sheltering-in-place. Landlines don’t require electricity to work unless they are the ones that have portable hand units, as the base stations are plugged into electricity. Older phones that plug in directly to a wall jack will continue to work unless the actual phone line is damaged. If you have a phone unit that has a portable hand set, keep an older (non-electric) phone that plugs into a phone jack to use during a power failure.

Cell phones: Cell service is still not available in many rural locations. Cell phones may or may not work depending on whether or not the towers have been damaged. It is easy for the system to become overwhelmed so during an emergency your calls should be limited to emergency contacts.

Internet-capable Devices: Cell phones with data plans, pads, tablets and computers. Emergency information is posted on government and emergency broadcast websites. Generally, you can sign up with your local government Emergency Operations so that emergency warning messages are sent directly to your phone. Apps are available for many emergency situations. Social media can be a very good way of staying in touch with family. These pieces of technology may not work if cell towers are affected and Wi-Fi is not always accessible in rural areas.

Satellite Phone: Commonly referred to as Sat-phones, these are very popular with people who live and work in remote areas as they will work almost anywhere in the world as long as there is clear access to the sky. However, they are expensive to purchase and use.

Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND): SEND units work off satellite networks, and allow you to send pre-selected text messages along with your GPS location. This is a very useful device if you are in any emergency situation where you are cut off, unable to reach help or need rescue. Many people who live, work and recreate in the wilderness use this type of emergency communication. They are cheaper than Satellite phones but don’t allow you to speak with someone. A SPOT specifically works with the Globalstar satellite network. Garmin has inReach devices that work with the Iridium satellite network.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLB): Emits a distress signal that is picked up by satellite. Often used by back country skiers or snowmobilers who may be involved in avalanches but can be used by anyone outside of regular cell service.

Radios: Emergency Alerts, Weather Alerts & Forecasts, Evacuation Alerts & Orders, Updates, etc. are still broadcast over radios, sometimes on dedicated channels. There are units that are available with extras such as a flashlight and USB charging ports. Some are multi-chargeable; plug-in AC, solar DC and hand crank DC. In your vehicle you have a choice between AM/FM radios and Sirrius/XM radios, both of which are linked to the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Short wave radios are no longer as popular as they once were but still work with mostly amateur broadcasting stations.

Amateur (Ham) Radio: These radios allow amateur radio operators to connect with each other, however they require training and a licence to operate. They may be large base units that can communication with people from around the world or smaller hand held units.

Two Way Radios (aka Walkie Talkies): These often have limited range but if you are convoying with others, they can help you keep in contact in case you lose sight of each other, get lost or need to communicate about stops. They can help if you are separated in crowds.

Citizen Band (CB) Radios: Generally used by truckers and others in the transportation industry but are also widely used by the general public. They do not require a licence.

Scanners: These devices monitor emergency communications channels between police, fire departments, search & rescue units and ambulances. Personal users cannot make calls or respond over this type of unit but they allow people to stay informed of the emergency procedures that are occurring. In some areas emergency services are changing to digital communications and can no longer be picked up on scanners.

Chargers: Ensure that you have at least one AC wall plug in charger with multiple USB ports as well as a portable storage bank charger. There are solar powered bank chargers available as well as AC units, and ones with multiple ports. Include a spare charger cord that is compatible with each of your devices. Mobile radios require their own charging stations. Walkie Talkies often have their own charging units as well. Chargers that plug into vehicle power outlets (lighter sockets) are excellent so that you can charge your devices or charger bank while driving. Inverters allow you to plug in AC devices while driving. 



  • MaryRowe
    MaryRowe Posts: 736 ✭✭✭✭

    Thank you very much for this list. I either did not know or had not thought about most of these in a long time. This makes an excellent preparedness checklist.

  • annbeck62
    annbeck62 Posts: 994 ✭✭✭✭

    Good information. People in general don't think about how their cell phone may not work and don't have back up plans in place.

  • RustBeltCowgirl
    RustBeltCowgirl Posts: 1,403 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Thanks @torey That is one piece of the puzzle that we have not talked about.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,353 admin

    In most any natural emergency, we lose power for a week or more - usually ice storms or hurricanes. I charge the cell and a back up battery ahead of time. Cell service though is very spotty in the mountains where I live - probably 60% of the time it says my call can't go through because circuits are busy. I do have an old land line that I can use to call 911 if I needed to. But, I pretty much assume I'm on my own in any situation. A battery powered radio is the main thing I use. I also have a battery powered lantern that takes 12 D cell batteries and has a jack to charge a phone. A good radio so I can hear the news is really the essential device for me.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭

    In the US, we also have GMRS and FRS radios for 2-way communication. These are a variation on "walkie &talkies", a term that has fallen out of use, replaced by "handy-talkie" and usually abbreviated HT.

    For US readers of this board, take a look at FRS, Family Radio Service. 22 channels are available for local communication, all if which are shared with GMRS. No license is required to operate FES, and there are no age limits. Most large electronic stores sell them for prices as low as $40 for a pair.

    You can expect a range of a mile or so under most conditions, farther if you are on a hilltop.

    While I highly recommend getting an amateur radio license and setting up an amateur radio station, you do need to get the license and then practice using your equipment.

    Unfortunately some preppers buy amateur radios but don't bother with the license, figuring that in a real emergency no one will be monitoring them. They are missing out on learning how to use the radios before the emergency.

    All rules on using radio to transmit can vary from country to country, so you need to check on your own nation's rules. I can only speak to US rules.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,502 admin

    Thanks for this additional info @VermontCathy. I hadn't heard of GMRS before. When I looked it up it says you need a license in the US but not in Canada.

    We're still calling them walkie talkies in my part of the world. :) But as they have limited range, not many people use them here.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Range of FRS should be adequate from one end of a homestead to the other, so a person in the field can communicate with a person in the house.

    It should also be long enough to let you talk to neighbors within a mile or so, perfect for a neighborhood watch group.

    For distances longer than that, amateur radio is the way to go. Anything from state or province wide, to anywhere in the country, to worldwide, amateur radio can do it.

    There are too many options in amateur radio to discuss in this thread, but PM me if you want more information.

  • nicksamanda11
    nicksamanda11 Posts: 721 ✭✭✭✭

    Good info

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,502 admin

    I should have mentioned the importance of having a list of contact numbers programmed into your cell phone and a paper list to have beside your landline. 911 (or 112 in Europe) is the go-to for any emergency but a list should include:

    Police, Poison Control, Fire Department, Hospital, Doctor, Veterinarian, Utility Companies (electric, gas, water), Animal Control, Insurance Agent, Locksmith. If you have children include numbers for school and/or daycare.

    Teach your children how and when to use 911. Even very young children can do this. There was a news story a couple of years ago about a 5 year old who phoned 911 when his grandfather collapsed and he was able to get help to save his grandfather.

    @kbmbillups1 These suggestions were for short term localized emergencies, so that you would be able to call emergency numbers, family, friends or other contacts outside of the area that is affected. It was less about widespread ones where the whole grid is down across the country.

    I recommended land lines for sheltering-in-place because you can still call many government offices and emergency services agencies as they still operate on land lines. 911, hospitals, police, emergency operations centres, utility companies, insurance companies, etc. You may still be able to reach friends and family outside of your affected area.

    A satellite phone will allow you to contact any of the above emergency services or call someone outside of your affected area as well. A sat-phone is excellent for those who are beyond the reach of telephone poles or cell towers. Many people in my area live in such a situation and sat-phones are their only means of communications. And they work when you are travelling, too. But they are expensive.

  • Lisa K
    Lisa K Posts: 1,838 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @torey great list and a great reminder to be ready!

  • Brindy
    Brindy Posts: 212 ✭✭✭

    Thank you @torey this was very informative. We have talked about getting our license for Ham radio, but haven't gotten around to it.

    Thank you @VermontCathy for the information. More things to consider.

  • heirlooms777
    heirlooms777 Posts: 208 ✭✭✭

    My father is HAM radio operator WB9JSR. I would love to learn Morse code to be able to speak with him and others around the world. When systems go down during emergencies they use this system. I am also looking for an affordable satellite phone. Any suggestions for these and other related topics? Thanks! —Christina

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited December 2022

    @heirlooms777 "Affordable" and "satellite phone" don't go together, I'm afraid.

    However, if you will settle for a satellite device that can send and receive texts and emails, but not voice, there are several options. Check out the Zoleo, Bivy Stick, and Garmin InReach. There is also the Somewear, which is currently not available due to being redesigned, but may be worth checking out as it has some of the cheapest service plans.

    Any of these devices will require some kind of monthly or annual service plan, so your budget has to account for that.

    While "CW" (short for Continuous Wave, often informally called Morse Code though actually based on the more modern International Code) is popular with many ham operators, it is not necessary to use it. You can speak with hams using voice or computer-assisted digital communication modes. The advantage of CW is that you can make contacts with very low transmission power, which can be useful when you are limited to battery power.

  • thelinda
    thelinda Posts: 21 ✭✭

    First I must state that I do not own and have not used these devices but I saw them in a catalog recently, so do your own investigating.

    Turn your cell phone into a satellite phone... there are a few companies and of course there is a monthly charge for service, one place had $14. a month for minimal service. You can activate for just when you need it, say a month of sailing or a month of hiking. Again, compare companies and plans.

    Here is one

    Here is another.

    one more.

    Happy investigating and please post what you find...

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,502 admin

    @thelinda I don't have a smart phone so I'm not at all familiar with things like apps.

    The first two sites didn't help with that. I still wasn't sure what was required. But it seemed like the first one required a WIFI hotspot to work. As I said, not familiar with apps so not sure.

    The third site answered more questions so I checked to see how much their units are. It directed me to a page that had different providers for each country. The provider for Canada is charging $1469 for the docking unit for your cell phone. Plus taxes & shipping. Then you have to pay for a plan which is $849/year and still have to pay a per minute charge after that. Pretty pricey. Especially when you are already paying for a plan for your phone.

    If I were travelling/working in remote areas I think I would prefer to carry a SEND unit or a SPOT. I know people who use these types of units and are quite pleased with them. Not going to let you send/receive message like a satphone or a converted smart phone, though.

  • thelinda
    thelinda Posts: 21 ✭✭

    Try this

    Costs $249. plus whatever the monthly fee is. The above site has a review.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,502 admin

    I found another article that compares the various devices.

    I think this is going to come down to personal choice as to what will work best for everyone, depending on what you are using them for. And of course, there will be different plans depending on where you are and the type and amount of usage.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @torey Thanks for the article, Torey.

    For some reason this article overlooked the Zoleo, which is the one I see getting the best reviews from experienced users. It is affordable and reliable.

    Example review:

  • SuperC
    SuperC Posts: 916 ✭✭✭✭

    What about a ham radio?

    and, yes a corded landline is a good option.

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,356 admin

    The landline is if it actually works. We had so many mouse problems in the part that was out at the road that sound was quiet or extremely and loudly crackle-y. Thus, even after having our line in the ground replaced, it wasn't worth us keeping.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,502 admin

    Home land lines are becoming a thing of the past. So many people have switched to cell phones. I think that is one of the reasons for poor service. Not so many people are inconvenienced when the line goes down or has a bad connection so not as much of a priority to fix.

    Many people in my area are still without cell phones, so landlines are very important in those locations. In a lot of cases, whole communities are well beyond the reach of cell towers.

    And then there are those that are so far off the beaten path that they don't have cell service or landlines. Some have satellite internet service and use VOIP phone numbers to communicate and others just use sat phones.

    Ham radios aren't as common as they once were. I know of only one operator in this area. But it is included in the original list.

  • water2world
    water2world Posts: 1,088 ✭✭✭✭

    @torey Great information--- and great input from others!! I had forgotten about some of these! Thanks for the reminder I needed!

  • marjstratton
    marjstratton Posts: 1,132 ✭✭✭✭

    We have Vonage which is not a land line even though we got the same number as we used to have for our land line. And we also each have our cell phones. So if we loose internet, we loose communication.

  • heirlooms777
    heirlooms777 Posts: 208 ✭✭✭

    This is all very interesting!

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited December 2022

    Landlines are still one of the most reliable ways to communicate. Storms can take down the lines, of course, but that's fairly unusual. @LaurieLovesLearning is in an unusual situation with mice nibbling her lines!

    Having a landline and a cell is ideal, because the chances are better that at least one of them will work.

    If both are down at the same time, you are probably in an emergency situation where communication is not your biggest concern. In that case, ham radio is going to be your best bet for emergency messages.

    @SuperC is right that if you have a landline, be sure you have at least one corded phone on it. Cordless phones will not work without electrical power, but corded phones on a landline will, because they get the power they need from the landline itself.

  • SuperC
    SuperC Posts: 916 ✭✭✭✭
    edited December 2022

    @torey, we have a landline with one corded phone and the other phones on that same line are wireless. We receive a very thin phonebook nowadays. We use it as a resource to look up ie: Where to buy drapes. And, i agree that most people have cell phones.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭

    A new satellite communicator just launched in the US.

    It's from a company called Bullitt, and is in the form of a small device that talks to your cellphone over Bluetooth and sends and receives messages via satellite. You do need a cellphone with Bluetooth to use it, but it will work even when you have no cell signal.

    It launched earlier this year in Europe, and just started selling in North America a few days ago. While it does not offer worldwide coverage, it should be adequate in Europe and the US, and probably in southern Canada as well.

    It sells for $150 for the device and one year of free service (30 texts per month), then $5/month after the first year.

  • vickeym
    vickeym Posts: 2,019 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Very interesting information. We both have cell phones on a cheap limited plan. We still keep our landline, though it doesn't get much use.

    A friend just gave us an older ham radio. Have not had time to look into anything we it yet, but want to learn it and get it hooked up. There are many times and locations near us that have limited cell service if any. And many things that can interrupt service and internet service as well.

    Having multiple ways to communicate when your family and friends are scattered all over the world and in multiple time zones is a good thing.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,502 admin

    I have made the decision to purchase a SEND unit. But now comes the choices. I'm a little lost. I spoke to someone who seemed quite knowledgeable at a local store but they only had the one unit. A Garmin inReach. So nothing to compare it to.

    I don't need anything fancy and certainly don't need one that hooks up to a smart phone or Bluetooth. We have old flip phone style cell phones. Most of the SEND units now seem to be ones that are more difficult to use without a cell phone.

    So we are thinking of a simple SPOT brand unit.

    Has anyone here purchased any type of SEND unit? If so, what kind and do you like it? How easy is it to use?