Commo Gear

Communication over distances is an integral part of human life.  The need to communicate during crisis is all the more important.  For most of us, there are two common means of communication, the phone and now, the computer.   Chances are you already have both on hand.  

A recent report to the US Army War College about the war between Chechen rebels and the Russian army,  the point was repeatedly made about both sides, but especially the Chechens using off the shelf civilian technology for communication.  Of particular note by brand name were Motorola radios.  These tend to be the most durable of the commercially available two way radios and cell phones on the market.  Observers noted that the proprietary military technology of the Russians was simply not up to the task.  The equipment was heavy, bulky, hard to use and of marginal performance by modern standards.  Equipment available on the surplus market is of similar quality.  In fact, Russian cold war radio technology was often the envy of the west.  Traditional military communications are not only becoming inadequate for real world military operations, they are of little use to the survivor.   Military radios are usually built to withstand abuse and even massive electromagnetic pulses from atomic warfare but at a cost in weight, complexity and battery drain that can make them a liability to the survivor in most situations.   In my observation of secret military operations as far back as the mid-1980's civilian communications gear is most often the gear of choice for field operatives.  Newer SINGARS and Satcom stuff can be had through a number of sources, but it is unrealistic to consider for most survival groups without the command level equipment and personnel to service it.  Even a lot of military organizations are going to day to day use of commercial communication resources because the commercial communication resources are improved so frequently and the improved functions are relatively easy to learn.  

Even more promising are new devices like the Garmin RINO series which integrate a GPS unit with a radio.   Their flagship of the line is the Rino 120, which integrates most of the advanced features of a scrambled Motorola T7200 FRS/GMRS radio with a GPS, but there are a number of security questions about the reliability of the privacy features and virtual locator that can pinpoint the users on a map.   The convenience issues on this type of radio are immense though, because they quickly deal with the number one subject of most radio communication.  That is the basic question and answer of "Where are you?" and where "Here" really is.   The radios are set up to be able to transmit the location of users within a certain group and then display that position as points on a built in map and representations of the grid coordinates of others within the group.   This feature requires compatibility, and probably that all users be using the same make and model of radio, although speech communications can be with other radios operating on the same frequencies.   From a management and coordination standpoint, the advantages of these radios may justify the costs, which range from $200 to $300 depending on a fairly narrow range of feature variations, usually determined by whether or not they come with security upgrades and a battery recharging system.    Although I have minimal experience with these radios, I suspect the probably burn through batteries quickly, so battery life and keeping extras around, and or recharging battery packs becomes a major issue when you integrate these types of units into your communication plan.   

Satellite phones and phone service are expensive, and not cost effective to maintain as a standby mode of communication on a full time basis unless you are in a situation that really justifies it.   For some people, this can make sense.  For example, yachtsmen and world ocean travelers who get out to where no other method of communication is practical.   It also appears that satphones do work in most third world countries.    Boaters are warned though, that even satphones will not work reliably on the open ocean outside of major shipping lanes.   These invisible highways are covered by both communication and spy satellites, but in more remote oceans, there is not even much satellite coverage because there is no business there to justify the resources of even government subsidized telecommunication companies.   New developments in the industry that include lower cost phones, subsidized partially by captive service plans are reaching toward the affordability of a standby emergency use satphone.    The iridium phone shown here can be purchased for just shy of $900 and activated when you need it.   It is critical to have access to a valid credit card with a fairly high limit when you activate the phone.   This is the package that a lot of boat and plane owners, government agents, journalists and international corporations are going to.   Usually this survival communication kit will include a company credit card or debit card packed with the phone.   Arrangements can sometimes be made with a satphone service provider to have a prepaid amount of calling time set up on the phone and rolled over month to month if it is not used, much in the same way that a calling card is used.    The problem for a survivalist is that these accounts can expire or the company can go out of business while you are stuck with the older system and not realize it.   For that reason, this is something of a maintenance intensive emergency communication system.   That said, these systems have proven extremely useful for both US and enemy military operations in the Middle East with people on all sides commonly using the same service providers.    One provider of these phones and services is here, but it will likely help you to shop around a bit.   A novel deal they have is where you can rent the phones for use on specific trips.   The rates are not so incredibly bad that a person would go bankrupt on them, but you definitely want to keep conversations short and to the point.  

Handheld cell phones are very common in the US and Europe and the systems are surprisingly durable.  Recent conflicts in the Balkans have shown that since cell phones were integrally important to many factions involved, services were preserved.  Many cell phone relay sites are already hardened against catastrophe and have backup sources of power.   Many, if not most, cell phone users have alternate sources of power available, from spare batteries to various adapters that can charge the batteries off of public utilities or vehicle electrical systems.   When you are gearing up for survival, don't discount the use of a cell phone.   An alternative to the 110v charger is a must as the package to the right also shows a relatively simple and essential 12v "car charging plug" that can be easily adapted to solar charging.  The whole package is compact and relatively cheap when purchased used.   The cell phone is probably going to be the most important everyday communication device you can have around.   Cell phone power consumption is minimal so it is easy to run a cell phone or charge it's battery with a solar charger if you have the proper adapters.  

I was recently in a remote mountain wilderness north of Truckee CA miles from the nearest freeway and tested the signal on what is normally a short range cell phone.   It actually worked better than it normally does in the big city because the park service and local ski resorts had cell towers installed in the area to serve skiers and recreational hikers.  Government agencies in the area are known to make extensive use of cell phones.  Unlike conventional handheld radios, you do not need to constantly monitor the phone in order to get a call.  The cell phone services also give the advantages of voice mail.   Of course a disadvantage of the cell phones are lack of reliability when the systems are overloaded and the fact that you have to pay for the air time.   Even with those limitations, cell phone systems are quickly becoming the emergency communication system of choice in most of the world.  Even during the LA riots and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, cell phones provided the most reliable communication that was actually used at critical times.  

Older but sometimes better variations of portable cell phone are used by people who live in more remote wilderness, private pilots and boaters.  These are older generation analog bag phones.  What set them apart the most  from newer phones is that they transmit at much higher power than modern digital cell phones.  While the average PCS phone only transmits a half watt, bag phones normally transmit three to five watts and can sometimes be modified to transmit seven watts.   As a bonus, analog cell systems are usually not set up with the lockouts common to digital systems.  That means you can often use a credit card to make calls or activate an account only when you need it and 911 calls in the US are free with or without an active account.   These phones are no longer in regular production, but used ones in good shape are available almost worldwide for very reasonable prices.  Prices in the sub $50 category are common for a fully accessorized bag phone on ebay and many local pawn shops and thrift stores.   A downside is that most of them take proprietary batteries that can cost more than the phones themselves.  You can improvise 12v battery packs fairly easily and feed power to the phone through the cigarette lighter plugs that usually accompany these phones. 

There are satellite capable cell phones available through most boating supply outlets that can be used to communicate anywhere in the world there is direct satellite coverage, but the hype of them being able to communicate anywhere on the face of the earth is simply not true.  Get outside of major shipping lanes on the open ocean and you are just as screwed with a Meridian phone as you would be with two cups and a string.  Major corporations and government agencies will task satellites to cover areas they consider important, so some seemingly remote areas will have decent satphone coverage.  Links will be added later to give more details on satphone use.  I hear these are favorite toys of the bigger money mercs and secret operatives around the world.   The biggest drawback of the satphones is the high cost of use.  One to five dollars a minute is normal charge for these phone systems on top of the cost of the equipment itself.  

The same modern technology that produced the handheld cell phone has been integrated into a new generation of two way radios that can be of great utility to the survivor.   The only drawback to these radios is that they operate on a relatively narrow frequency band that is vulnerable to eavesdropping and jamming.  The radios are well built and durable and readily available.  Most popular and arguably the best made are the Motorola Talkabout series of FRS band radios.  One of the best features of this new generation of radios is a monitoring tone squelch system that works as a "privacy call mode".  Essentially, the radio is left on with an internal squelch that waits for a digital signal from another radio with the same "privacy setting".  If it receives a coded call signal, it activates the system and signals the user with either a characteristic tone or on some models, an optional silent vibration like a pager.  

The hands down most popular FRS and newer GMRS radios for survival groups and more serious adventurers are the Motorola Talkabouts, and among them the newer high grade models.  The T6300 series is most set apart from other models because they feature a voice scramble system that was previously only available on very costly military and police radios.  It is also about the ONLY handheld radio on the commercial market made to last in a tough field environment with a rubber armored housing and re-enforced antenna shaft a gorilla could not easily break off.  While voice scrambling technology has been largely replaced in elite military and police organizations by channel hopping systems like Trunked radio and SINCGARS, it is still of good utility to those who want a relatively simple and usually effective means of keeping private conversations secure.   If you choose FRS radios for your group's commo, make absolutely certain of your compatibility between radios.  It is best to get the radios all at once to ensure you are getting compatible brands and models.   The Motrola T7200 is the new flagship of the line, and features all of the better communication features of the 6300/6400 series, while trading off some of the fluff like barometers and AM/FM reception for more transmit power in GMRS mode, and better capability in dealing with GMRS repeaters.   Still, even on full power, they are relatively short range radios, especially in urban or mountainous terrain.   In the desert, open tundra or over water, they rule.    I have yet to find one of these radios with a plug-in type antenna that would make it easy to install any sort of transmitter amplifier which means you are most likely limited to the power output they give you with these radios unless you go with a custom built unit. 

Among the T6300 series radios, the model that seems to stand out for survivors and military personnel is the T6320.  Perhaps most of all because it does not come in some cheesy jellybean color like the other Motorola radios including the adequate T6300 and T6310.   All of the 6300 series radios have the same basic features but the -10 and -20 have some added features.  The -10 is not so common, but it has the sometimes useful FM (commercial band) receiver and speaker/headphone jack that is compatible with Walkman style headphones.  Actually not a bad thing for the survivor, but most are going to have another stand alone FM radio anyway.   The -20 model is heavily marketed in the survival and adventure community because of its "extreme outdoor" features and "Amazon green" faceplate.  The special features of this radio are the compass, barometer and altimeter.   A newer model which is essentially the same thing ads GMRS features to the radio, but instead of calling it the T6330, they coined it as a new series of radio.  Apparently the extra frequency coverage is the only thing that sets these 6400 series radios apart from the basic 6300, but I found these radios are best as a communicator and the "fluff" features are best served with stand-alone devices anyway.  

Hosted by Auctionworks!I purchased and tested two of these radios.  Communication features on them work flawlessly.  Sound quality even with the scramble features is pretty good an even a stubborn idiot  can use most of the basic communication features without screwing up the radio.  Durability is top notch and even better than is average for Motorola.  Drop testing did reveal a weak point in the battery housing.  The battery compartment cover can easily come off when the unit is dropped or mishandled, but the radio will fully operate with the cover removed or damaged.  I was impressed by the nearly unbreakable antenna housing and rubber armored pads on the outer edges of the unit.  Someone was thinking when they made this radio.  Power comes from three AA batteries which worried me about battery life, but the radios have proven very energy efficient.   Talk range is decent and reliable within a  half mile and can stretch to two miles under the right conditions.   The radios do have some problems punching a signal through buildings and into vehicles, but they still performed better than expected.   The disappointment is that the internal compass and altimeter are of marginal value.   In the same exact spots, both radios and my GPS gave readings as much as 80 feet apart and never closer than 20 feet together.   The compass is of the electronic fluxgate type found in the rear view mirrors of many newer cars.  While it gives readings within one degree, there is no sighting device on the radio housing and no straight edge for accurate map orientation.   In pointing the radios in relation to my $6 Silva compass, it gave very different readings.  Calibration was also not very successful.  I would have to say that the compass feature is not to be trusted for land navigation and is of little value on one of these radios.   That said, the 6320 radios can be bought by the careful shopper for less than retail for the basic featured (and downright feminine looking) 6300 and the 6320 might still be your choice in this type of radio.    Given that I never felt the need for a barometer, I can't say it is good or bad, but the radios did give consistent barometric readings.   Ask me whether a 6300 series radio is a go or no-go and the answer is that it is a go, even the pricier 6320 model.  There is simply no other game in town for an off the shelf lightweight heavy duty handheld radio that fits the bill in this price range.   If they ever come out with a straight 6300 radio in colors not befitting of the Barbie doll set,  it would be our number one choice.   Either way, the 6300 series rates a place in your group' member's bugout packs. 

There is a newer and more improved breed of the FRS/GMRS combo radio that incorporates the ability to use GMRS frequencies which allow you to transmit with a little more power.   These radios are generally larger than a common FRS radio but still smaller than a handheld CB.    Technically, you need to apply for a license from the FCC (in the US) to legally use the GMRS on the higher power settings, but few people ever go through the trouble to send in the applications.   One real benefit of sending in the applications is that once you are approved to operate GMRS, you can set up a repeater to run it more efficiently in your area.   Repeater technology has improved so much over the years that you can relatively easily configure a semi-portable repeater system to provide reliable commo to a fairly large area.   The Motorola T7200 is the most advanced of these combination radios I have encountered and it incorporates the fairly decent Motorola scramble system and a programmable ability to set the transmit and receive settings on different frequencies.   While this is not exactly "frequency hopping", it does help to assure some level of privacy in your communication.     Understand that scrambling of this sort provides no protection against direction finding equipment.     You can save considerable money by giving up the scramble feature and going with the Cobra brand combo radios which offer good quality at very competitive prices.   

You also have the option  of more involved (and often costly) specialty radios that have loads of features.  These are commonly only available through specialty Radio outlets that deal by catalog or online.   In very rare cases do they have regular storefronts.   HAM radio enthusiasts and government bodies have had broad range technology since the 1980's but it has not been in popular use largely by the legal restrictions placed on the frequencies available for public use by the FCC in the US and Canada.  These radios are fairly common and more readily available in Europe.   

Respected brand names are Yaesu, Icom, and Kenwood.  I personally favor the ICOM brand because they are built on heavier, more substantial chassis, but many consider Yaesu to be the best.  

The radio frequency transmit and receive ranges are computer controlled and usually limited only to those channels that would be legal for an amateur radio operator.    The game, however, is that many models are capable of wider coverage but require modification.  Once modified, these radios can be used on frequencies not accessible by other two way radios and much less likely to be eavesdropped on.   Use of the radios in restricted frequencies is governed by law, but possession of the radios capable of the frequencies is not as strict.   Just do not do stupid things like interfering with emergency public services, which is highly illegal and unethical.  Operation of these radios requires a degree of programming skill.  If you cannot program a VCR, forget anything made by Yaesu or Icom.  

I personally prefer the Icom brand when it comes to HAM radios, but most serious radio enthusiasts consider Yaesu to be the top of the line.   I obtained two models known to be popular with mercs in the Balkans. One Yaesu and one Icom.  I am told that the particular Icom model was recently discontinued (probably had something to do with the connection's willingness to give one up to me at full retail).  The high cost of the radios prevents me from wanting to do any intentional drop tests.  They would but in testing the other features, I found them to be consistent with other off the shelf Handheld HAMs apart from the expanded frequency coverage.  Legal issues aside, these are not radios for the novice. They can be difficult to program and impossible for some people to use.  For instance, two of the people I was testing the Yaesu with managed to push the wrong buttons and get it to talk in a mode where it sends and receives on different frequencies.   This is normal for using repeaters and secure radio nets, but a pain in the ass when you just want to talk locally on a closed net.  In fact, I have practically given up on getting anyone up to speed with these radios and now consider the use of HAM equipment to be best left to experts.  

Lower on the list are handheld CB radios.  They are not bad, but they are not all that great.  Even with the improvements in technology, they often lack range and power.   They are however, universally compatible no matter who the manufacturer is and operation is simple and easy to learn.   Even the average stubborn idiot can figure out the few and simple controls on the average CB radio.  Vehicle and base station CB radio systems can be readily modified to transmit at higher power over long distances.   

CB radios are really not all that bad for most people, especially the casual survivalist.  Many local area survival groups and the Red Cross have CB radio nets as part of their disaster contingency plans.  For loosely organized groups, the brand to brand and model to model frequency standardization of CB radio outweighs nearly all advantages of other communication system.  

CB radio enthusiasts have created a gray market of hot rod and modified CB radios and system components.  This includes side band radios with enhanced sensitivity and transmitting amplifiers that can be used to communicate over hundreds of miles.  Getting and using this equipment often involves its own "underground" of hobbyists who you must connect with to get the better gear.  The advantage is that the equipment is simpler and easier to use than HAM equipment. 

New and currently unconventional means of wireless communication include variations of wireless Internet devices and add-ons for Palm based computers.  In my search for wireless Internet and email options for the Handspring Visor, I have discovered that the current technology is not reliable.  Coverage areas for digital cell networks needed by these devices are not universal and most of the devices are not capable of communicating with each other independently of the network.   Improvements in this technology are using pager systems that are already in place and localized computer networks.   The Motorola device pictured at the right is one of the better devices but is far from perfect.  The most important advancements will be in direct device to device communication independent of an outside network system.  Right now, a few of the devices are capable of this but they are not widely available.  It is also possible to take off the shelf technology to develop wireless text communication over short distances.  This communication could easily be very secure and give the users the ability to communicate in video.  

On the really cheap side, but pretty idiot proof and easy to use is the humble whistle.   The piercing noise can be heard over respectable distances, sometimes equal to the range of smaller radios.   A cheap whistle for signaling people just out of sight or shouting range (or if you just want to save your voice) can be just the trick. 


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