Communications in a Grid-Down Scenario-Part 2


Part 1 of this series described a range of natural and man-caused threats to the electric grid and communications infrastructure. Here we begin our discussion of preparatory steps and strategies for your enterprise or community in the event of a protracted crisis of this type.

Communications is typically thought of as a two-way event, which is correct. For purposes of this discussion, listening is much more important than talking.

Listening is essential during disruption. A minimal amount of commercial equipment allows you to set up a listening post in the corner of your home or office. What you do with what you hear is the subject of other training.

This post will address the tools you need for listening or monitoring. Both are extremely important. Listening allows you to collect general information, which establishes a baseline of activity for your immediate and surrounding areas. Any increase in amount or intensity of traffic is an important indicator that something is amiss. Monitoring allows you to “drill down” on specific traffic and begin analyzing what it means for your decision making.

The current bias and potential interruption of broadcast news media strongly suggests you equip yourself and learn to monitor communications in your areas of operations (AO), interest (AI), and concern (AC).* This is critical during periods of unrest and great fun during normal times. It’s good practice as well.
Some considerations:

• Your communications equipment should operate independently of the power grid.

• The lack of consistent, reliable electricity in many scenarios means that you will have to produce your own power. (i.e., generators, solar, with varied and redundant charging systems).

• The limited quantity of electricity means that you should use minimal power.

• Equipment should run off internal batteries or 12V DC (Battery: Deep cycle preferred. Keep it on a trickle charger.).

Most organizations already have some communications listening equipment: An AM/FM radio and a small TV set. (Getting cable may be a problem.) Both should be hooked up to good quality external antennas. FM broadcast band radio and TV antennas are available at electronics or home improvement stores. Portable radios come with an internal antenna for AM broadcast band reception which works locally, but for distant stations an external antenna is needed.

The next item is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather/all hazards radio. Many receivers are equipped with a Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) decoder which keeps the radio in a battery saving standby until an alert is received. All Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) police scanners will receive the NOAA broadcasts, but not all of them have a SAME decoder. NOAA receivers are extremely useful because they monitor the most common disaster situation, weather. If SAME capable, they remain silent until an alert is generated for your area, saving power.

(Note: There are apps available for everything previously mentioned. Cell service and internet will fail, either through damage, malice, overloading, stupidity, or official action. Everything mentioned here is independent of those things.)

An AM/FM radio, TV, and NOAA receiver gives an adequate overview of general news (Listen to more than one station to avoid confirmation bias.), politics, social issues, and warns of approaching hazards such as storms. All of this helps you develop an idea of what’s happening around you and what you might have to monitor more closely.

Now we expand the distance for information collection: Shortwave listening.

The Shortwave bands (1.7-3.0 Megahertz (MHz).) offers worldwide communications capability, both listening and talking.

Shortwave is home to a variety of international broadcasters. These stations provide yet another news viewpoint, often vastly different from domestic sources. No single source of news/information will give you the complete picture. ALL sources have a particular slant or bias. Collecting news from multiple sources eliminate some of the bias factor (Including your own) and helps form a bigger picture to aid in decision making.

A shortwave receiver needs the capability to receive Single Sideband (SSB) communications. SSB is a narrow-band voice communications mode used by amateur radio (ham) operators and government or business utility** stations on shortwave. Look for the word “sideband” or letters “SSB” or look for a beat frequency oscillator (BFO) control on the radio. Please get the best shortwave receiver you can afford, because you should be spending a lot of time listening to this frequency range. A good receiver will cover from the AM broadcast band up to 30+ MHz. This includes every HF amateur radio band, international broadcasters, utility stations**, clandestine or pirate stations, and CB communications.

Start out listening to international shortwave broadcasters. They operate in AM mode on fixed frequencies and schedules. US domestic broadcasters are the easiest to hear, but most of them are religious programming. Occasionally interesting, but you are looking for news. A web search will get you times and frequencies. This is the best way to sort out setting and antennae. Print out that schedule. I’m as guilty as anyone of using various apps, but don’t rely on them when the grid craps out.

A police scanner is the only way you will hear the unvarnished truth in your AO, AI, or AC. A police scanner is the second major equipment purchase you should get after defensive weaponry. The good news is that a police scanner runs about half the price of an AR15.

The best scanner receiver is the Uniden Home Patrol II. It can be ordered pre-programmed with the nationwide scanner frequency database from Radio Reference. Simply enter your zip code, and the scanner will program itself. A GPS receiver/antenna can be attached to the scanner, and it will adjust to the location data it receives when vehicle mounted. The Home Patrol II also has a discovery mode that will search the spectrum for activity to determine its location and then program itself. This is useful mostly in high transmission areas. The Home Patrol II will demodulate both Phase 1 and Phase 2 P25 modulation, and will track communications on trunked radio systems. What that means is you can listen to anything that isn’t encrypted. Software updates are readily downloadable from the manufacturer. Buy a discone antenna.

The Department of Homeland Security publishes a book titled National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG) that contains a list of all the current frequencies for federal and non-federal interoperability/mutual aid, emergency operations, and other useful electronic reference data. You should download a copy of this, print it out, and keep it as a reference. You’ll need a lot of paper.

* Area of operations (AO): Where you work/live.
Area of interest (AI): Immediate surrounding area that can affect your AO in short order.
Area of concern (AC): Any specific area you have reason to be curious about (Demographically, economically, hazardous material, etc.) There may be overlap with AO and AI.

** Utility stations serve a utilitarian purpose. For example, communication between ships and shore. Many of them have scheduled broadcasts for only a few minutes per day, making them useful practice listening targets.

Many thanks to Sparks31, the nom de guerre of one of the pioneers and leading lights in the tactical communications field. Without him, and many like him, the rest of us would wonder what’s out there.

Randy Bartlett – VP Tactical Communications, Distributed Security Inc.
Randy has over 30 years military and paramilitary experience as a commissioned Infantry officer, non-commissioned officer, and contractor. Randy also served as the lead contract instructor for DOE’s Special Response Force program, developing and teaching urban and close quarter battle techniques to Federal Agents tasked with recovery of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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