Getting Started with radio communications – Part 1

Getting Started with radio communications – Part 1

It’s 2018 and time to change our thinking about radio communications.  So let’s get this out of the way right up front, when it comes to radio communications and prepping every forum comment, every blog post, every magazine article, and every book written before the fall of 2017 is WRONG.

Over the past couple of years I’ve reviewed countless articles and posts with advice on the how and what of radio communications. Consider it my “taking one for the team” – you get to learn from my pain. The amount of bad advice, false assertions, and bogus data out there is mind boggling.  Which brings us to this –

The web is full of very old, very bad, advice about radio communications

Prepper websites, books, and magazines all highlight the need to have reliable comms. They don’t agree on the particulars, things like type of radios; frequencies; services (Amateur, FRS, GMRS, CB, etc); or even about operating with a license. Many, perhaps most, also simply regurgitate old information and rumor instead of looking at actual facts. I hesitate to repeat any of the nonsense out there. For example, I did not find a single prepper-related website that showed the correct allowed power for GMRS broadcasting. Not one.

That situation was made even worse this past year, when the FCC issued a completely rewritten Part 95.  This is the regulation that covers the Personal Radio Services – CB, FRS, GMRS, MURS, and others.  As I said above, you can no longer rely on any books, articles, or blog posts written before the new rules were implemented.  But don’t worry – here at Mobile Preppers we will give you the facts to help you make informed decisions.  And we’ll provide some advice of our own along the way as well.

I’m going to provide some background on why this subject is important, what some of your options are, and why the advice out there is something to be wary of.  If you see a term you aren’t familiar with, don’t worry – I’ll provide full definitions later on.

Communication is critical

Communication (sometimes shortened to “comms”) is critical in an emergency or disaster – whether you need to get help, give help, or get out of Dodge.  Without the ability to talk to others at locations other than yours you are, in essence, blind to events outside your immediate area.

For those responding to a disaster (both government first responders and private groups/individuals) one of the biggest challenges is having poor situational awareness (or SA).  Think of SA as knowing “who is doing what, where.”  In Katrina some areas saw an overload of responders – DoD, National Guard, local authorities, etc.  Others saw no one. One reason (and believe me, there were many additional reasons) was lack of SA.  Those in command of each group had no idea where the other groups were and what they were doing. On the other side of the equation, those needing help had no way to relay that information except through what might best be described as “field expedient” means – writing SOS on their roofs, hanging bedsheets from windows, and so on.

In short – everyone needs the ability to communicate during a disaster.


Radio Communication Services

I’ve mentioned several radio services above.  Let’s go ahead and define some of those before we go any further.

There are two basic types of civilian radio communications of interest to the Prepper: Amateur (or Ham) radio and the Personal Radio Services.  Our focus for this article is the Personal Radio Services. Personal Radio Services are mainly:

“…short-range, low power radio for personal communications, radio signaling, and business communications not provided for in other wireless services.”

There are eleven different radio services in this group. Most are of little or no use to preppers, however five of these services are of significant interest:

Citizens Band (CB) Radio Service – the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) is a private, two-way, short-distance voice communications service for personal or business. There are forty channels allocated to CBRS and there are some inexpensive radios available, so getting started won’t break the bank.  No license is required.  CBRS was essentially unchanged in the re-write of the Part 95 regulations, so if you already have a CB radio you are in good shape.  Even those older 23 channel radios from the 70s will work just fine.

Family Radio Service – Family Radio Service (FRS) is a private, two-way, short-distance voice and data communications service for facilitating family and group activities. The most common use for FRS channels is short-distance, two-way voice communications using small hand-held radios that are similar to walkie-talkies. The FRS is authorized 22 channels in the 462 MHz and 467 MHz range.  FRS (along with GMRS, which we’ll discuss next) was significantly changed with the new rules.  Allowed power limits were increased by 400% on channels 1 – 7 (from .5W to 2W); channels 15 – 22, formerly reserved exclusively for GMRS, can be used at up to 2 watts in the FRS; and channels 8 – 14 are now shared with GMRS.

General Mobile Radio Service – The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a licensed radio service that uses channels around 462 MHz and 467 MHz that are shared with the FRS.  The most common use of GMRS channels is for short-distance, two-way voice communications using hand-held radios, mobile radios and repeater systems. The GMRS is available to an individual (one man or one woman) for short-distance two-way communications to facilitate the activities of licensees and their immediate family members. Each licensee manages a system consisting of one or more transmitting units (stations.) The rules for GMRS limit eligibility for new GMRS system licenses to individuals in order to make the service available to personal users. (Some previously licensed non-individual systems are allowed to continue using GMRS.) In 2017, the FCC updated the GMRS by allotting additional channels in the 467 MHz band (channels 8 – 14), increased the license term from 5 to 10 years, allowed transmission of limited data applications such as text messaging and GPS location information and made other updates to the GMRS rules to reflect modern application of the service.

Multi-Use Radio Service – The Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) uses channels in the 151 – 154 MHz spectrum range. The most common use of MURS channels is for short-distance, two-way communications using small, portable hand-held radios that function similar to walkie-talkies. MURS is authorized five channels that were previously in the industrial/business radio service and were known as the “color dot” frequencies in Part 90 of the FCC rules.  MURS did not see significant changes in the 2017 update to Part 95.

Personal Locator Beacons – Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) transmit personalized distress signals in the 406 MHz spectrum range and aid in search and rescue missions. For example, if you are in a remote area and out of the range of cell phone service, you can use a PLB to send a personalized emergency distress signal.  This is a relatively new service, with the PLB rules first established in 2002.  These beacons are really just a one-way type of communication, they simply notify rescuers of your location.

FRS and GMRS – Legitimate Choices for Short-Range Communications

There are some good reasons to doubt GMRS and FRS as a good choice for short-range communications.  The claims you see on the so-called bubble pack radio sets at the local stores border on fraud.  These older (and by 2019 illegal-to-sell) radios are not useful for anything but extremely short-range (in most cases less than a mile) use.  They are also much too expensive for the performance realized.  Unfortunately these radios, which are often not much more than toys, are the only experience that folks have with GMRS and FRS. And these negative experiences lead to some outrageous claims – I found one site claiming GMRS was limited to 1.5W, a limit that has never been in place.

FRS/GMRS frequencies are in the Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) range.  As such, they share many characteristics with the Ham 70cm band, both positive and negative.  One criticism of GMRS you will read is that it has very limited range.  As with many things, it depends on your definition of “limited”.  Even under the old rules I was able to use a repeater that is 44 miles away with only a 3W handheld.  I have made contacts over 70 miles away through that repeater, which has a larger coverage area than one of our local Ham radio 2m repeaters.

This is clearly better than you would think if you read the various prepper/survivalist websites, forums, and blogs. With the new regulations in place GMRS compares quite favorably with Ham radio for preppers, in fact it may actually be better for most preppers.  Here’s why:

  • A GMRS license covers not only the licensee, but their entire immediate family.  Spouse, children, siblings, parents, in-laws – all covered by a single license.  Amateur radio licenses are for a single individual.
  • A GMRS license doesn’t require an exam.  Most preppers have no intention of being part of the larger Ham radio community.  They only want to be able to talk on the radio to their families or prepper group.
  • GMRS, like Amateur radio, allows for a range of transceiver options – from handhelds all the way to repeaters.
  • Since GMRS and FRS share channels, the price of simple handheld radios able to utilize those channels is much lower than a typical Amateur radio 70cm HT.  Which means building a radio cache that you can use in an emergency is much cheaper.
  • GMRS provides adequate power (up to 50W on the 462 MHz “main” channels) to communicate in both locally and regionally.

I know several preppers who have purchased inexpensive handheld radios and simply placed these radios in their Faraday box or emergency kits.  They don’t have the required Amateur license, and because of that they have never used their radios. To be blunt – having a piece of equipment that you don’t know how to use is really no better than not having it at all.  It goes against every notion of what it means to be prepared.

With GMRS, the lower barriers to entry – such as the easier licensing process and lower cost equipment, means that preppers are more likely to actually use their radios. Which means they are better prepared for whatever comes their way.

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