Let’s presume you’re part of a group of folks who have decided to “do community together.”  By this, you mean to provide an exchange of knowledge, wisdom, and resources to better live a life closer to God and closer to nature.

As part of this life, and in light of recent failures in the common communications grid, you’ve begun exploring options to provide reliable, secure, private communications between yourself, your family, and your friends.

Perhaps you’ve explored radio comms.  Perhaps you’ve explored messaging apps.  The more you’ve decended this rabbit hole, the more confusing it’s become.  

The goal of this page is give you a framework and decision-making method to create your communications plan.

Step 1: Define Your Goal

What is the purpose of your communication system?

Is your concern a virtual “hang out,” where folks can discuss what’s on their mind, discuss current events, vent their frustration, plan events and get-togethers, etc.?

Is your concern an emergency notification system your friends and family can use to check-in and verify each other’s wellness?  Perhaps it’ll be a means of emergency notification in case of a fugitive in the neighborhood (which recently occurred in our community), an incoming tornado, or a lost dog?

Or maybe you’d like to have a grid-independent means of coordinating a neighborhood protection plan.

The purpose of your communications will dictate the message formats as well as the means of communication you use.

Some potential purposes include:

  • Neighborhood Coordination
  • Wide-Area Group Collaboration
  • Family Keep-in-Touch in case of internet interruption
  • News Dissemination
  • Protective Team Coordination and Reporting

Step 2: Determine Your Communications Parameters

The next Communications Plan considerations is the parameters in which you intend to operate your communications platform(s).

By parameters, we mean the conditions in which you’ll operate, and the people who will operate it.  Let’s break this down:

 

Conditions

Any comprehensive plan takes into account the system’s dependencies.  For example, cell phone usage depends on the cell networks and their functionality.

Messaging apps depend on an internet connection, which may also mean cell network functionality, as well as the messaging app’s host functionality.  So you may have internet, and your friends may have internet, but if Meta (the parent company for Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp) suffers a cyber attack, these platforms may be compromised.

Every technology-based system depends on a power source.  Some are more dependent on the power grid than others.  Some systems can easily be operated on battery backup.  But even if your communication device is functioning, local systems may fail.  For example, although a HAM radio repeater most likely has a battery backup, it could potentially fail or run out of power.  This would limit the range of your radio to it’s own power rating, dependent on terrain and weather.  So consider the power requirementes and potential failure points for whatever systems you employ.

Non-technological means do not depend on the power grid or the communications grid, but are very limited in range.  Face-to-face is excellent, but depends on transportation, which could be severely hampered by weather, fuel supply, injury, or other factors.  It’s also supremely short-range.

A flag at your house could communicate wellness or a call for help, but it also depends on the intended recipient to notice the flag.

 

Operators

The next concern is who will operate the communications system.  Military organizations and businesses over the years have recognized the need to have dedicated communications personnel.  Most recently, we’ve seen more and more people become communicators due to the ease of email and text and direct messaging.  This has resulted in far more communications, as well as far more noise and overwhelming inboxes.

The ease of use and technological prowess required of the primary users will largely dictate what systems you implement in what order.  To use HAM technologies, you’ll want licensed operators who enjoy tinkering with radios and setting up networks.  They easily remember frequencies, modes of communications, equipment and configurations.  They also understand how to talk on the radio so that messages communicate clearly, and can do so as if it’s their native language.  When a transmission seems faint, they know how to adjust the doohickies and whatnots to tune a transmission in more clearly.  Most likely, you only have a handful of these folks, if you’re fortunate enough to have more than one tech-minded radiofile.

Most people, in my experience, like the idea of radio communications, but zone out when I start discussing single-side bands, atmospheric effects, and the phonetic alphabet.  Getting people to use radios regularly is nearly impossible, unless they’re already naturally wired to find such matters interesting.

Your communications plan will have to take this into account.  Perhaps you build a communications team in which members of the team are co-located with other members of the group.  Much like a battalion or brigade, each sub-unit has communications personnel who monitor and communicate messages, and then deliver the messages to the necessary people within their unit.  Likewise, if a company commander needs to send a message to his battalion commander, he’ll request his communications officer relay the message to the battalion’s communications center. 

We have become so accustomed to everyone having a communication device superior to anything Gene Roddenberry ever envisioned that we have forgotten that broad commuications isn’t necessarily, or even primarily, an every-person endeavor.  

At this point, you’ve probably recognized that you will need multiple layers for communication depending on the conditions you and your people face.  So let’s discuss that next.

Step 4: Message Format and Message Classification

Military 9 Line Medevac Form

The U.S. Military “9 Line Medevac Request Form” is used when transmitting a request for medical evacuation.  The radio operator will announce that he/she has a 9 line message to convey.  The receiving operator will confirm that he/she is ready to receive, indicating that he/she has the form ready to complete.  The transmitter will then simply say, “Line 1:___” and communicate the message for that field, rather than trying to say everything on the form.  The receiving operator will confirm receipt of each field.

Some Potential Message Formats

What formal messages might you want to format?

  • Requests for emergency assistance
    • Who needs assistance?
    • Where is the person?
    • What resources are needed (police, ambulance, a fast horse, etc.)
    • How urgent is the need for help?
    • Who else is present?
  • Warnings of impending danger
    • The nature of the danger (tornado, intruder, questionable character, flash flood, etc.)
    • Expected time of the event
    • Who might be affected
    • What resources might one need to prepare
  • Event Plan
    • Date of the event
    • Place of the event
    • Times of the event
    • Purpose of the event
    • Who is invited or expected
  • RSVPs for an event
  • Position Update
    • Who is reporting
    • Coordinates for the person (or address or landmarks)
    • Time of arrival
    • Anticipated time of departure

Every message is not created equal.

A call to your mom and a call to 911 are quite different messages.  One is likely much more urgen than the other (unless you haven’t called your mom in a month, which means your life may be better saved by giving her a ring rather than phoning 911).

Likewise, some messages a routine, and some are urgent, and some are just plain spam.

Message Formats

Once you’ve determined your communications purposes, above, it’s time to consider the message formats.

In the HAM world, a formal message format can be used to relay a message from a non-licensed operator through HAMs to another non-licensed operator.  It has a formal heading and body and signature.

You may want to devise a format for formal messages.  Doing so provides your network with a reliable system to understand the source, purpose, content, and actions that should result from the message.  It also answers all the questions your comms peeople will have if someone asks them to send a message.

In the tech world, this is known as meta data.  It’s the envelope that contains the message.  Meta data is extremely helpful and necessary, but also can be used for nefarious purposes.  We’ll discuss that shortly.

Message Classification

You’re probably familiar with the term, Top Secret.  We know it means that a message is intended only for those with sufficient security clearance and involvement to receive the message.

Classifying messages will determine what communications apparatus you employ to send and receive the message.  By creating a message classification system with your team, you’ll determine what data to include, who should receive it, security measures you’ll use, and platforms you’ll employ.

Without a message classification system, you’ll default to the easiest means of sending a message, hoping that people you don’t want to see it don’t stumble into the transmission.

But I have nothing to hide

Everyone has something to hide.  Privacy is a basic, natural right.  You don’t want anyone watching you in the restroom.  You don’t want robbers to know your whole family is at a funeral.  And it isn’t everyone’s business if you’re fighting cancer.  Every message has a security level.  When you begin coordinating a group, you’ll have messages of various sensitivity.  Classifying them simply makes sense.

Potential Classifications

  • Routine: no security concerns.  Anyone can read this.
  • FOUO: For Official Use Only (or FIOU, For Internal Use Only)
  • Secret: For leadership, and the leader’s leaders to receive and disseminate as appropriate.
  • Top Secret: Only for those most directly involved and concerned with the subject matter.

Notice that a man may have Top Secret comms for his wife, secret comms for his children, and Internal Use Only comms for his community, all revolving around the same subject matter.

Step 5: Build Classified and Redundant Communications Networks

Classified Systems

Routine messages can transmit on systems with low security.

Top Secret messages should be transmitted only on systems with high levels of privacy and security.

It’s not more complicated than that.

When you select and build your communications methods, research the platforms and the security level they entail.  Then assign each message type, based on classification, to the corresponding mode of communication.

This means in your plan, you take the time to layout examples and types of messages based on their sensitivity, and which platforms to use to communicate.

Build Redundancy

No communications method is 100% reliable.  Every system has its pitfalls.  This means that your community should understand your redundancy plan.

For example, if my first means of communication is via text message, but for some reason my texts are not being delivered, then maybe I go to the online messaging platform we’ve adopted.  If that doesn’t work, then I turn to a phone call.  If that isn’t working, I try email to a specific comms person.  If all else fails, I try the walkie-talkie and turn to the station we’ve all agreed to use, etc.

The key to a successful communications plan is the layers of redundancy, and everyone’s adoption of the multiple layers.

Step 6: Select and Build Your Systems

Once you’ve begun selecting your communications systems, you’ll recognize that you can’t build them all at once.

We recommend you select your communications team, first, and assign them each a piece of this puzzle.

Then, prioritize.  Which system do you all agree needs to be in place first?  Build that one, and then move on to training and adoption.  You’ll have to get people accustomed to using the system.  

Once you have about 80% adoption (you can obviously set your own threshhold), move onto the next layer in your redundancy plan that you want to address.  This will take time, but will also mitigate a stalled, ineffective communications plan.

Communication Modes Matrix

Below, we’ve inserted a database of communication modes you may want to explore.  This database is ever-expanding, so check back to see what options we’ve uncovered.

We’ve rated each mode in various categories on a scale of 1-10.  These ratings are somewhat arbitrary based on our own impressions and experience.

The ratings on HAM technologies comes from a licensed HAM radio operator, but not a die-hard HAM enthusiast.

 

Here’s what the ratings mean:

  • Ease of Use/Adoption: How easily we think the average person will make this method of communications a habit.  1 is not easy at all.  10 is so easy, they’re probably already doing it.
  • Comms Grid Independence: The extent to which this technology does not depend on the cell network or landline network to function.  10 means it doesn’t depend on it at all.  1 means it is totally dependent on the comms grid.
  • Power Grid Independency: The extent to which this technology does not depend on the power grid to derive its capability to function.  10 means it doesn’t depend on the power grid at all.  1 means if the grid is down, this method is no more than a paper weight.
  • Security: The conservative level to which one can expect a message to be private and secure, being read only by the intended recipients.  This rating includes the meta-data transmitted with each message (see below regarding meta-data).  10 means it is as secure as we can make it.  1 means it’s public information.
  • Potential Range: The typical distance we can expect a message to traverse on a good day.  10 is worldwide.  1 is your living room.
  • Cost: The anticipated cost to setup and operate this system.  10 is expensive. 1 is free.
  • Setup: The complexity and difficulty involved in setting up this system.  This includes education requirements, equipment requirements, the complexity of the network, and potential external conditions that affect the system’s operation (such as weather).  10 means it’s so easy anyone can do it, and probably already is.  1 means you’ll need to study manuals, obtain equipment, and do multiple tests.

Score: The score is an average of the above 7 ratings.

The table below is sorted by the score, from highest to lowest.  The highest method, therefore, has the highest average for easy adoption, lowest cost, security, independence, cost, ease of setup, and potential range.  None of the ratings are rated relative to each other. This is only a guide.  For you and your group, you may determine that your ratings differ from ours.  Select accordingly.

Step 7: Implement and Practice

 

Implementation

As we mentioned above, implement your comms plan in stages.  Start with one mode, get that about 80% reliable and active, and then move to another mode.  In the process, error correct and course correct.

Make sure to work through the steps.  Don’t select a means of communication before you’ve selected a purpose for the communications and defined your message formats and classifications.

Practice: Use a Net Call

Whatever system you use, follow the old practice of having a meeting in that place.  Radio operators call it a net.  

Net Call is still practicedtoday by ham radio clubs.  At an agreed upon time, the net operator opens the net and follows a prescribed format.  Typically, the net operator opens the air for any emergency traffic.  Then roll is called to see who has joined the net.  Then the air is cleared for any newcomers to announce themselves.  Following roll-call, the net operator sends any official traffic.  After that, anyone with traffic to send to the net is allowed to transmit.  Then a last call for final messages.  And then the net is closed and the air cleared for anyone else to converse.

A regularly scheduled meeting is a net.  

A net can be an internet video meeting.  It can be a conference call.  It can be a regularly scheduled fly-your-‘just checking in’ flag while someone drives the community and takes attendance.

A net is a regularly-scheduled, weekly or bi-weekly or monthly event in which everyone is invited to participate.  It’s an opportunity to disseminate information, yes, but more importantly, it’s a way to drive a new habit into your participants’ lifestyles.

Adoption

Adoption is the bane of every tech-head tasked with building a comms plan.  People have their favorite means of communicating and default to them without thinking.  God wired our brains to favor routine, in order to prioritize the other necessary activities of life.

Design your adoption plan with that in mind.  Trying to switch an entire community from Facebook Messenger to HAM radios will be next to impossible.  Start with the habits your folks already have, and build from there until new routines and habits are formed.  This means your leadership will have to understand the people in your group and compassionately lead them to new ways of communicating.

As an aside, this reminds us of a story of a pastor who recognized a need at his new church to move the pulpit from the corner of the stage to the center.  He wanted the preaching of the Word to take center stage.  But he also recognized that moving it fully in one Sunday would cause an extreme reaction.  So he moved it one inch every couple weeks or so.  The change was imperceptible until it was at the center of the stage.  No one made a comment.

Have the same attitude with your communications plan.  We all know we need a more reliable and safeguarded way to communicate, but it goes very much against the grain to dump one method and jump on something unfamiliar and strange.

Final Considerations

Meta-Data

Every message has an envelope.  Your text messages, your Telegram messages, your phone calls, etc.  The envelope contains information such as who originated the message, where it came from, what time it was sent, who it’s going to, etc.  In emails, we call this the header.  Email servers use the header to route the email.

In text messages, the meta-data tells the network who is sending and where to deliver it.  Read receipts on iMessage are primarily meta-data messages.  Although the message itself may be encrypted and difficult (not impossible) for prying eyes to read, the meta-data contains a great deal of identifying data, and could compromise the classification level of your messages.

For a brief, but well-written discussion about meta-data, check out the blog post on the subject from Berty Tech. (https://berty.tech/blog/metadata-mobile-messaging)

The more secure you need a mode to be, the less meta-data you want it to incorporate.  This begins limiting online messaging platforms to routine messages, or might rule them out entirely.  

Radio Privacy

Radio communications are far from secure or encrypted.  The technologically minded among you may have researched encrypted radios, DMR radios, and various computer-based text modes that transmit over the radio waves.  These methods have various levels of security, legality, and cost associated with them.

On the HAM networks, secret code and messages are not permitted and may garner an operator an FCC reprimand.

In addition, radio transmissions can be located by a group of junior high kids with Direction Finding antennaes (I did this in the Civil Air Patrol in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s much easier today), so your location is transmitted with every radio call.

This doesn’t rule out radio as a superb means of communication.  It’s just another consideration on the classification of messages implemented via radio.

Updates to this Guide

We will irregularly update this page as needed.

In addition, we’ll add articles, videos, and other resources in regards to communications to our blog.  When those resources come available, we’ll link them below.  At some point, if interest and support demands it, we’ll also implement a communications plan to send you updates so you know when we’ve developed or encountered something worth considering in your communications plan.

This page was last updated: March 12, 2024 at 11:40am CST.  Original content drafted.  Original Comms Modes Matrix Developed.