Emergency Communications

Keeping in touch with each other is essential for safety, appropriate planning and coordination, and keeping loved ones close.


One’s cell phone or cellular tablet are today’s first line of communication, so long as a nearby cellular tower is still operational.

In addition to normal two way communication, cellular emergency WEA broadcast text messages are available. We receive WEA transmissions on our newest iPhone. For iPhone 4S and up running iOS 6 and up, ATT provides WEA transmissions. With the exception of Presidential alerts (always received), WEA can be turned off by type in iOS Settings:Notifications).

WEA messages alert the user when they arrive. Since we always have our cell phone handy, we are never out of touch of emergency messages.

One cannot count on cellular service in a disaster emergency however. We maintain a land line (copper wireline) for such a cellular outage.

Broadcast Radio

Keeping in touch with the world means being able to receive radio broadcasts. We have a battery-powered AM/FM radio for longer distance reception of news and 640/1240kHz alerts. No big whoop, but many families may no longer have such a simple device.

A battery-powered short wave radio is also advisable. NOAA weather radio (NWR) normally broadcasts local weather information on a six minute repeat cycle, increasing frequency during dangerous weather conditions. NWR is also an all-hazards alert service tied into the FEMA EAS; it will broadcast all WEA messages, from amber alerts to Presidential national emergency warnings. In our area, we can hear two NWR broadcast stations (162.425mHz, 162.550mHz).

Two-way radio

A 2-way radio for communication is further desirable in the absence of cellular function, enabling one to hear broadcast messages, and to broadcast a message to anyone within signal reception distance. A mobile short wave transceiver would seem the ideal gift for a loved one you wish to keep in contact with.

There are both public-use frequencies and amateur radio frequencies. Radios may be certified for use on one or the other, and occasionally will be certified on both.

Public-Use Shortwave Radio (Requires FCC Part 95 Certification)

There are three classifications of public shortwave bands.

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS, 8 UHF duplex channels ~462/467 mHz)

  • GMRS requires a paid ($75) FCC license, good for tive years, and in force for the whole family unit. GMRS communication is allowed at power below 50W by adults.

Family Radio Service (FRS, 14 FM narrow-band simplex channels allocated in the GMRS band interstices)

  • FRS radios, sometimes called ‘bubble’packs’ for their low-end throwable commodity status, are the new incarnation of the CB radio or walkie-talkie of yesteryear, a simple choice with limited 1/2W capability. Even children can use them.

Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS, 5 VHF channels ~152mHz)

  • MURS communication is allowed between all comers at power below 2W, keeping family members in touch over short distances. No repeaters are allowed.
  • MURS is most similar to the prior CB bands. Usage is shared and cooperative. No frequencies are reserved and use is unlicensed.
  • A similar MURS service is planned for Canada in 2014.

Amateur Shortwave Radio (Requires FCC Part 90 Certification)

Many amateur transceivers have only Part 90 certification. Transmittal on most amateur VHF/UHF bands supported by the typical emergency radio requires at minimum an amateur radio technician’s (HAM) license, which means you have to learn a little about how the FCC works and how radios work (although Morse code facility is no longer required).

Some amateur radio technicians would like to use their Part 90 radios on the public bands as well, but until the FCC addresses such dual use in the future, such use does not comply with the letter of current law. The law here is virtually unenforceable, assuming the operator complies with all rules and courtesies specified for the public bands. We deduce from online commentary that some operators feel free to use their Part 90 radios on all possible frequencies. In using public bands with Part-90-only transceivers, they risk fines and the loss of current and future licensed status. Apparently some consider the risk acceptably low.

The amateur 2-way radio is a serious and complex tool using public airwaves. Novice general amateur radio users would be well-advised to have a knowledgeable person program their radios for their location and use, to ensure the operator can never accidentally transmit on and interfere with critical reserved frequencies such as those used by emergency responders (law enforcement, paramedics, and fire) or airport operations. Enforcement against such interference is certain, and fines high.

Radio Choice

For even less expense than a typical FRS radio, a full-featured, higher quality handheld amateur radio is a more powerful choice (typical 4-5W). Their price makes them attractive to users who want an emergency radio capability and don’t want to spend 10X more for a full frequency Part 95 certified radio. The inexpensive handhelds are perhaps not an ideal choice as a first radio for a novice, but they can be channelized and otherwise parameterized via programming to make them safer to use for a given purpose and location.

The Baofeng UV-B5 handheld dual-band 5W transceiver seemed the best value of the lot I compared. It has good quality, supports commercial FM reception, and is both a VHF (136-174 mHz) and UHF (400-470 mHz) transceiver. It also has an alarm button. When pressed, it broadcasts an alarm on a preselected frequency, as well as generating an audible alarm on the handheld’s speaker.

The popular 5W handheld radios such as the UV-B5 have a line-of-sight range of a mile or so. To go farther, one must climb higher, or one must transmit on the frequency of a radio repeater within your range. Using a repeater generally means you need to have a license of some kind.

The choice of UHF or VHF transmission has some affect on signal quality. A VHF signal potentially has more range in open country, as it can bend over hills slightly. A UHF signal may offer better penetration of buildings in a city.

Potential GMRS Changes

Across our Canadian border, GMRS channels are unlicensed, as they are expected to become here, eventually. Proposals have been before the FCC for several years now regarding changes to GMRS, including increasing channels, becoming license-free, and restriction of transmissions to 5W narrow band voice signals. Also, Part 90-certified radios such as the UV-B5 are suggested to be certified for use of GMRS. Others add to their GMRS wish list that FRS radios not be able to access GMRS bands, to keep GMRS mainly for grown-ups (a term I use loosely after reading some amateur radio forums).


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