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The ability to communicate with your loved ones immediately following a disaster is critical for finding out if everyone is safe, determining where they’re located, and re-uniting with them if separated during the disaster. Not knowing the status of a loved one can add huge amounts of stress to an already stressful situation. With a little planning and a few supplies, you and your family members can be well-prepared to communicate after a disaster strikes.
It’s also important to have at least a few essential tools in your emergency bags because you might need to do things like improvise a shelter or fix something in an emergency.
In my previous post in this series, I described the First Aid, hygiene, and personal items to include in emergency bags. In this post, I cover the communication-related items and the tools and other supplies for emergency bags. I label each item as essential, recommended, or optional for either a 72 Hour Bag or a Get Home Bag. The essential items are the minimum that should be included in each type of emergency bag.
One of the things we often take for granted in our daily lives is communication. Most people have a smart phone that has the ability to make phone calls, send and receive text messages, use the internet, and send and receive emails. During disasters, the phone system is often damaged and offline for long periods of time and, if still functioning, gets jammed due to the large amount of traffic immediately following an emergency. Thinking about how your family will communicate during an emergency, and then formulating and writing down a plan can help make communication go much smoother.
Family Communication Plan
Before considering the supplies and equipment to keep in your emergency bags, it’s essential to decide how you’re going to communicate with family and loved ones during a disaster and its aftermath. The following information should be included in a family communication plan:
- Contact information for each family/household member. This includes cell phone numbers, land line numbers, work phone numbers, school or day care phone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts that can be used to communicate in an emergency.
- Identify an out-of-the-area contact and write down their phone number and email address. It may be easier to communicate with someone out of state whose communication networks are not degraded or inundated with traffic. Each family member can check-in with your out-of-state contact who can also relay information.
- Determine how you’re going to communicate in an emergency. The following is the protocol that my family has established for our communication methods. This is just an example and may not be the best sequence for your situation. Even so, this at least provides a look at one family’s plan.
- Option 1: communicate directly by phone. This may be challenging due to damage to infrastructure and high volumes of phone traffic.
- Option 2: Send text messages. Text messages are sent over cellular networks in small packets of data that don’t require continuous connections like voice calls do. As a result, text messages may still be able to get through even if you can’t connect over a voice call.
- Option 3: Call your out-of-the-area contact. If you can’t communicate directly by voice calls or text messages, try to call and check in with your family’s out-of-the-area contact. If you’re able to get through to your contact, they might already have information regarding the status of your other family members; thereby allowing everyone to check in periodically to get updates.
- Option 4: Email or social media. You’ll need an internet connection for this; therefore, if you have data service on your cell phone or can connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot that has connectivity to the internet, you can send and receive emails or even chat with loved ones. My family has this method as option 4 because email is typically an asynchronous means of communication as emails often go unseen and unread for long periods of time. Social media posts are also a good way to broadcast your status to many people at once.
- Option 5: Check-in and update status with Safe and Well (or call 1‐800‐733‐2767).
- Write it all down. Having this information readily accessible if a disaster does occur can take some of the stress out of communicating. Program phone numbers and email addresses into your cell phones. Write everything down that I just described above, print it out, and keep a copy of it in your emergency bags, at work, at school, etc. If you have school-age children, print out the information and keep a copy in each one of their backpacks or book bags.
If you would like a template to get started on making your communication plan, there are many public service websites like TakeWinterByStorm.org that have free downloadable communication plans.
What’s more, there are services like Safe and Well (or call 1‐800‐733‐2767) that I mentioned above that are made specifically so that friends and family members can let each other know that they’re okay and to relay messages to each other.
Now that you have a plan for communicating in an emergency, the following list includes the essential, recommended, and optional communication items to include in your emergency bag:
- Family Communication Plan (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Whistle (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Small Signal Mirror (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Hand-crank Emergency Radio (essential 72HB, recommended GHB)
- Cell Phone/Battery Charger (essential 72HB, recommended GHB)
- Cell Phone Cord (essential 72HB, recommended GHB)
- Two-way Radio (optional 72HB/GHB)
Family Communication Plan – Print out multiple copies and keep at least one at home in an emergency binder and keep additional copies in 72 Hour Bags, Get Home Bags, automobiles, at work, at school, etc.
Whistle – Whistles may seem like low-tech communication devices, but they can be used to signal over relatively long distances. They’re considered essential for hiking and backpacking, and they’re relatively inexpensive, making them a great addition to emergency bags. If you or one of your family members gets lost or separated from the group, you can whistle to call for help. Three toots on a whistle, or three of anything for that matter is considered a distress signal. They may also be used to alert people of danger like a fire.
Savvy Tip – While whistles are inexpensive, many pieces of gear include an integrated whistle. Many backpacks made for hiking have a whistle built into the chest strap. Some models of survival gear like knives and fire-starter rods can also have integrated whistles.
Signal Mirror – A small mirror can be a multi-purpose item for your emergency bag. Catch a reflection from the sun, and the light from the mirror can be seen from far away. A signal mirror is highly recommended for wilderness survival situations, as this may be one of the only ways to be seen by a search aircraft. This is less likely to be the case in an urban or suburban survival scenario but because there are many inexpensive options to choose from, and they have so many other uses, mirrors are an essential for an emergency bag. What’s more, because I wear contact lenses, I also use the mirror for putting in and taking out my lenses. For medical uses, a mirror can be used to look at wounds in hard to see places on the body and to check for ticks if that is a concern in your area.
Hand Crank Emergency Radio – During emergencies, the authorities will likely be broadcasting important information through local radio stations. Consequently, having a small radio will allow you to access that information. In addition, some radios provide access to channels that specifically broadcast weather information. A hand-cranked radio has the advantage of not needing additional batteries or an external power source to charge it. Many of these units are designed specifically for emergency situations and include a flashlight and USB ports for charging cell phones and other electronic devices.
Frostory Emergency Power 5-LED Flashlight Hand Crank Dynamo with AM/FM Siren Radio Cellphone Charger – I purchased one of these for my 72 Hour Bag and it works great. I have to continuously crank the dynamo to charge my cell phone and was able to increase the charge on my phone by a few percent after a few minutes of cranking. It would be a lot of work to charge the battery all the way but a few minutes of cranking would allow you to make a short call or send quite a few text messages.
RunningSnail Emergency Hand Crank Radio – This emergency radio has all the features of the Frostory and also incudes both a small solar panel and access to the NOAA weather radio stations. These are great features for just a few dollars more than the basic Frostory model.
Cell Phone/Battery Charger – If the cell phone network remains intact after a disaster, but your battery runs dead, you’ll be missing out on a vital means of communication. A small, portable battery charger is essential for a 72 Hour Bag and recommended for a Get Home Bag. There are battery pack units that are charged using a USB connection, battery packs with built-in solar panels for recharging, and hand-cranked units with small integrated batteries that can be recharged by turning the crank. I prefer the hand-cranked devices like the one I recommend for an emergency radio since they combine so many features into one device.
The charge capacities of these devices are typically rated in milli-Amp-hours (mAh). The higher the number the more charge the unit can deliver without having to be recharged itself.
Floureon 10000 mAh Solar Charger – If you want a means of recharging your cell phone (or other devices) that isn’t a hand-cranked model, this unit is waterproof and includes an integrated LED flashlight and a compass.
Cell Phone Cable – Don’t forget a cable to connect your charger to your phone.
Two-way Radio – Small portable “walkie-talkies” can be used to communicate between family members if the phone grid is down or jammed because of excessive traffic. Most of these radios use public radio channels that may also have heavy traffic in emergency situations. The three most commonly used radio bands available to the public are the Citizens Band (CB), Family Radio Service (FRS), and the General Mobile Radio System (GMRS). However, the GMRS bands require a license to be used in the United States so the FRS and CB models are preferred if you don’t want to go through the trouble of getting a GMRS license. The range of a two-way radio is typically advertised as a distance in miles or kilometers, which represents the maximum range in ideal conditions. The actual range when using in the real world will vary, however, depending on terrain, elevation of the two radios, and ground cover. Typically, cities with tall concrete and metal buildings are the hardest to communicate within over even short distances. If you decide to include two-way radios in your emergency bags, it’s important to have primary and backup channels identified and written down in your family’s communication plan.
The key communication device that I plan to use during a potential disaster situation is my cell phone. To ensure that it has power to send and receive calls, text messages, and possibly access the internet, I carry a hand-crank emergency radio (1) shown in the image below that can be used to charge my phone when a connection is made between the two using a power cord (4). I’ll also use the radio function of the Frostory brand emergency radio to get crucial information that’s broadcast by the authorities during an emergency. For additional communication gear, I have chosen to keep a whistle (2) and mirror (3) in my 72 Hour Bag.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a family communication plan. So, ensure that your family has a communication plan and keep a copy of it together with your overall emergency plan at home, at any pre-determined evacuation locations, and in each emergency bag.
Tools and Supplies
One thing that’s guaranteed in a disaster situation is that there will be unpredictable situations in which having certain basic tools and related supplies will help you to overcome. A good multi-tool typically combines over a dozen tools into one device which makes one essential for any emergency bag. There are a number of multi-use items that have a place in a well-provisioned emergency bag.
Tools and Supplies List
Essential, recommended, and optional items for 72 Hour Bags and Get Home Bags are listed below:
- Multi-tool (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Cash (essential 72HB/GHB)
- N95 Dust Mask (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Duct Tape (essential 72HB, recommended GHB)
- Paracord (essential 72HB, recommended GHB)
- Pocketknife (recommended 72HB/GHB)
- Sewing Kit (recommended 72HB)
- Zip Ties (recommended 72HB)
- Wire Saw (Optional 72HB)
Multi-tool – A multi-tool combines many of the most commonly-used tools into one item. Pliers, screwdrivers, knives, bottle openers, and a small saw blade are often included in a multi-tool. A good multi-tool is an indispensable item when you must fix something, open a tin-can, cut cordage or small branches, or perform countless other actions that may be needed in a disaster situation.
Due to the fact that they’re all combined in one item, they aren’t always the most convenient to use, but in a pinch, they’ll get the job done. And they’re better than the alternative, which is to carry dedicated tools for each of the functions.
Pocketknife – A knife is the tool that you’ll probably use the most in a disaster. Cutting rope, plastic sheeting, cardboard, and branches to create a makeshift shelter or insulation are just some of the likely uses for a knife that you’ll encounter. I find the knives included in most multi-tools to be cumbersome to use. For this reason, I recommend carrying an extra pocketknife in addition to a multi-tool. Folding pocketknives take up less room when folded, don’t require an additional sheath to safely carry, and they feel much more natural in your hand than a multi-tool.
Be sure to research the laws in your area to find out the maximum blade length that is legal to carry without being considered a concealed weapon because you’ll be carrying this in your pocket or emergency bag.
Kershaw Cryo 2.75” 8Cr13MoV Steel Blade and Stainless Steel Handle with Titanium Carbo-Nitride Coating– I received one of these as a gift and have carried it daily for about 3 years. It’s held an edge better than other knives I’ve owned and it’s comfortable in my hand.
Cash – If the power is out, computerized and network-based payment systems will, unfortunately, also be unusable. Carrying at least $20-$50 in small bills can be used to buy food, water, gas, and other supplies.
N95 Dust Mask – Buildings and other infrastructure can be damaged in a disaster creating debris large and small. Some of that debris can become airborne during the disaster or afterwards if you have to sort through debris. The airborne particulates can create an additional hazard to your respiratory system. Basic inexpensive N95 dust masks can help prevent inhaling those debris and offer a level of protection to your lungs.
Duct Tape – The universal fix-it tape has too many uses to list. You can buy small rolls intended for packs such as 72-Hour Bags or you can just take some off of a full-size role and wrap it around another item in your emergency bag like a water bottle for storage.
Paracord – A favorite among preppers, paracord has many uses. One of the most common and helpful uses is stringing up a tarp for a makeshift shelter or rain-fly. It is also frequently used as a shoe-lace or belt, or to fashion lanyards for keeping items like knives and compasses attached to your clothing (to prevent dropping and losing them).
Sewing Kit – A small sewing kit can be used to patch clothing, patch a tent, re-attach a button to a shirt, or fix a shoe or boot. While not essential, it can be a useful item if needed and at only a few dollars for a kit that includes multiple needles and lengths of thread it is a recommended item for your 72-Hour Bag. When I stay at a hotel that includes a small sewing kit with the complimentary items in my room, I feel like I’ve hit the disaster preparedness jackpot and am sure to take one.
Zip Ties – Another multi-purpose item, zip ties are a recommended item for your 72-Hour Bag. They can be used to fix things, fasten things together, and for many other purposes. This is another low-cost and versatile item to include.
Wire Saw – A wire saw has a wire-like cutting blade that’s typically 12” to 18” long and has handles on each end. They can be more effective at cutting small branches than a small blade that might be included in your multi-tool, so they are a good optional item to include in your 72 Hour Bag.
The figure below shows the tools and other supplies that I keep in my 72 Hour Bag. Paracord (1) and duct tape (2) are shown together with several feet of duct tape from a standard size roll wrapped around the bundle of paracord. Perhaps the most versatile tool is the 14-in-1 multi-tool (3) that is made by Tacklife. The standard N95 dust masks (4) I included came in a pack of 3 and I bundled up some zip ties (5) that I had in my garage. I acquired the sewing kit (6) that is shown as a complementary item in a hotel that I stayed in once. The cash (7) is self-explanatory and the folding pocket knife (8) is the Kershaw Cryo model that I actually carry on a daily basis.
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In my next post, I’ll conclude this series on emergency bags by describing important documents to include, tips on selecting a bag to put everything in, and some tips on packing your emergency gag.
The content provided in this post is intended for informational, educational, and entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional and the information provided does not constitute professional advice. If you choose to use any of the information or recommended products, you do so at your own risk. For more information, read the full disclaimer here.
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