By Rob Hanus, of the Preparedness Podcast
The recent aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is a good reminder of why you should have a backup communication plan with your family. When there is no electricity and no phone service, you suddenly realize how isolated you are from your family. Having alternate means of family communication, can mean the difference between reaching your family or left wondering if they are okay.
Obviously, the best choices are satellite phones, and of course cellular phones and texting with you are able to get a signal and cell services are available. Even if the phone circuits are busy, text messages are transmitted over a different circuit on the cellular network and have a higher probability of getting through than a voice call on the same network.
However, if the cell network is down, then you’ll need to fall back to an alternate means of family communication, and that means radio. There are several options you can choose from, but you need to know their limitations. Keep in mind that none of them will provide you with the simplicity that is portrayed in movies or television shows.
Family Communication – Radio Options
Let’s take a look at the current options that are available to us for communicating without relying on any infrastructure.
Family Communication Option #1: General Mobile Radio Service – GMRS
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is in the UHF band, and has 23 channels in the 462 – 467 MHz range. It’s generally best used for Line of Sight communications, which means if there’s a mountain or large building in your way, you might not be able to reach the other radio. You do need an FCC license to operate a GMRS radio. Unlike an Amateur Radio license, though, if one family member has a license, the entire family can use the radio units within the licensed system.
The main advantage of GMRS over FRS (covered below) is that you can operate both mobile and base stations, have an elevated, external antenna, and use a full 5 watts ERP (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effective_radiated_power). With a tuned and elevated antenna, 5 watts can extend the coverage greatly. You should be able to get a reliable distance of several miles, with possibilities of up to 25 miles. Of course, to hit 25 miles, you would need both stations to have elevated antennas. but it gives you an idea of the range you can expect. GMRS also gives you the options to use a repeater, which can extend your range (for more on GMRS repeaters, visit http://www.mygmrs.com).
Family Communication Option #2: Family Radio Service – FRS
The FRS (Family Radio Service) frequency band also uses the same 462 – 467 MHz spectrum range as GRMS. However, using an FRS radio requires no license by the user, but must have a fixed antenna (on the radio), and is limited to 500 milliwatts (half of a watt) of power. The FRS channels are actually 14 channels of the GMRS band and, like GMRS, there is no exclusive assignment of channels for anyone. This means that the channels may be crowded from large amounts of people trying to use the same channel.
Typically, you’ll get less than 1 mile of transmitting distance when using FRS radios, because of their low power. In urban areas, you can expect much less range, unless transmitting from a high location. There are radios available that are sold as “dual-service” radios that cover both the FRS and GMRS bands. If you have a GMRS license, you can use all channels with full GMRS power. If you have no license, you are limited to the FRS channels and only half of a watt of power.
Family Communications Option #3: Multi Use Radio Service – MURS
Down the radio spectrum a bit is the MURS, or Multi-Use Radio Service, band. This band operates from 151 to 154 MHz in the VHF band. There are only 5 frequencies on MURS, but you don’t need a license to operate on them. While MURS is limited to 2 watts of power, you can use an external antenna. Because MURS operates in the VHF band, you may see a greater transmission distance, even though you’re limited to 2 watts of power. This is due to the VHF band being better at penetrating objects than the UHF band.
Family Communications Option #4: Citizens Band – CB
Popular in the 70s and 80s, the CB, or Citizen Band, radio is still in frequent use. There are 40 CB channels found from 26.965 – 27.405 MHz, which is also known as the 11 meter band. It’s distinctly different from the above frequencies, as it operates at a much lower set of frequencies and the default mode is AM, instead of FM like FRS, GMRS and MURS. In addition to AM, many radios also allow you to use another mode of operation called SSB, or Single Side Band. In AM mode, you are limited to only 4 watts of power, but in SSB mode, you can transmit up to 12 watts. As SSB is far more efficient as a communication mode, it typically covers a greater distance.
CB radios, whether in AM or SSB, suffered greatly from too many users on too few channels. Though the popularity of CB has dwindled somewhat, this can still be an issue in some areas. However, once out of urban areas and away from Interstate highways, any contented channels should be fairly clear.
Because CB is a low frequency, it requires a long antenna. Much longer than that needed by GMRS, FRS and MURS. Yet, the characteristics of the frequency range make it possible to get fairly reliable communications for 10 to 20 miles when using SSB mode. In AM mode, you can expect about 3 to 5 miles.
Family Communications Option #5: Amateur Radio – Ham Radio
Amateur Radio, also known as Ham Radio, is the only service that allows you to transmit over a wide spectrum of frequencies, with far greater power. These frequencies are also much cleaner and less congested, because Hams are trained to use them wisely; you won’t find the issues that plague the CB band. If you can get your family on board to get licenses, this is often your best choice for family communications.
With a General Ham license, you can transmit from the HF bands, which allow you to talk all over the world, to the VHF and UHF bands, and even up into the GHz range. For emergency communications, the options available to the average Ham are far greater than anything else available. However, it does require that all persons using the radios be licensed, which requires commitment for studying and taking a test. It used to be that you needed to pass a Morse code test in order to get a license, that has been done away with for years now. Check out http://www.arrl.org for more info on getting started with Ham Radio.
As you can see from the above, there are several good options for your family communication plan. Most likely, you’ll decide to implement more than one of these, as each has their advantages. The wider range of comms you have, it’s also more likely that you’ll be able to communicate with a greater number of people in an emergency, too.
Which family communication option listed above do you think you will use for your family communication plan?
Note: This has been a guest post by By Rob Hanus, of the Preparedness Podcast
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