Commercially available communications equipment
Communications during a disruptive event is essential. When communication is lost, chaos and mayhem are not far behind. Imagine if you didn’t have a radio in your car or all cell service went down. There would be no way to find out where the traffic congestion was, alternate routes or being able to call home or work and notify them that you’re running late. Now imagine how a lack of communications during something like a grid down event, a riot, or a wildfire could prevent you from taking a course of action that the outcome would determine if you live or die.
This topic will focus on the specific items for communication starting with over the counter (OTC) equipment and moving on to what you may already have in your home. Some of the information within this topic is generalized and some is very detailed and technical in nature. While communications is an interesting subject for discussion, some of the material is very dry and coma inducing. I will not be going into detail about single band or dual band radios. That being said if that topic is of interest to you, then by all means, please feel free to research into it and post it in the comments section of this subject.
This topic only discusses Commercial Off the Shelf equipment (COTS) not military grade equipment.
Before we start, it’s necessary to give you a rough idea about the difference in UHF (Ultra High Frequencies), VHF (Very High Frequencies), and HF (High Frequencies). Each one of these has a different use and different characteristics that we can capitalize on and use depending on our needs.
Identifying the differences between UHF, VHF, HF
UHF generally has the shortest range and requires the smallest antenna; FRS/GMRS and 440/70CM HAM radios are UHF. Often police fire and other state or emergency agencies will use these as a part of a short-range radio network for dispatch purposes or scene commander communications so they don’t tie up a larger radio network. The best example of this use would be inter-team communications between a small squad. These are often used in city settings where the personnel will not be great distances from the other radio they are talking to like construction zone flaggers. VHF radios are easy to pack and have relatively short antennas like UHF but they have a longer range. MURS and 2Meter HAM radios are VHF radios. These are the most widely used radios for emergency agencies as well as the most often used short-range radio in the HAM community. They are the best choice for local communications. HF radios are a very different beast and require tuning by hand to pull the signal in, they require large wire antennas or fancy antenna arrays though they can be made more compact. These radios are used to talk world-wide and require a bit of experience, practice, and a license.
Now that you have a very rough idea, I will begin with mobile radios. For the purpose of this post I will focus on HAM radios as they have the greatest coverage. But we will be touching on CB and GMRS mobiles.
Mobile radios are the radios one could have in their car or truck, BOB or BOV. They can be man packed radios that one would have to set up to use. They can be UHF, VHF, or HF. One would have to decide what they needed the radio to do and then shop accordingly.
UHF/VHF radios are by far the most commonly used for mobile operations. These units require small antennas often no larger than a car antenna but can come in all shapes and sizes. They generally have 25-50 watts of power but there are more powerful models available. Amplifiers can also be used as these can give large amounts of power depending on the size. Amplifiers can also be used to give Handheld radios the power to compete with mobile radios. With a Handheld, amplifier, and external antenna you can use a Handheld as reliably as a mobile.
Mobile radios operate on 12volts but there are 12 volt power supplies/converters that can allow in home use of the radios. These radios offer a much greater range over the handheld due to the power and dependence on the antenna. Antennas are essential for this type of system. Mobiles come in many forms with many different features, the options are almost limitless. They can be used to broadcast real time images, to broadcast computer messages, to listen to police and other emergency agencies. When you add the Repeater systems in you can literally do anything. Make a phone call over the radio, get on an Internet repeater link system and talk to any repeater anywhere in the world provided it is on the system. They come in single band radios, dual band radios and dual band + HF radios. You can use your mobile as a cross band repeater to repeat what you are saying through your handheld on a radio that is capable of much greater distance.
With the radios now it is also possible to have a HF capable radio in your car. This would enable one to have a mobile radio station capable of world-wide communications. You would be limited by your antenna and an antenna that you can use while mobile is limiting but you could also have an antenna packed in the car that would allow you to setup a very suitable antenna provided you were stationary. This might be a good option for a BOV that would allow you to keep in contact with others in your group on a prescribed schedule as well as contact your BOL. The options are almost limitless with modern radios. You just need to decide what is best and what fits in your budget.
Communication Systems: Personal and Base Station
Often called Handy Talkies or Handhelds these are the radios that we pack with us as a general means of communication either to other people in our party, to a radio repeater or station, or as a general means to monitor radio communications on a given band width. These radios run on batteries but some models can be adapted to 12volt or 110volt power using a converter/adapter. Commonly, they use a compact in size, mostly inefficient antenna often called a rubber ducky, which limits their range. Some models can be adapted to use any antenna tuned for its given operating band. They generally run under 8watts with 5 being most common. Like anything electronic that puts out power, more power that close to the head could be dangerous.
The range on these radios can vary greatly so I can’t give an accurate operating distance, you will find this common in all radio operations. Depending on environmental conditions, and the antenna used, range can vary between a few miles to as far as 70 miles through Repeater stations Repeater stations are a fixed position radio that listens to your communication on a certain frequency and rebroadcasts it on another frequency with more power and a better antenna. Repeaters are usually mounted to a tall tower to get a higher elevation and not be obstructed by line of sight issues.
We have several options when it comes to personal communications. Here are just a few options to consider.
FRS or Family Radio System, are radios that are often sold at most Wal-marts and seem to be the most popular communications system with the general population due to their availability and low cost. These radios operate at .5 watts and have non removable antennas making them by far the least efficient radio available, but also the most common. Channels they operate on are as follows:
Channel Type Frequency
1 FRS / GMRS 462.5625
2 FRS / GMRS 462.5875
3 FRS / GMRS 462.6125
4 FRS / GMRS 462.6375
5 FRS / GMRS 462.6625
6 FRS / GMRS 462.6875
7 FRS / GMRS 462.7125
8 FRS 467.5625
9 FRS 467.5875
10 FRS 467.6125
11 FRS 467.6375
12 FRS 467.6625
13 FRS 467.6875
14 FRS 467.7125
15 GMRS 462.5500
16 GMRS 462.5750
17 GMRS 462.6000
18 GMRS 462.6250
19 GMRS 462.6500
20 GMRS 462.6750
21 GMRS 462.7000
22 GMRS 462.7250
These radios require no license to operate but lack enough power to have any sort of range. In absolute ideal conditions one might reach 2 miles. Under regular conditions more like 3/4mile range making them excellent for short-range communication such as at a park or possibly a fairgrounds or small theme park. These are the least expensive option one could have but by far the least desirable as well. There is often no one monitoring these channels so a call for help is unlikely. Very little information is passed using these radios so the likelihood of intelligence gathering is small but it could provide a relatively secure, short-range form of communications between you and your family or you and your MAG. They do work quite well inside a home if you had an issue where members of your family were assigned to different parts of the house to monitor outside activity similar to something like civil unrest.
Why are the frequencies listed? Pretty sure you’re asking yourself that question. Seems like a waste of time to post the frequencies. The operating frequencies are listed so that those who have a programmable scanner capable of receiving these frequencies can listen in and monitor any radio traffic. Scanners were covered when we talked about riots and upgrading your home to attempt to shelter in place during such an event.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). These radios require a license to use and often require the user to repeat their assigned station identifier at some time during a transmission. Often these radios are part or included in a FRS radio package. If this is the case, part of a FRS package, the radio cannot have a detachable antenna and must operate at no more than 5 watts. Some radios are GMRS only and these radios can have a detachable antenna and can operate up to 50watts, but again it’s not safe to operate a radio with that much power that close to one’s head. These radios can have repeater stations and this is a great feature to have as it can increase the range of one’s personal radio greatly, but does rely on a stationary radio (base station) that must have power of some sort and be maintained in some way if a repeater is assigned.
Both the FRS and GMRS radios operate close to the 440/70cm HAM band and as a general rule will have the same characteristics.
Multi-Use Radio System (MURS). These are often used by factories for in-house communications, they require no license to use and operate near the 2meter HAM band so the characteristics are similar. Think something like the headsets worn by some drive-thru employees at fast food restaurants.
* 151.820 MHz
* 151.880 MHz
* 151.940 MHz
* 154.570 MHz
* 154.600 MHz
Frequencies are listed for those of you who have a programmable scanner capable of receiving these bandwidths. These radios can have more than 2 watts but seem to operate better than the 5 watts a GMRS uses. I have used these radios up to about 6 miles handheld to handheld within a flat area and line of sight. Line of sight means something like a solid object, think hill, mountain, buildings, not in the way obstructing any transmission. They generally are industrial type radios so they are built to take some abuse and are a great option if you refuse to get a license and the lack of channels needed to handle high volumes of traffic is not an issue. These systems don't monitor local police, or emergency channels so don't plan on getting any insight into any kind of event that may be occurring. The number of these in the hands of the general population is rather small, due to their limited use and cost. The upside is that while traffic is not that bad you will be hard pressed get any kind of assistance if you use this type of system to request emergency help. However, this might offer another option for a more secure method of communication between family and/or MAG without having to spend more money for encrypted systems and licenses.
HAM radio or Amateur Radio, I know, where’s the ‘H’ in amateur radio? Don’t ask. Apparently, the use of HAM is a disambiguation that has stuck to what some call a ‘hobby’ or ‘Hobby AMateur Radio’ = HAM. There are several options here. Cost, time and space available come into play when considering a HAM. A quality HAM radio will talk to, or at minimum, monitor all the above radios as well as talk to or monitor all the local emergency frequencies provided they are not scrambled (encrypted), coded, or trunked systems. There are several bands that the HAMs can use but the most common are 440-220.2 meter. Some HAM radios such as the VX7 talk on all these bands and monitor five times as many while others are delegated to one band. They all require a license to use and generally operate at 5 watts though there are some at 7 watts. They have detachable antennas and can be made to talk great distances through the aid of antennas and repeater stations. HAM use does require a license, a series of testing and may require the operator to repeat their assigned station identifier when transmitting.
These are pretty popular but are the shortest ranged of the HAM radios. Often some police and state or emergency agencies use these radios. There are plenty of repeater stations and plenty of people who monitor these frequencies so help can be had and intelligence about any event can be gathered.
Currently there are very few 220 radios being used and the band has very little traffic. They do not have near as many repeaters and the number of people who monitor these radios is small. It is almost a dead band as far as HAMs go. Potentially, this band might be yet another option for relatively secure communications between you and your family/group on a limited basis due to the availability of equipment.
2 meter radios
These are the best choice if a single band radio is to be used. Most all HAMs have and use a 2 meter radio, there are so many options as far as repeaters go that not being able to bounce a signal would be near impossible. Most emergency communications are passed near the 2meter band so most radios will monitor these frequencies. They have a great range starting at 10 miles, and using a repeater, greater than 100 miles.
The HAM radios are by far the best choice for distance and coverage. They are also some of the most expensive systems out there as a lot are purpose built and highly customized. There is already an emergency civil system in place to handle emergencies and pass information on. That is helpful as you can monitor what is happening, as it happens. HAMs are great people and often like-minded, they will aid and help you along if/when you need it. Radios in the HAM bands are far more advanced than most others and are often highly customized, task specific by the operator making some of these options the most expensive communications equipment available to the general public. Add in the antenna that may require a permit for installation depending on where you live, the license and tests and you’ve spent some serious coin for a ‘hobby’. To get more information, it’s up to you to research and locate HAM groups in your immediate area.
The Phone Tree
Now that we’ve talked about that form of electronic communication, let’s discuss another option.
The Phone Tree
The Phone Tree is not a tree you can get at your local nursery. It is a list of people you call to inform about a specific event. However, with the advent and popularity of cell phones and smart phones, having a landline in your home has become more of an option than a necessity. Some new homes don’t even have a hard line coming into them as ‘everyone’ now has a wireless service. What happens when there is a power outage and you can’t recharge your device? You can use your car if you have the charger adapter for your car but cell phone towers do need power going to them to bounce the signal to where it needs to go. You might have a fully charged phone but no way to talk to anyone. That is why there is still a need for land line coming into your home. Why is the focus on this section on land lines? In the event of a power outage, a land line phone does not need to be recharged. Most long distance lines will still be operable. Why would that even be important?
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, all cell phone towers/repeaters will be jammed by everyone attempting to call their family and friends. Or, the power servicing those towers will have been damaged. If you use a land line, you can still initiate your phone tree connections and let those that need notified that you’re alive and mobile.
Why did I mention long distance phone lines?
Easy. In most events, the local lines will either be totally jammed by those who have access to a traditional phone or they could be damaged. Long distance phone lines are in a separate trunk and are highly likely they won’t be damaged or even have heavy traffic. It might be easier for everyone, your family, etc, to contact some out of state relative or friend to check in and let them know you’re still good to go then attempting to contact a local relative or friend. This means more planning to designate that out of state contact and, of course, let them know that several people may be calling them to check in. If that out of state person is also the one who is at your secondary site or BOL, it would be helpful to let them know to either prepare for your arrival or stand ready to assist in the event you’re on the way and delayed for any reason.
Any form of communication during a disruptive event is important. Training in the use of any equipment that will provide you a better chance of survival or ‘thri-val’ during or in the aftermath of such an event is critical. Whatever course of action to decide to undertake, train, practice, use, so you know how it works, what it does, and how to implement it to get the best results.