For nearly 20 years, I have spread the word that communications were lost in disasters. I learned during Hurricane Charley in 2004 that there is a need for communications. Cell service was out for weeks. With no way to reach the outside world or communicate with family members, checking on each other was a severe handicap. So I added getting a HAM license as a step in my preparedness campaign. It was a simple test, and a $10 fee for the license, and you don’t even need to know Morse code. In exchange, I got a license that allows me to operate radios that have enough reach for most disaster communications.

Some try to rely on CB radios. Try it, you won’t be happy. There are only 40 channels, but millions of CB radios. It’s an unregulated wasteland. In the best of times, the channels are clogged with people running illegally high power levels (in some cases over a thousand watts) and effectively jamming the airwaves with nonsense, just because they enjoy being assholes. The last time I listened, there was a guy on Channel 19 who was broadcasting an anti-Trump rant for over an hour. Nonstop, making Ch 19 unusable. There is another group who makes a hobby of doing the same on Channel 6. So CB is out.

Some opt for FMRS radios. With 22 channels and only 2 watts, the limited power and channel options mean clogged communications and short range.

In my opinion, GMRS or HAM radios is the better option. Each has its own benefits and issues. There is a third, better option out there, and we will get to that in a minute.

GMRS advantages:

  • The license is only $35 for 10 years, one license is good for an entire family, and no testing is required
  • GMRS licensees can operate repeaters, which will extend your range.
  • Can use up to 50 watts, but handhelds normally are 5 watts or less

GMRS disadvantages

  • There are only 30 channels on 22 frequencies, and they are shared with FMRS radios. This means possibly clogged channels
  • GMRS licenses are only good for members of the same household. Different houses require a separate license

There is also HAM radio. Advantages:

  • Thousands of channels to choose from, even in just the 2 meter and 70 cm bands
  • License needed, but only $15 for ten years
  • Less congested than other radio services
  • Can be used to patch into telephone service
  • Can be used in digital modes to connect to Internet, transmit pictures, or other data to other digital HAM sets

HAM disadvantages

  • One license per person is required, and there is a test
  • more technically demanding.
  • Radios have a lot of capabilities, but can be complicated to operate and program
  • Required to speak plainly. Code phrases are not permitted

Radios are cheap, and can be as easy or as complicated as you need them to be. You can get a GMRS radio that has three controls and doesn’t need programming for only $50 or so. The only controls are on/volume, channel selector, and push to talk button.

Then there is the third option. The best of both worlds, and the one that I have selected: Programmable radios.

Get yourself a HAM license AND your family a GMRS license and buy a mixture of radios. This allows you to have all of the advantages of FMRS, GMRS, and HAM while allowing you to circumvent the issues of all three.

Get programmable radios.

  • They can be had for as little as $45 each. They come pre-programmed for the GMRS channels, and your family members who need to communicate with them can do so with very little training.
  • If used within the FMRS power restrictions, non family members can legally borrow and use them
  • Some, like the Baofeng UV5R, can be programmed for HAM channels, meaning that those with a HAM license can use them for all three services
  • Adding a GMRS repeater gives you a lot more range and flexibility, can be used as a base station, and costs less than $220.

Possessing the two licenses allows for great flexibility. You could use GMRS on your street to communicate between houses. The ones who are more technically inclined could serve as “communications specialists” and communicate between streets that are several, or even dozens of miles apart. Use your imagination.


Paulb · October 4, 2022 at 9:57 am

It’s a shame, but the level of automation that I have available to operate a GMDSS radio suite (FCC Element 7) is orders of magnitude simpler than what HAM guys deal with. While this means that Ham users become far more technically proficient by necessity, GMDSS can be nearly fully-automated with a PC to do email-over-radio or voice signal optimization, or individual components like the MF/HF radios can be used old-school for those with the know-how (not me) to do so.

I guess it’s demand that drives it, GMDSS is required on all ships, but it’s a shame there hasn’t been an EE with the knowhow and interest to bring that sort of functionality to HAM at the “push button to talk’ level of automation.

    Divemedic · October 4, 2022 at 11:08 am

    If all that you want is “select channel and push to talk” that is simple and easy to do. What complicates it is adding technology to it: things like CTCSS, digital packets, and the other bells and whistles that HAM operators like to play with.

Tom from East Tennessee · October 4, 2022 at 12:00 pm

Good write-up! It’s tough to write something informative and with accurate info about radio comms, while keeping it simple enough to not turn-off folks who aren’t yet into it.

I got into ham radio some a decade ago because I knew I was “supposed to” for preparedness reasons, but I didn’t know much else. Initially I was really enthusiastic about bringing ham radio to the circle of folks I knew or met. That doesn’t work so well most of the time, the technician license is totally achievable and I’ve met 8-10 year olds who’ve done it, yet that’s far outside of the comfort zone of most modern adults.

I am finding it kind of working, if I bring folks into “unlicensed” radio first primarily FRS (UHF) and maybe MURS (VHF) with something like a Baofeng radio. I took Brushbeater’s radio class (it’s not an amateur radio class although it maybe overlaps a little with ham radio) and that seems like a good start to me. Get people used to operating a radio at least “tactically” that is handheld radios up to maybe a mile or so range.

I would say that if you (someone else reading this thread) want to get into radio and aren’t sure what to do, but you need to do something… then do what Divemedic says and get some FRS/GMRS type radios. The Baofeng UV5R is one of the radios that will get you at least using a radio, you can always get more and better gear later.
I would also recommend buying a ham radio study guide like the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) guide- they call it a “ham radio study guide” but specifically it’s a guide to prepare you for the Technician class license exam. Get that book and read it even if you don’t intend to get a ham license. That book explains the technical stuff that’s good to know about how radios and antennas work, and honestly all of us should understand a little bit about ‘the rules’ with the FCC. A good amount of the license exam content is what the laws and regulations are. Even a small l libertarian should know some of this about why there is an FCC and what does it do- each of us should be a responsible radio user in the same way we should try to be responsible gun owners. Being an irresponsible radio user will cause problems for other people – learn enough about what the rules are and why there are rules for different things before you start doing things that can interfere with other people.

Aesop · October 4, 2022 at 12:08 pm

CB: two words: Single sideband.
Otherwise , fuggedaboudit.

Okay. But every idiot at Disneyworld is on your freqs.
GMRS cuts all of that out, and 50W units up your game. You can take a mobile 50W unit, and fit it into a .30cal ammo can with a Pelican waterproof clear case lid epoxied on top, which makes it all bombproof, and run it with a small rechargeable 12V motorcycle or jetski-sized battery, plus a 12 car plug in option, and it’s smaller and lighter than an old PRC-77 backpack radio, with similar performance.

But the HAM option is still the best on the radio side.

Just for giggles, it’s pricey, but SATCOM phones are also the shiz. And it never hurricanes or earthquakes in space.

And don’t overlook marine and aircraft bands. Not for normal comms (you’ll get tracked down and filleted, justifiably). But for life and death bona fide emergencies, there’s times when you might have better luck hitting a 737 at 30K’ overhead than trying to hit that repeater 5 miles away and two valleys over.
Just saying.

SPOT GPS, etc., can also send short SMS text non-emergency message traffic. With no restrictions on using code words and brevity codes:
DRY WARM : House is fine, back up power is running
4S OK: Entire family here, no injuries or problems
BLUE : Plan Blue is to stay hunkered down here UFN
RETRY 1100Z : next traffic at 0600 EDT Local.

DaveH · October 4, 2022 at 12:13 pm

A great resource for the ham radio test is:
You do have to register but they do that to keep track of your progress. The FCC publishes the questions and the four multiple-choice answers (3 wrong, 1 right) that are used on the exams. This website runs you through them. Your registration allows the site to keep track of what you do well on and where you need additional study.
Simple rote memorization – couple hours/week and you should be ready in two months.

nunya · October 4, 2022 at 3:19 pm

the ARRL study guide is ok. but go to KB6NU blog page for the free download of the technician license study guide. it will get you to pass. then get a basic handheld. baofeng are cheap BUT honestly yaesu has a couple ht’s that are only a little more but much better quality. then reach out to your nearby ham group

Ersatz Naugahyde · October 4, 2022 at 7:39 pm

I started with the GMRS license about ten years ago. We live rural and it was a no brainer to send the kids out with a couple of baofengs. I do a twice weekly hike now to 3k feet and use GMRS to check in when I get there (The Mrs. has no interest in testing for a license). Moved on to Ham about six years ago and became active in POTA and SOTA. GMRS is a great place to start on the cheap and it’s a natural progression to move into Ham, even if it’s just the Tech license. Get some radios and learn how to use them.

Comments are closed.