In any type of emergency or survival situation, information is one of the most essential commodities. Whether you want to make contact with a loved one to ensure their safety, or just get news from an outside source to find out what is going on, in an emergency, information can be worth more than gold. But in some scenarios, such as the blackout we saw recently on the east coast, most modern means of communication are not available. In a wide spread blackout, grid down scenario, the Internet and TV might both be offline, especially local stations. While they may have a generator to provide some backup power, will they have enough to run 24/7 for days?
There is one medium that has been used for decades to provide entertainment and information; the radio.
There are many different types of radio, so today I want to cover some general information about radio communication and cover some of the different types of radios.
Range varies greatly between different types of radios but one limitation that all types of radios have is range. Some types of radios will be impacted by man-made structures such as buildings and houses, but can also be impacted your terrain. Other radios will just be limited by range and the curvature of the earth. Range can be increased on some radios by adding an antennae or a repeater; the bigger the antennae the further you can “reach out and touch someone.” MURS-Radio has an article on range, that goes much deeper in explaining range and its limitations.
Types of Radios
From the FCC:
“The Family Radio Service (FRS) is in the 462 – 467 MHz spectrum range. The most common use for FRS spectrum is short-distance, two-way communications using small, portable hand-held devices that function similar to walkie-talkies.”
This is the type of radio is the one I have the most experience with. I own and reviewed Motorola T5320. You will often see this type of radio advertised as having a range of 30 miles. In my experience you will see nothing even remotely close to this. In a suburban setting you might be able to maintain clear communication for a few blocks. In a wide open flat area, you could probably have clear communication for a mile or possibly two. There is no license required to operate an FRS radio.
From the FCC:
“The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is in the 462 – 467 MHz spectrum range. The most common use of GMRS spectrum is short-distance, two-way communications using small, portable hand-held devices that function similar to walkie-talkies.”
Very similar to the FRS with one exception that, for now, a license is required to operate a GMRS radio. The license is good for five years and covers every family member or employee if purchased for business use. There are eight exclusive GMRS channels and seven shared with FRS. A reason one might want to use a GMRS over an FRS is that, according to the FCC:
“A GMRS system consists of station operators, a mobile station (often comprised of several mobile units) and sometimes one or more land stations. A small base station is one that has an antenna no more than 20 feet above the ground or above the tree on which it is mounted and transmits with no more than 5 watts ERP.
None of the GMRS channels are assigned for the exclusive use of any system. You must cooperate in the selection and use of the channels in order to make the most effective use of them and to reduce the possibility of interference.
You can expect a communications range of five to twenty-five miles. You cannot make a telephone call with a GMRS device.”
What I am taking away from the above statements is that if you have a small base station with an antenna, you could achieve a range of 5-25 miles.
There have been numerous hybrids developed. These hybrids have a total of 22 channels instead of the 15 on a GMRS. It is up to the purchaser to know and understand how to use the hybrid, as a license would still be required for transmitting on the GMRS bands.
Similar to the FRS and GMRS in use, the MURS does not require a license to operate. I know from the The Survival Podcast, that Jack Spirko uses a MURS and has said that you can have a base station and set up motion detection that will alert on the base station that there was movement in that sector. MURS-Radio.com is a great source of information on MURS and other types of radios.
CB’s function much like the other types of radios, though no license is required to operate them. The range of a CB is roughly five miles. This can be increased with a larger antenna. According to the FCC:
• “There are no height restrictions for antennas mounted on vehicles or for hand-held devices.
• For structures, the highest point of your antenna must not be more than 20 feet above the highest point of the building or tree on which it is mounted, or 60 feet above the ground.
• You may use an on-the-air pseudonym (“handle”) of your choosing.”
I just got a little nostalgic, thinking of all the handles from the 80’s TV shows I used to watch.
To this point all of the radios have been fairly short range. Some could be extended with repeaters or antenna, but are still fairly short range. Now I’ll cover some long range radios that can reach globally.
Shortwave radio makes use of the higher end of the AM radio range. It has the ability to bounce its signal off of the ionosphere, which allows the transmission to go great distances around the world. A license is generally required but there are many “pirate stations”, such as the one from the movie “Pump Up the Volume” from 1990. Shortwave radio is often used by Evangelists to spread the Word to far reaching areas of the world. There is no license required to listen to shortwave.
HAM (Amateur Radio)
From the FCC
“The FCC established amateur radio as a voluntary, non-commercial, radio communications service. It allows licensed operators to improve their communications and technical skills, while providing the nation with a pool of trained radio operators and technicians who can provide essential communications during emergencies.”
As mentioned, HAM Radio is often used in emergency situations to broadcast information quickly over long distances. My wife and I are trained storm spotters (not chasers) and when we went through the training they were looking for HAM operators.
There is often some confusion when it comes to HAM radio. A license is required to broadcast but not to listen. Often a HAM setup will contain a desk full of equipment and a large antenna, but there are also portable HAM radios that have only the ability to receive as well as some that can transmit.
There are various levels of HAM licensing. The ARRL (American Radio Relay League) is a fantastic resource for information on all things related to HAM radio. They even have some online classes you can purchase to help you prepare for your HAM exam. You can find some free sample exams/questions online at other sites as well. The site the FCC set up for Amateur Radio Services also has some good information.
Did you know that your cell Phone is essentially a radio? One good thing to know is that when the cell towers are overloaded, which happens in emergency situations, a text, which requires much less bandwidth, can still be transmitted. I also know someone who goes to very remote places to hunt. While he can’t get cell service to make a call, he can send a text most of the time.
If your main concern is staying in touch with your family close to home, then find the short range option that suites your needs and fits your budget. I personally don’t care for FRS and if we upgrade it will probably be to MURS.
However, if you have concerns about being able to communicate over a long distance of 25+ miles or more, you will want to look into getting your HAM license. If you have concerns about getting information when other mediums have stopped working, were shut down, or the information that is dispersed is “being handled”, you might want to look at a shortwave radio or a HAM that can at least receive. If you want to transmit, of course you’ll need a radio capable of transmitting and a license. My thinking with this is; it has been proven by other countries that the Internet can be shut down. Television and local radio can be easily shut down as well. Cell service is also quite easy to stop.
HAM radio is not encrypted. Anything that is said can be heard by anyone listening. As a part of keeping with the FCC guidelines, you must give your call sign every so often. There are databases on-line that you can search for call signs to find the location of where that person lives.
If all you want is to get information that isn’t “being handled”, then you only need to listen. HAM and shortwave cannot be easily stopped. That is part of why they are so popular and are often used by Evangelists to spread the Word in countries that are not pro-Christian.
For some of you that are more rural, setting everyone up with a CB or other type of radio might be a good idea. This would allow communication independent of phone lines.
While I don’t have my HAM license, it is something I would eventually like to have. What are your plans for emergency communication?