Communications Planning

By Reltney McFee

Reltney McFee has been a commo geek for over 25 years. Beginning as a Fire Department medic, he monitored police dispatch so he could avoid going on scenes he was dispatched to as “sick person” and that the cops got as “shootings.” He earned a Ham license, and recently added GMRS to his options

Selection of your means of communication will be driven by the circumstances you anticipate, the resources you may invest in this mission, and what you intend to accomplish

As I write this, there can be no doubt that consumer electronics are what make the world go round. When we consider our preparations for self-reliance, we can hop aboard the “gee whiz!” train, or carefully deliberate regarding our acquisitions. No gizmo will, of itself, make us safe.

As has been noted by smarter folks than me, owning a gun does not make you a pistolero, any more than owning a piano makes you a musician. Similarly, owning the most toys is not a winning strategy. Selectively acquiring tools may support a strategy that proves successful in enhancing our families’ security. Some of those tools are communication tools, and the degree of thought you devote to their employment may make them an asset, or a liability.

Your selection of communication tools will depend upon several variables. You cannot employ tools that you do not have. Possession of tools does not grant the ability to effectively employ them. Some will, by their employment, reveal your presence, location, or capabilities. Others may be compromised by battery failure, cloudy days (or night time), or cut wires. Worse, you may continue merrily to communicate, unwittingly including adversaries in your conversations as they monitor or eavesdrop on your traffic. Therefore, selection of your means of communication will be driven by the circumstances you anticipate, the resources you may invest in your mission, and what you intend to accomplish.

Selection of which communication options will best serve your needs ought to develop from an assessment of those needs. This assessment will derive from consideration of your mission, the threats to which you are responding, your assets, and your strategic and tactical environment. These reflections will form your tactical and strategic plans.

To summarize: the elements of Communication Planning are:

  • Mission
  • Threat Assessment
  • Assets
  • Strategic Environment
  • Tactical Environment

“Your mission” is a statement of why you are bothering at all to do something worth communicating. Your communication mission will be supporting your overall mission. Once you determine what you are setting out to accomplish, your “communication mission statement” will identify how communications activities will move that project forward.

For example, when I was a rural ER nurse, I carried an amateur (Ham) handheld radio by which I would monitor county fire dispatch, as well as Ham “Skywarn” (weather spotter) nets. My communication mission statement might read as follows:

“My strategic goal is orderly patient care, smooth hospital functioning, staff safety and efficiency. This will be promoted by securing early warning of community events which may impact ER patient numbers or acuity, or pose threats to the functioning of the hospital or the safety of our patients”

You may not be a member of a hospital staff. Your goals may be more personal. Therefore another strategic/tactical mission statement might read:

“My strategic goal is to preclude, identify, respond to, and abort another attempt by the Roog to kidnap my children. Therefore I will effectively communicate with my wife and children regarding the presence of the Roog.”

The first example carries within it the implicit threat assessment as well as resource assessment. My role as a nursing supervisor is implied in this statement. The second exemplar implicitly incorporates an asset assessment, with family as responders of one sort or another. The second mission statement also implies a fire plan, as well as alternate or supporting response plans (e.g.: call 911, take cover, do not answer the door unarmed, etcetera).

You might be able to develop a one-sentence summary of the strategic mission statement. (“Do not surprise the ER nurse”, “Protect my children from the Roog.”) That sort of drill might assist you to keep task focused when you feel overwhelmed. I generally begin to feel overwhelmed as the merde hits the fan.

Your threat assessment will catalog the hazards you anticipate, and ought to rank in order by a mix of likelihood and potential for catastrophe. That is, high likelihood risks ought to be planned for (flat tire or dead battery on your vehicle, illness of some sort, ice dams and roof leak in The Un-Named Fly Over State (TUNFOS), solicitation of your SSN by personnel who do not require it), as well as low percentage/high damage risks (house fire, tornado, prolonged episode of unemployment).

From this ranking of threats, you develop a priority list of which issues to address now, and which later. Easily addressed threats may be countered sooner (do not reveal your SSN to unwarranted personnel), more complex responses are deferred, or built up to (save for/comparison shop for generator to keep frozen foods frozen once power fails, begin to purchase first month of your 12-month-food-storage-plan). This ranking will guide your planning for acquisition of assets. In addition, this sort of contemplation allows for an orderly build up of assets, and prevents unnecessary spending.

Your asset assessment includes personnel (family or colleagues), hardware, planning, resources you may call upon (as a fire department calls for mutual aid from neighboring departments), and collateral benefits and costs of employing each asset. Included are assets you might employ, but do not control.

Personnel assets may include neighbors, family, others in your group, or none of the above. Planning requires some realistic assessment of your personnel, both strengths and weaknesses. Number Two Son is reliable as a first aider, and can keep magazines topped off, but is not of an age (in 2006) where I anticipate his active role in any fire plan. He and his younger brother, on the other hand are able radio communicators.

Hardware assets: Populating this list, and the decision processes leading to that list, are the topics of today’s “homily.” Your planning helps you decide what items are mission essential, which are mission supporting, and which are (to be blunt) toys.

Among the assets you might employ, but do not necessarily control are the public switched telephone network, the cellular telephone services, the local Ham radio repeater, a GMRS repeater to which you subscribe, or the communications of your local public safety professionals. The point of making the use-versus-own distinction, is that you are not in a position to dictate maintenance practices, or the philosophy of redundancy employed by the owner of (say) the Ham repeater, if you do not hold title to the equipment (and the associated costs). Upside: you do not especially care how expensive the damaged equipment is, once it is damaged and out of service. Downside: you have little or no input into planning to avoid the service outage in the first place. Take home message: plan on an alternative. An acquaintance of mine, a ham, spoke of her family’s layered commo plan: cell phone as first layer, Ham repeater as second layer, Amateur (Ham) VHF simplex as option #3. Not perfect, but redundancy is good.

Strategic assessment investigates the larger situation, or longer term. It involves decisions regarding where you want the flow of events to take you. For example, a Jew in Nazi Germany might plan to concoct the disappearance of his family as a strategic response to Kristallnacht. The strategic plan might be to depart Germany altogether, once circumstances had evolved to the point where his family traveling would be less likely to be apprehended. This would interact with the tactical assessment that the Gestapo was going door-to-door in the next town, searching out and arresting Jews, with the implication that this was only the beginning of Very Bad Things.

Your tactical environment assessment describes the actions required to succeed in each engagement. This takes into account the constraints upon each action alternative, the benefits of each alternative, and how each action fits into your other plans. Your fire plan, for example, might specify what actions by hostiles will elicit gunfire, and which will be met by patient expectation of the sheriff’s deputy. In my plan, The Roog may stand outside my door as long as they wish, and explain my shortcomings and character flaws to the nice police officer who arrives to take my trespassing complaint. Once they begin to break in my door, however, I will respond to riotous entry with force.

Thus, tactical assessment and planning is short term, whereas strategic assessment and planning is long term. Tactical thinking gets you and your associates through this engagement, strategic thinking structures engagements so that they develop more to your liking. Strategic: “Things are going to hell in a handbasket, the pace of the handbasket is increasing!” Tactical: “Everybody into the car! Now! (Don’t forget the gasoline and guns).”

A well thought out communication plan will support other elements of your planning. For example, should you elect to employ trip wire triggered flares to communicate the presence of intruders in your perimeter, that might support your defense plan by illuminating your attackers, ideally encouraging them to flee. Alternately, the detonation of the 12 gauge shotgun flares in their midst might spoil your adversaries’ attack tempo as well as deprive them of surprise. In the second-best case, those who did not flee might demonstrate less unit cohesion, plan failure, and (one might hope) fratricidally degraded fire discipline, thus enhancing the effectiveness of your defensive plan.

Once you have decided upon the first mission to plan for, you then can consider how communications will move that mission forward. If you elect to address a weather event as your first threat, then your mission can vary from sheltering in place (mole hole, anyone?), to withdrawal to a neighboring county containing family or friends, to evacuating to another state or nation altogether.

Each strategy has it’s own communication implications. Sheltering in place suggests the utility of being able to monitor National Weather Service broadcasts, as well as Skywarn traffic. Perhaps you will want the ability to monitor fire, EMS and police radio traffic. This might be useful to reveal the scope and nature of the damage your neighbors are experiencing, with implications on several levels for your family’s security and safety. If the entire neighborhood is under water, all the assurances from New Orleans Mayor Nagin that you will be safe begin to ring a bit empty as you wonder where you will retreat to as your attic begins to fill. It likely is superior to determine that sheltering-in-place is a losing strategy, sooner rather than later.

QST, the journal of the ARRL, America’s national Amateur (“HAM”) Radio association, recounted several stories of Ham involvement in rescues of persons trapped by the New Orleans Katrina flood waters. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an alternative to wireline or cellular telephones should your family require emergency assistance? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could be one of those assisting others in need? Wouldn’t you be a considerable community asset if you had these capabilities? Don’t you want to run right out and earn a Ham radio license? It is not likely that you will be able to keep your family materially more safe than your neighbors. Plan to be an asset.

Relocating across the county suggests communications both to ensure that the whole family is together, and for the possibility of assisting in recovery efforts augmented by your personal communication assets. If your relocation is an extemporaneous event, you may require some coordination of efforts. If your plan is wireline telephone, you are assuming both that the Bell network will remain in service, and that it will be available for non-official traffic. These assumptions may not be proven true. Similarly, if you assume that you can contact whomever you need to via cellular telephone, you assume that the network remains in service, and that the tower you are pinning your plans to remains a) standing, b) in service, and c) not saturated by eleven bajillion other folks similarly trusting to others for their communication needs. There are several failure modes that will spoil your plans, and they are not particularly unlikely.

If you anticipate relocating to another state or nation entirely, you have another set of communication opportunities altogether. Depending upon how dramatic of a journey you are considering, your communication needs may be met by a note tacked to the front door (“Gone to Grandma’s: call her house!”), a USPS letter addressed to a friend on the fringes of trouble, or an email/Internet post recounting the particulars of your relocation. Another phase may call for Family Radio Service/CB/Amateur VHF or UHF/GMRS handheld or mobile radios, so that the movements of your convoy may be coordinated and those experiencing mechanical trouble, fuel problems, or other distress do not get left behind. While en route, employing the “release-to-listen” button (and thereby not transmitting) might allow you to overhear useful information deliberately (or accidentally) transmitted in the clear. This might be public safety communications regarding a collision that might alter your routing, or some malefactors plotting some mayhem, that you might be able to avoid.

You might determine that your first priority is to prepare for and respond to a civil disorder sort of event. Your plan might be to relocate in advance of the “festivities” (crisis relocation planning, indeed!), or might be to lay low, counting upon your unobtrusive nature to carry the day. In the one case, you had best not be a day late, and therefore keeping on top of law enforcement, fire, and EMS activity trends will be very important. Sheltering-in-place would require emission control, and might make two way radio transmissions a threat. Such a shelterist might find surplus field telephones to communicate between the garage and the house, or the OP and the shelter, to be a good choice.

Another example might be planning for routine travel in rural areas. Again, as I write this, Northern TUNFOS is (surprise!) snow-covered. For those of us living and working in rural areas, the fact of a lengthy drive to work is not news. Come winter, that drive takes on new dimensions. Baseline planning includes packing a change of warm clothing, a sleeping bag, some MREs (or equivalent), snow shovel, jumper cables, and keeping fluids (including fuel) topped off. Supporting this plan adds considerations of communications in the event of an inextricable snowdrift, collision, or suchlike. In my household, the pocket cell phone is Plan A. My wife has a backup, in-car, cell phone. For all the words I have thus far written on this topic, she does not have a Ham license, and has that avenue closed to her. I am moving forward with GMRS radio, but the Money Tree is not blooming this winter (for some reason…), and therefore this option proceeds at a deliberate pace. The licensure requirements of Amateur radio illustrate one of the tactical considerations of planning: it is likely to be ill advised to transmit on Ham frequencies without licensure. GMRS may prove a solution to this issue, with its household licensure. We all do need to be licensed to operate upon GMRS frequencies. One license per household, however, is exactly what the Federal Communications Commission requires.

You can repeat this process for yourself. Insert the threat you see as the top priority, how you and your family might respond to it, what your options are, and how each response option might work out. Once you have selected what appears to be the optimal response, you may have some confidence in it. You will have tested this proposed response against your mission, the threats you foresee, and the assets you can use. You will have compared the strategic and tactical environments against your plans, and tried to fix those plans so as to account for the facts around you. You will be in a position to invest, thoughtfully, in tools to move your mission forward. You will then be able to integrate these tools into your plan, because you will have a vision of how they will fit into your plans, and accomplish tasks that are mission essential (or, later on in the process, mission promoting). Your thoughtful planning will make it easier for your family to get behind your preparedness preparations. You will have planned to make your family safer. You will have planned to make your neighbors safer.

For More Information


The ARRL will be a source of good information, and their journal QST frequently carries articles regarding survival-related activities (Skywarn) or projects (“ARES Boom Box,” which I posted on this very blog, in order to keep it online) (originally at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/wx2nj/aresbox.html). Hams not infrequently spend time pondering how to “oops-proof” their equipment, homes, or vehicles. Sounds like us, eh?


QRZ.com offers a variety of information regarding Amateur Radio, in terms of both operating, and of obtaining your license. The second link connects you to practice exams, so that with a bit of study, you may be confident of how you will perform of the licensing exam.


This is the web page for an Amateur Radio linked repeater system in the New York/Philadelphia/Atlantic City area. I include this link as an example of what can be accomplished via Amateur Radio, and the sort of non-owned asset that is available.


Coleman’s has a continually evolving catalog of surplus items, including, from time to time, field telephones.

Here are links that I found useful regarding GMRS issues, equipment, and utilization.



The web pages above speak of non amateur radio communication options.



3 thoughts on “Communications Planning

  1. Thanks for the informative article, and the one before.

    I’m cobbling together a portable CB station in a 5.56mm ammo box (water and EMP-proof!); plenty of room for a 12Ah SLA battery, Nano-VNA and Tuner for the antenna, folding solar panel, and the Albrecht AE6110 which is a lot of radio in a tiny package. The antenna is a dipole I made of salvaged wire. A poor man’s HF, and no license required. Here in Teutonia one can even use a data mode on CB. One can hypothetically open a solder bridge and close another on the AE6110 that opens up 10m band, but that would require a Ham license. Sadly, no SSB.

    How is the trick knee, and the furry coterie? Cats were worshiped in Egypt, over 3000 years ago. They have not forgotten this. May The Lord bless and keep you and yours.


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