In the last article we discussed why communications should be a primary focus of our preparedness and why radio communication will likely be the biggest part of your communications plan in a disaster. In this article we’ll get into some of the frequencies and services that are available and the limitations. We’ll discuss a little about Amateur Radio, but stick primarily with non-Amateur services. We also won’t get heavy into the technical details of frequency and its measurements. If you want to get a deeper dive on the technical side of things, check out the video below. It’s about 30 minutes long and somewhat dry, but really good info. Also, I’ve attached PDFs from the Department of Transportation below that show the radio frequency spectrum and its allocations from the FCC.
We’ll confine our discussion to the Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) bands, with a mention of High Frequency (HF) communications. The reason we’re confining ourselves to this range is that it’s the range where you’ll find the most popular radios available. It’s also the range that is going to meet most of our needs up to the neighborhood or community level.
Much like the rest of preparedness, we start small – communicating within our family or team – and then move outward. But even more so than in other areas, in comms it becomes very important to begin networking early. Comms is not an area that you can throw together at the last minute – at least not without significant initial degradation of the mission. It takes planning and practice beforehand to ensure smooth communications during an event.
In reality, most of us will be end-users. We need to know how to set up our gear and do basic programming on our radios, but we won’t be the ones doing the high-level communication. Don’t get me wrong, every group needs a dedicated communicator, preferably two or more. But it is a technical world, and to really work in it, there has to be a level of dedication. It’s unrealistic to expect every member of a team to have that knowledge or dedication.
With that said, even as end-users, we can begin the process of setting up a communications plan on available HF/VHF/UHF frequencies. Hopefully this article will get us headed in that direction. So, let’s start with available services outside the Amateur Radio realm.
Family Radio Service (FRS)
This is the one everyone knows. They may not even know they know it. But, if you’ve bought one of those bulk-pack radios from Walmart or Bass Pro, you know FRS. FRS is designed to be a license-free way for families and friends to talk to each other. Radios have to be certified and have a lot of restrictions on configuration and power to be legally used on the assigned frequencies (UHF). You can find the fact sheet here and the rules in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) here. FRS is easy to get started in, but has several drawbacks:
- Because they are so easy to acquire, there are a lot of people with them. This is good because it’s somewhat easier to set up a network. It’s also bad because it will be very crowded in an emergency.
- Because they are UHF, you will have a very limited range with these. I know the wrapper said 30 miles. I also know you’ll be lucky to get 5 miles out of them.
- You can’t technically use a repeater to get more range from your radios.
- The radios don’t identify the frequency, they just have channel numbers. Not every brand uses the same channel numbers. This can make coordinating between brands annoying at best.
Basically, FRS is a great way to get into radio and allow people to practice using radio etiquette, especially if you’re introducing younger users. And if it’s all you have, it’s better than nothing. But it’s probably not the best service in a disaster unless you are extremely networked with the community and have everyone agreeing to the comms plan.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
GMRS is very similar to FRS and exists in the same frequencies. However, unlike FRS, GMRS requires a license, allows higher power, and also allows repeaters. So while it will suffer from many of the same ailments as FRS in an emergency (including traffic and lack of frequency markings), it is a slight step above FRS because you will be able to reach out a bit further. Another benefit to GMRS is that you are allowed to transmit data over these frequencies. So if you want to sent a short text message or position data over the air, you can. Licensing is for 10 years and allows any member of your immediate family to use the license. You can find a guide here and the rules here.
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)
MURS is like a VHF version of FRS. No license is required, but there are regulations on power. You cannot operate a repeater, but you can send data. One of the nice things about MURS compared to FRS and GMRS is that it is significantly less well-known, and your big-box radios don’t usually work on these channels, so there may be less clutter on the air on these channels. You can find a guide here and the rules here.
Citizen’s Band Radio Service (CBRS or just CB)
CB is like the long-forgotten, not-cool grandfather of FRS/GMRS. Now, when I was growing up in the ’80s, I used to dream of the sleek Cobra CB radios in the mail-order catalogs. While not as popular anymore, in part due to the emergence of FRS/GMRS, CB can still fill a bit of a niche role. Of the services we’ve discussed, it’s the only HF service (albeit barely), which gives it a bit more range (if the conditions are right) than FRS/GMRS/MURS.
On the other hand, depending on where you live, you may have trouble finding someone else with a CB transceiver to talk to. HF can also be a little finicky and experience some strange “bounces” off the atmosphere, which could lead to less-than-reliable comms in an emergency. You can find a guide here and the rules here.
Amateur Radio (Ham)
Without a doubt, Ham offers you the widest range of options in an emergency. This isn’t just about frequencies available, although that comes into play. It’s about power and capabilities. Ham radio operators are capable of an incredible array of transmissions, including data and satellite.
Your group’s radio specialist, in my opinion, should be at least a General Class Amateur Radio operator, and highly knowledgeable about long-distance communications. For more information about Amateur Radio, check out the Amateur Radio Relay League. If you want some great videos about Ham radio, check out the Ham Radio Crash Course. I personally watch his videos and find them extremely informative. I can almost guarantee you’ll see me cite his videos in future articles.
I personally have my Technician Class license in Amateur Radio, and I certainly encourage you to attain yours as well. However, I don’t think it is completely realistic to expect every member of a preparedness group to have their Amateur Radio license. Now, I can hear someone saying it – “You don’t need to have a license in an emergency!” That is technically correct. When safety of life is at stake, you can use Amateur (or any other band) to call for help. However, as I said earlier, you need to practice before the disaster if you intend for communications to go smoothly during the disaster. If you have your license, you can practice on Ham bands. If not, you need to use one of the other available bands.
Hopefully, this was useful in giving you ideas for other available bands for training and communicating in a disaster. If you enjoyed this article, give us a follow and a share. Social media really limits our ability to advertise, and organic shares always have the biggest impact. If you think I missed something or have a question, drop a comment below. Alternatively, you can contact me via my Facebook page, Google Hangout, or email at guntoter.official (at) gmail.com. We also have a Patreon page where you can help offset some of the expenses that we incur buying gear to review.
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