Disaster Communications Issues

David L. Pifer - N9YNF
Vigo County, Indiana Emergency Coordinator for Amateur Radio Emergency Services
Red Cross Volunteer - Communications
September 21, 2000

This document is designed to be an overview of various forms of communications that may be used at a disaster scene and service centers. There are many options that can be implemented to supplement and cover communication solutions. The largest concern with communications is knowing the type of disaster you are dealing with, and how it effects communications. For example, a destructive disaster (such as a tornado, earthquake, fire, ice or a flood to just name a few) that physically destroys property will have the largest effect on "wired" technologies. Below are some general thoughts on common technology and issues that are used in communications. Please note that I have tried to think of many common or typical issues, but I am sure I have missed at least a few, so if you think of one please let me know so I can add it accordingly.

Phone Systems


Phone Systems are the most common and readily available form of communications. Since birth we are taught how to use a phone from that first call to grandma and grandpa, to how to dial 911. Phones are therefore more natural than any other form of communications to the average person in the USA. There are 4 general types communications that come to mind when we think of Phone Service: the basic telephone, wireless phones, pagers and fax machines. Phone service can be disrupted by Power Failures and can be literally cut by humans or the weather. Phone systems are designed around only about 40% of all users actually picking up the phone at the same time. It can therefore be easily over loaded. Additionally phone systems are an expense to someone just to use them.

Wireless Technology

Wireless Technology is around us all the time. While we don't really think about it, those radio signals you hear on your car radio don't stop when you power off your car, your receiver stops playing them for you. It is always around us and used in many new ways every day. We have briefly talked about the pros and cons of Wireless Telephones in the other section but here we are going to address some of the additional tools available. But before we begin we need to talk a little about how wireless technology works and factors that can affect it.

Wireless Technology is highly complex when you get into the physics, science and electronics of how it works. But generically speaking it simply involves a transmitter at one site and a receiver at another site or sites tuned to a specific frequency. 2-way radios have the ability to be a transmitter and a receiver (transceiver) and therefore can do either operation. The radios rely on antennas that are set for the frequencies that they are going to transmit on. A properly tuned antenna gives the best results. Therefore it is necessary to have the proper equipment to correctly transmit. Location of the antenna is always important, the higher it is the better it will work is a general rule of thumb.

Radio waves are very odd things. They can bend, bounce and even penetrate objects. Long distance communications rely on the bounce of the atmosphere and earth to skip signals around the earth. Sometimes some signals can bend with the curve of the earth while others simply go out in a straight line. Things like; the weather, sunlight, sunspots and other factors can either enhance or disrupt a radio signal depending on the frequency being used. Even the lay of the land, hills, valleys and buildings can cause problems such as dead spots.

Now that you have survived this little lesson you can now hopefully understand that radio communications may work very well in some circumstances and not very well in others based on the frequencies involved. Generally they work well. However, it must be always remembered that any type of wireless system, unless it uses some form of encryption, is publicly accessible with the right equipment. Now lets talk about some types of common radio communications.

Other Communication Issues

This section is designed to catch all those things that are related to Disaster Communications but are not pure communication issues. In many cases communications would have some form of presence in these areas.