FRS

All posts tagged FRS

CH1

We’ll start with local communications. Failure of land lines and cell phone relays could isolate you from family members and friends you would want on your side in an emergency. After a hurricane a few miles might as well be a few thousand. Something might also happen while you are away from home, if only shopping on the other side of town. I hope you have a bug-out bag in your car to help you get home…

Before diving into the subject, I need to lay out some bases on frequencies and communication modes. It isn’t hard to understand and I will do my best to make it as simple as possible. Take your local radio station for instance.. Let’s say you listen to 102.5 FM. 102.5 is the frequency, in this case 102.5 megahertz, which is 102,500,000 cycles per second. Frequencies are measured in Hertz, meaning cycles per second. Imagine flipping the light switch in your kitchen.. At 102.5MHz you would be flipping it more than a hundred million times per second. Pretty easy concept. As far as units go, we use the Hertz, Kilohertz (x1000 Hertz), Megahertz (x1,000,000 Hertz) and Gigahertz (1,000,000,000 Hertz). You are already familiar with “Gigahertz” if you ever had to shop for a computer…

FM is the modulation mode, which means the way your voice (or data) is coded before sending it by radio waves. I won’t get into details here but just know that there are different modes. You probably listen to AM radio sometimes, which is a different voice mode from FM. AM (amplitude modulation) was invented before FM (frequency modulation) and is of course still in use today by short-wave radio stations because it is more efficient than FM. AM will go further than FM using the same power but doesn’t sound as clear. This is why radio stations prefer FM for music. For local communications you will be using AM or FM, but on different frequencies than your local radio stations.

So, why use different frequencies and which ones are useful to you? For practical matters, we will divide frequencies in two parts: HF or High Frequency, and VHF/UHF or Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency. HF, as far as Ham radio is concerned goes from about 1600KHz to 30MHz. UHF goes up to a few Gigahertz. So, your local FM radio station uses VHF which is above 30MHz but below about 400MHz, and your AM station uses HF, around 1MHz. What’s the difference? You see, the problem with radio is that the earth is round but radio waves travel in straight lines… So how do you contact someone who is beyond line-of-sight? If it wasn’t for the ionosphere, we would never have been able to do so before the invention of the communications satellite. There would have been no Titanic survivors! Fortunately radio waves bounce on the ionosphere! Under certain circumstances… They can even bounce on the earth and go all around the world! The ionosphere will bounce radio waves up to around 50MHz, and not very often at that frequency. It depends on solar activity. That’s why you’ll never hear an FM radio station from Japan! But you might hear an AM one on HF if you have a big enough antenna.

For local communications everyone uses VHF and UHF, except for CB radios which use HF on 27MHz. We can use HF for local communications as well as VHF/UHF but we run into another problem, antenna size… The length of any antenna depends on the frequency. You can’t use any antenna size… It is inversely proportional to the frequency used. Antennas are usually half a wavelength. Take 7MHz for instance, which is a popular Ham HF frequency.. The size of a half-wave antenna is around 66ft. A bit long for a handheld radio! Another common Ham band for local communications is the 2 meter band around 146MHz. A half-wave antenna for that frequency is about 3.2ft. Now we can slap that on a walkie-talkie.. You will learn about all that simple math while studying for your Ham Technician license.

Let’s look at the no-license-required options for local comms: You probably already own a pair of FRS handheld radios. You can find them at Walmart for as low as $30. How good are they? Pretty good it turns out, but their range is limited. The manufacturers pretend up to twenty or thirty miles, but that would be floating in space talking to someone on the ground. The earth being round, again, we run into the line-of-sight-problem. Two humans standing up with a radio at head-height will only be able to talk to about six miles… That goes for any radio at that height, FRS or not. Because of their low power and small antennas, actual range is more like two miles maximum. A good way to extend range would be to climb on your roof, but obstructions will reduce the practical range and you’ll never get more than a few miles. FRS (family radio service) radios are more useful to keep in touch while moving as a group in case some members get separated.

An alternative to FRS handhelds are MURS radios. They aren’t much different but since less people know about them you get a little more privacy… Anyone can listen to FRS. Few people use MURS because they cost a bit more. Range is similar to FRS in that they are limited by the same laws of physics.

Personally I don’t have much money to spend on gear so I opted for FRS. If things turn ugly I can give a few to my friends and establish a simple code for operational security. I highly suggest that you do buy as many as you need for each members of you inner circle, plus a couple spares.

Then we have the good old CB radios. They operate in AM on 27MHz. Furthermore, you get forty channels. Since this is HF, it is occasionally possible to communicate over vast distances using a CB (citizen band) radio, although the FCC doesn’t allow you to talk to anyone beyond 250 miles. I don’t think they enforce it… There are very few CB handhelds as most models are for car or home use. Antennas are fairly long, not very practical for something you might want top carry in your pocket. It is however a popular band to listen to, though if you have kids I’d suggest keeping them away from it! CB used to be civil and polite, self policing. Not any more… If you decide to buy a CB I suggest you get one with SSB modes, which we will talk about in our upcoming long distance communications article. See my post about the Galaxy DX-979. Getting a CB means that you will have to learn a bit about antenna tuning and how to measure SWR (standing wave ratio), which is how much power is not radiated by the antenna and could fry your radio turning it into a receiver only.. It is simple but can’t be ignored. Your antenna must be of a precise specific length to transmit with. So, if you buy a CB radio, also buy a SWR meter. More about that in our HF article later.

Ham radio is you best choice for emergency communications. Not only the radios are of better quality and more versatile but you also gain a whole community of knowledgeable individuals ready to help you. The Technician exam is so easy it’s almost laughable. It will only set you back about $15 and your license will be valid for ten years. The FCC assigns you a call sign and that’s the extent of it. You gain access to many frequencies and modes for worldwide communications. The Technician license is mostly for local communications but allows some long-range contacts on some bands.

The most common local Ham band is 2m FM, which covers from 144 to 148MHz. What’s so great about it compared to say, FRS, since again the laws of physics come into play? In one word, repeaters! Ham operators install repeaters on high towers all over the country. You can be pretty sure there is one within range of your house. These repeaters relay your signal over large distances, sometimes up to one or two hundred miles. Not bad for using a small handheld radio. Repeaters might not operate for long after a large scale emergency but at least they will keep you connected until the generators run out of gas.

Another popular band like 2m is the 70cm band from 420 to 450MHz. Most handheld radios offer both band in one device which is what I suggest you get. Prices range from $35 to $600 but you can get a great radio for $150. Ignore expensive digital models because they don’t work any better than the good old FM ones. More private maybe, but that’s about it.

One of my favorite model is the Yaesu FT-270. It is a 2m only model, very rugged and waterproof. You can actually dunk the darn thing in a bucket of water while it’s on and it will keep working! Best thing is, price is around $120. Another cheap option is the Chinese Baofeng UV-5R and UV-5R+ models. They have both 2m and 70cm and can be programmed to include FRS and MURS channels, though you can legally only listen. In an emergency however, you can use any radio on any frequency, so a good option to have. The UV-5R has a big flaw however and that is the external microphone jack. It breaks after you use it a few times, limiting you to use the radio with an external microphone only. I have two and both are broken. One I received already broken and the other one broke within a couple weeks. I now use them with external microphones.. Still a good deal for $50 a pop. If you get one I suggest never plugging in an external microphone and using it as-is. That way it will last a very long time. It’s too bad a great radio like this was built with sub-standard jacks.

UV-5R+ and Yaesu FT-270R

UV-5R+ and Yaesu FT-270R

Get your Ham radio license! Go to the ARRL site to find an exam session and buy a book. Then open a free account on QRZ.com. They have free practice exams online. If you are local to Sarasota, contact me and I will answer any question you might have. If you are hesitating because you fear being put on some list, let me tell you that you are already on a few and a Ham radio license won’t make any difference. There are no good reasons in my opinion not to get one. I would even suggest trying to pass both the Technician and General exams on the same session. It isn’t much harder and will give you access to a flurry of frequencies on HF.

So far we have our few FRS or MURS handhelds, maybe a CB for the house or car, and a couple 2m/70cm Ham HTs (handi-talkies). What else do we need? We need to know what’s going on beyond our town, even beyond our continent! Everyone needs a short-wave receiver. Short-wave is HF. Something like the Tecsun PL-380 for bout $45. Whatever you buy make sure it has a plug for an external antenna. The built-in antennas are way too small to be of any use. You will plug in a long wire, say 60ft. or more to get distant stations. Also make sure the receiver decodes SSB to listen to Ham radio operators. Usually a good short-wave receiver covers all HF Ham bands and everything else in between. Some Ham radio transceivers (transmitter/receiver) allow you to listen in between Ham bands, thus act as a short-wave receiver. If you plan on getting into Ham radio you might just buy one, even before you get your license, if only to listen. Otherwise, do buy a short-wave receiver!

There you have it, all you need for local communications and getting news from distant stations. How are we going to power it all up without electricity? First, make sure all the devices you buy can be powered with AA batteries.. They are everywhere and rechargeable ones can be recharged with a solar panel like the GoalZero Nomad 7, which I use. You can charge four batteries at a time in about four hours. Make sure you buy AA battery adapters for your HTs and have the correct connectors and battery packs for your other devices.

GoalZero Nomad7

GoalZero Nomad7

RM40 with battery pack

RM40 with battery pack

You need to protect your gear against strong magnetic fields generated by lightning or an EMP. I use a cookie tin can with my radios wrapped in plastic as to not touch the sides of the can.. It isn’t grounded but I hope it would work. I tried placing my cell phone inside then calling it, it didn’t ring. I also soldered a piece of wire between the can and the lid to insure a good electrical contact. I sometimes leave a radio outside the box but never leave it plugged-in while not in use.

Questions and comment are welcome. I will be glad to help anyone get into Ham radio. The next article will cover global communications. Stay tuned!

I clearly remember twenty years ago, or ten, even five. I did not then have any of the concerns I have today. The future was bright with no clouds on the horizon here in the United States. I don’t think the world is going to end this December twenty first, or next year for that matter. The Mayan who wrote his calendar must have been tired that night, and his wife was complaining about how much time he spent on it, so he probably just thought it went far enough and left it at that.. I am no doomsday preacher.

There is a certain unease among us however. The media is broadcasting multiple disaster and prepping shows. The economy isn’t going better. Five years ago, I had five ounces of gold, bought for less than $1500. Today, those coins would be worth close to $10,000. Only five years later! I am still hitting myself on the head for selling them before the increase. We may wonder why the value of the dollar hasn’t gone down by a factor of six or seven. The government is trampling on the constitution. One only has to watch foreign agencies news, not the dog-and-pony show we have here, to start worrying. Watching CSPAN can be more entertaining than “Doomsday Preppers,” and certainly scarier. Five years ago, there were few signs of trouble, none before September 2001.

So, you have a bit of food and water stored for rainy days, a generator with a few gallons of gas, your bug-out bag, and a .22 with a case of ammo. Will you be missing anything when disaster strikes? Yes, information. With the power down, no cell phones, land lines or Internet, you might be in total darkness has to what caused the blackout. Should you stay put? Is it safe? If you need to leave, where should you go and what route is the safest? If you happen to be away from your family, how do you get in touch with them? Where are they? Are they all right? Information in a disaster situation is crucial to you and your family’s survival.

I bought my first radio in 1980. It was a forty-channel CB. Back then, conversations were interesting and civil on the 11m band (27Mhz). You could talk to your neighbors, make new friends. People were helping each others. Truckers used them to inquire about road conditions and get directions in unfamiliar towns. Sure, we had some jerks, but the Citizen Band was self-policing. Ten years later it had changed dramatically. I worked one winter as a security guard, and wanted something to keep me awake at night on the job. So, I installed a 200+ channels CB radio in my car. There was still some good conversations going on, but mostly, CB had become pretty lame. I did manage to make a contact across the Atlantic once, using SSB (single Side Band), but usually, range was around ten miles.

A CB radio (AM) today is a poor choice of emergency communication in the U.S. Range is typically only a few miles and forty channels get crowded very fast. Radios are cheap however, and it is certainly better than nothing. “CBers” are no longer organized in clubs. Base stations are rare these days. Even truckers have replaced their CBs by cell phones and computers. The level of the conversations is rather low; you might not want your children to play with a CB radio… It is unfortunate, but the Citizen Band has become the black sheep of the radio world. One exception which could make CB a good choice is if you buy an SSB mode radio. Single Side Band is comprised of USB (upper) and LSB (lower) side bands. These modes offer more range, and even “skips” on the ionosphere, for very long range communications. Conversations on SSB are definitely more civil than on AM. Even with the legal 12W maximum power, you can reach stations thousands of miles away.

You probably own at least a pair of FRS (Family Radio Service) handheld radios. They are very limited in range, two to three miles typically. Do not believe the advertised ranges of twenty or more miles. That may work over water with perfect conditions, but don’t count on it. GMRS has slightly more range, but requires a license (no exam). They are useful to keep track of kids and family members within a small perimeter. Given their prices, you should get a couple pairs. Handhelds would be very useful for a neighborhood patrol, though anyone can listen in. There are better options, but in a pinch FRS can be a good thing to have.

There is no radio solution available to the public without a license that will provide you with enough range to contact anyone beyond line-of-sight. While receiving is important, and having a good short-wave receiver is a must, you still might need to call for help or inquire about a situation, or just contact a distant family member. The solution: HAM radio. Licenses require an exam, but it is easy to get started with a Technician license. It will only cost you a bit of study time and $15.

Now, a bit of technical information is needed. Transceivers (transmitter/receiver) are basically of two types, those that can broadcast beyond line-of-sight (thousands of miles) and those that usually can’t. It all depends on frequency. 6 meter wavelength and shorter are very good for local and medium range communications, from a few miles to around 200 miles. Longer wavelengths, up to 160 meters can bounce off the ionosphere around the earth. 6 meters is smack in the middle. Sometimes it will bounce, and sometimes not, but it does it all, hence it’s nickname, “the magic band.” The most common is the 2m band. As a “prepper,” I am mostly interested in the 2m and 10m bands, with my eyes on 6m. Longer than 10m, and you run into antenna length problems. Antennas become very long, and need to be strung horizontally between poles or trees. Not very discreet or practical in a survival situation, though possible with a bit of ingenuity. The basic technician license allows you to transmit on 10m and above 30Mhz, which includes the “magic” 6m band, 2m and 70cm.

By becoming a licensed HAM operator, you also become a valuable member of your community who can provide information when every other means are down. You would be the first to know what’s going on.

For anyone wanting to buy a do-it-all radio, I would suggest looking at the Yaesu FT-817ND. It is a small portable, multi-band transceiver which runs on batteries or external power. As far as handhelds, look into a couple 2m units like the Yaesu FT-270R for local traffic. Those are though and waterproof down to three feet for thirty minutes! At around $135, they are a bargain. I own one and I am very happy with it. You don’t need a license to buy them, but you can’t legally transmit, though anyone can legally use any radio in the United States for a life-or-death emergency. You would be missing out though by not getting a license, being it so easy and cheap, and get to know your fellow local radio operators.

As a prepper, you should have a spare and store it inside a grounded metal box for EMP protection (MUST READ article!). Make sure the radio is inside a dry cardboard box inside the metal one, and none of it’s parts touches the metal. Surplus military ammo cans are great for that purpose. I would also include a solar charger.

A radio is as important as your Coleman stove or rifle. You might not want to get into local HAM conversations, or even long distance contacts, but when you need potentially life-saving information, you will be glad you have one stored in that ammo can in the garage and that you know how to set it up and use it…