General communications

Social and other communication

So we’ve looked at emergency and urgent communication but we still need and want to maintain contact with friends and family. We’ll want to keep them updated on the progress of the trip, they’ll want photographic “evidence” of the sights that you’ve seen You and them will want to just touch base every now and again. Mostly this can be accomplished by phone, mobile or otherwise. You may want to update your blog or web site with text and photos, post to Facebook, Instagram or somewhere else. There’s no urgency associated with this so it’s good enough to wait until you’re somewhere where WiFi or mobile coverage is available. For example you can call a family member and tell them that currently you’re in Innamincka and that you’ll give them a call when you get to Birdsville.

For more local communication with fellow travellers, etc. there’s radio. UHF (Ultra High Frequency), VHF (Very High Frequency) and HF (High Frequency) radio.

Let’s start with UHF. Most people have a 40 or 80 channel unit in the car as well as maybe a hand-held walkie-talkie or two. These devices are really handy – you can talk to fellow road users, you can use them to coordinate overtaking moves with trucks, buses, caravans, etc. UHF radios are type approved by the ACMA and are only allowed five watts of transmitter power and don’t have a requirement for operator licencing. They are, because of the frequency in use, generally only capable of line of sight contact. Yes, UHF radio has some severe limitations but for what they are they’re really, really handy when travelling. These limitations make UHF almost useless in times of dire emergency. You may be able to contact a station owner or a traveller with a sat. phone and summon some help but that’s about all.

VHF is rarely used in remote areas. Sure there are some services available but the licencing required is restrictive. The limitations with VHF put it in the generally useless category. Amateur Radio Operators (HAM’s) have access to some VHF spectrum which may be useful but I wouldn’t rely on it in an emergency.

HF. This is a whole new can of worms. Basically there are two categories of HF radio. Amateur radio, more on that later, or an operators network such as VKS-737 or the  Royal Flying Doctor network. The HFRadio FAQ contains a load of information. These organisations require that you pay them an annual licence and usage fee and you’ll also need to buy a radio. Some organisations may require that you undergo some training as well. These services commonly provide chat sessions, emergency communication, simple messaging, etc. By the time you buy the radio, antenna and pay the annual fees this may be an expensive option.

A cheaper option is 27MHz CB radio which is HF. Again, there’s no licencing but transmitter power is restricted. Four watts for AM and 12W for SSB. It can be useful but there are few people in remote areas with 27MHz CB radios. This is the CB of the 70’s and 80’s that most of us can (just) remember.

Amateur Radio. To get access to amateur radio you need to get a licence and for that you need to pass three exams – Regulations, Theory and a practical. You also need to pay an annual fee. In a sudden emergency such as a car roll over with people sustaining injuries or one of the party having a stroke or heart attack I’d suggest that Amateur Radio is not the right tool to be using. I’d recommend that your PLB be activated. Amateur Radio is useful for non urgent messaging, chatting, etc. I am a licenced amateur and only check in to the Australian Travellers Net (daily starting at 0200 UTC with callbacks at 0300UTC  on14.116MHz). I also use it for idle chatting with other amateurs.

The last thing about radio is that the Radio Communications Act allows anyone licenced or not to use whatever radio gear is available to provide or assist with emergency, safety of life communications without fear of prosecution.

In an urgent situation

When you need assistance

This is where things start to get a bit blurry with more options. A “help me now” type of beacon is not appropriate here. All you need is some assistance – a tow, help digging the car out of a bog hole, another spare tyre, a bit of fuel, etc. You’ll probably have enough food and water for a few days and be in pretty good health. Certainly not life threatening in the short term – you’ll be OK for a few days to a week or so. If you discount radio, which I’ll go into in detail in another post, you’re basically left with mobile phone, satellite phone or something like the Spot Gen3. At a stretch you could even just wait until someone else comes along. You need assistance, not an urgent rescue.

You probably won’t have mobile phone coverage and for most people HF radio is not in the equation. That leaves satellite phone. These things are expensive and so are the plans but there is a cheaper option. Hire the sat. phone for the duration of the trip with a plan that only sees you paying for calls and messages. A quick search will uncover a heap of companies eager to garner your custom.

Another option, which is far from cheap, is a sleeve for your smart phone which effectively turns your normal smart phone into a satellite phone. Read about them here.

In an emergency

In a life threatening emergency

When things go very badly wrong such as a serious accident or severe health issues such as a stroke or heart attack we need to be able to send a message that effectively says “we are in a life threatening situation and we’re at whatever location. Come quickly.” Sending the message needs to be as easy as possible without having to set anything up. We need to be assured that the message will be received and acted upon with the utmost urgency.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s) and EPIRB’s (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and ELT’s (emergency Locator Transmitter) are devices that enable you to summon help with the press of a button or the flicking of a switch. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) have a handy description here.  Also on that page the ACMA has photos and links to PLB’s Please have a read of it as it describes in some detail the use of PLB’s, EPIRB’s and ELT’s. The good old ACMA also explains how the system works here.

They are not cheap – $250 and up – but they do work and may save a life which make them seem cheap.

Apart from PLB’s, EPIRB’s and ELT’s there are other devices on the market that can send SOS, personalised messages and map locations. While we were at Hamilton Downs Youth Camp we had a Spot Gen3. When we left the camp we pushed the button and it sent a message to our boss giving him the time and map coordinates. When we got to town we pushed the button again which sent the new coordinates and the time. He knew when we left the camp and when we got into town.If we got into strife there was always the SOS button. There are a few of these types of these devices on the market but they require an annual fee and work out very expensive. I believe that Garmin and Magellan make similar devices.

Then there is the satellite phone. This is a sort of two in one device. You can use it to summon help via 112 or 000 and you can use it to send text messages or chat to friends or family. These devices have a few disadvantages. You need to keep the batteries charged, you need to know exactly where you are so you can tell the emergency services and the phone may take a while to acquire the satellite required. You can also fall into areas where coverage is not great too.

My preference is a PLB as it isn’t too expensive, it works and has been proven to do so and it’s dead easy. When you buy it you register it and if you need to use it the operation is really simple.