Lineman Handsets as a Bug Out Bag Addition

The subject of bug out bags came up recently with an acquaintance of mine. I keep a few things in my car and generally try to be ready for emergencies. One item that I hadn’t thought of as an emergency tool is the old lineman’s or butt set that I keep in my car.

It’s a pretty useful tool that I keep mainly because I never know when someone is going to ask me about a phone line problem. The necessity for this is less now because cell phones are so prevalent. My acquaintance mentioned getting one for his bug out bag when i told him the things you could do with it.

A few uses for a good lineman’s set include the following:

  • Getting into a phone box on the back of a house or building and making a call.
  • Tapping into the physical wires on a telephone pole or junction point for underground phone lines (assuming they are copper) and making a call.
  • Monitoring a phone line.
  • Testing phone lines for dial tone.
  • Finding problems with fax lines.

The first two are good emergency uses. I’m not going to tell you how to do the second one, as it’s illegal and complicated. The first could be considered illegal but I propose the following scenario.

You’re out in the middle of nowhere. Car dies, no cell signal, but there are phone lines running to the next town. In the distance you see a farmhouse with phone line running to it. When you get to it you find no one lives there most of the year, and no one is home.

You could break in and use the phone inside, possibly incurring the wrath of the owners. The other, less likely to get you in court option would be to just open the phone box, plug your set in and make the emergency call. You won’t get sued for breaking and entering, and you’ll find out a lot quicker if the phone line works or not.

A lineman’s set is pretty cheap and you can usually find basic models for the $10-$20 at lower-end electronics stores. I’ve included some links to them from Amazon at the bottom of this post.

Getting Into A Phone Box In An Emergency

You need to know how to get into a phone box for this to work. Most of the time the phone box on the back of a house is going to be a grey plastic box, probably with the Bell or AT&T logo on it somewhere. They are typically labelled by the phone company these days.

Keep in mind that tapping into a phone line like this other than your own is illegal. However, if you just get into the customer side, the owner of the line should be able to decide whether to press charges or not. It’s unlikely that someone would do so if it was truly an emergency and you offered to pay any charges incurred.

Older style ones can look like anything but it is usually obvious which box is for phone.

Step 1 – Open the customer side of the box. Typically the customer side will be labelled as ‘customer access’ or something similar. The newer boxes will just require a screwdriver, the older boxes have various ways of opening, but they aren’t hard to figure out.

Step 2 – Determine your method of hooking your set up.

New Phone Boxes – On the newer grey boxes you’ll find that they have a convenient phone jack you can just plug a regular phone into. Just hook your phone cable into the jack, and then the other end into the jack on your set. You can typically also hook in to the bolts if you want.

Old Style Boxes – The older boxes will usually just have some bolts on them that the wires are wrapped around and secured with a nut. There will usually be four bolts per line. You are looking for the red and green wires. The red will be on the right (red, ring, right) and the green will be on the left. Hook your red alligator clip to the bolt with the red wire, and the black alligator clip to the one with the green.

Step 3 – Check for dial tone. Your set’s instruction manual will tell you what setting it needs to be on to make a call. Usually this is the “Talk” option. Most sets have a switch for rotary or touch tone dialing, you likely want touch tone. Some particularly ancient lines might still be on rotary dial but I doubt there are any of those left. If you don’t have dial tone, check your connections and turn the set on and off a few times. If you still don’t, it’s probably a dead line. Try other bolts, or move on.

Step 4 – Make the call.

 Lineman’s Sets

There are a lot of options out there for lineman’s sets. I don’t think  you need an expensive one for an emergency bag. Here are two picks on Amazon and a short reason why I think you should get them.

BestDealUSA Lineman’s Set

I’m not totally certain if BestDealsUSA is the manufacturer or the retailer that sells it. I assume the latter. This little set typically costs less than $10, sometimes less than $5 and comes with alligator clips, a coupler, and what appears to be a banana plug, but I’m not certain. The reviews are good. This is by no means good for professional, heavy-duty use, and it’s tiny so it’d probably break if you dropped it, but for emergencies it will do the job. One reviewer said to get another set of alligator clips. I may make a guide later for modifying this thing.

Fluke Networks 19800009 TS19 Test Set with ABN

Book Cover

This is the one that is in my tool kit and probably a better choice. Usually these things are about $100 and you want this specific model. It has better alligator clips than the slightly cheaper models (by slightly cheaper I mean less than $10 most of the time). It can also be used to tap into wires without damaging them since it has the ‘bed of nails’ feature. If you want one that’s guaranteed to work, has loud volume and probably won’t break when you drop it, this is the one for you. It’s expensive, and kind of large so it might not fit your criteria for a bug out bag.

If you want quality get the Fluke set. They do have less expensive models, but that one is in my opinion the best all around basic set. If you just want something inexpensive get the BestDealsUSA one, test it on your own house a few times and then throw it in your bug out bag. I would consider testing the cheaper one every so often because it’s hard for me to imagine that a $5 set is super reliable. For the price though you can get a few of them and it’s no huge loss if one quits working.