How to chose emergency radio

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ddee216

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Basically, I've been trying to research what kind of walkie talkie to buy and I'm finding it confusing. All I want is a radio that I will be able to contact my wife with in the case of an emergency if we are separated when it happens (i.e an earthquake). I'm finding that the basic ones have a disappointing range of 1 or 2 miles. I live in Los Angeles and want to make sure I have a better city range capabilities as I work a couple miles from home. I understand you can buy different antennas to help with range, but the walkie talkie I liked, a Midland, did not have the ability to swap antennas out. BaoFeng seemed to be the answer, but they all require licenses, which I would do if they had online courses, but there are no classes available. Please help, I want this for emergency use. Thank you.
 

mmckenna

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To get reliable range/coverage, you are going to need a license.

Either GMRS, or amateur radio, if you want to stay legal. It's up to you....

GMRS is UHF and works pretty well, but in LA you'll be sharing frequencies with a lot of other people. The license is good for 5 years, and last time I looked, it was $65 or so. Repeaters are allowed, and there are a number of them in the hills around you, so -if- you can get access to one, you'll have good coverage. The issue is that GMRS repeaters are privately owned and most owners don't necessarily open them up to the world.
GMRS can work well since the single license will cover your family. You can apply for the license via the FCC website, no test required.
To get a good system, you need to stay away from the consumer grade GMRS radios, and preferably, the Chinese made junk radios. It doesn't cost more to get some commercial grade name brand radios that will give you many years of use.
Drawback is that during a wide area disaster, you are going to be stuck with a whole lot of people on a very limited number of frequencies.

A more useful option is amateur radio. The license is just for the individual, so both you AND your wife will need to have your own licenses. A basic knowledge test is required, and you have to take the test in person (each of you).
The trade off is it gives you access to big chunks of spectrum that pretty much guarantees you can find a quite frequency when you need it. Another benefit is there are a LOT of repeaters spread all across the country that you can legally use.
Amateur grade radios are inexpensive and work quite well. It does take a bit more knowledge to set everything up and make it work, but it's not difficult and there are lots of people out there that can help.

As for the amateur radio test, you can study on line. There are also, often, "ham-cram" sessions where you go in, study for a few hours, then immediately take your test while it's all still fresh in your mind. It's an option for some people, but it doesn't really teach you much, other than how to quickly pass a test.

I can tell you from being an amateur back in the 1989 Bay Area earthquake that amateur radio is a good resource in that sort of situation. I did have a GMRS license for many years, and while it was useful for family type use, it's not a good option when you may need to talk to others in an emergency.

I'm sure you'll get a lot of useful information from others who comment on this. There are some very knowledgeable people on this site than can assist you.
 

DPD1

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Yeah, unfortunately there is no magic bullet when it comes to having completely independent communications, which would be available when all other systems go down. Any radio to radio communications (simplex) are going to be very limited in range. Especially the kind you can just buy in a store like BestBuy. CBs are about the best you will do, but those would need to be mobiles mounted in a car. You might get about 7 miles or so with average antennas. But those will be big antennas that most people won't want on a car. There's plenty of ham repeaters to use in L.A. and that's what gives you real range. Like MM mentioned, you can get your license, and then there's clubs you can join where you pay a fee and they allow access to their repeater. Some of them are setup to work even when power is out. So the ham route is really your best bet, but it takes some effort. If your work and home are only a couple miles apart, you should be able to hit those simplex though, using basic ham gear.
 

Rred

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A couple of thoughts on the idea of what to do after a major quake in LA or elsewhere.
First, you may be surprised at the robustness of the cellular system, as stand-alone towers may keep standing and running for 36 hours or longer on their emergency generators. All providers are supposed to pool together to keep them all refueled, regardless of who owns them. Of course, you can expect the system to be totally overloaded with traffic, so you also should know that the entire US phone system is set up to give priority to OUTBOUND calls not inbound ones. That means if you both know someone in Texas or Vermont? You will be able to reach OUT to them and leave a message, before they can call IN to your area. And if you are affiliated with an emergency operations office or organization (anyone can join CERT or the ARC disaster response teams and volunteer for them) your manager can sign off on an NTIA priority account for you. This is to ensure priority for emergency personnel. Basically, a cellco "flips a bit" on your phone's account number, and you get priority routing on the network, That will cost you about $4/month simply to be enrolled, and about $1/minute if you use the priority option by entering a star code before your call.

And again, no matter what you do? Having an outside third party that you can leave message with, may be the best way to communicate. Consider Google Voice, where a phone, email account, SMS messaging, all can be joined and accessed for free by so many ways.

On radios? As the others said, range and power are going to mean money and licensing. Any "general public" frequency, any service you can buy off the shelf, will probably be overwhelmed as everyone else tries to use the few working resources.

LA is the home of the CERT programs, and if you both volunteer for that, take the training, and find out the local options, even if you don't stay with the program, you gain the advantage of having the training and being able to help yourself and your neighbors, in the event that everything (literally) falls apart and professional responders can't come.

Sometimes? All you can do is leave a note and attempt to evacuate to a mutually agreed meeting place. That should already be part of your plans, in any case.

If someone IS trapped under a bookcase...they're not going to be able to reach that radio or phone anyway, are they?
 

mmckenna

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A couple of thoughts on the idea of what to do after a major quake in LA or elsewhere.
First, you may be surprised at the robustness of the cellular system, as stand-alone towers may keep standing and running for 36 hours or longer on their emergency generators. All providers are supposed to pool together to keep them all refueled, regardless of who owns them. Of course, you can expect the system to be totally overloaded with traffic, so you also should know that the entire US phone system is set up to give priority to OUTBOUND calls not inbound ones. That means if you both know someone in Texas or Vermont? You will be able to reach OUT to them and leave a message, before they can call IN to your area.
I beg to differ. The weak spot in the cellular telephone systems is the backhaul. While an individual site may stay up, if it can't connect back to the MSO, it's dead in the water. With the back haul down and the cell site up, it's still not going to do you any good. This was a big issue for us back in 2008 when someone cut several fiber cables in the area. All the cell sites went down. The carriers used the phone company for the backhaul. The phone company fiber had been cut and there was no connection back to the MSO's.

Also, last I looked, FCC had requirements for battery run time on the sites. It's 8 hours for most of them. I have yet to be to a cell site that has a battery system that looks like it's been properly maintained. With the build out of LTE, and the age of the battery systems I've seen, I'm not confident that the run time capacity has been maintained, either. Most DAS sites have no battery backup.

Not all cell sites have an on site generator, in fact it's pretty rare. Shore power connections are pretty rare too, so being able to trailer up a generator and get it on site is iffy. Cell carriers have a limited number of portable generators available and a limited number of people that can arrive at the site and set them up. If its a wide area disaster, you may find that the priority level of any specific cell site may be pretty low.

I strongly encourage people to not rely on cellular service in any sort of disaster. A robust radio site is easier to support. All my sites have minimum 8 hour battery run time, on site generators with several days of on site fuel. Most amateur radio repeaters don't have anything close to this, so relying on amateur isn't necessarily going to help.



And if you are affiliated with an emergency operations office or organization (anyone can join CERT or the ARC disaster response teams and volunteer for them) your manager can sign off on an NTIA priority account for you. This is to ensure priority for emergency personnel. Basically, a cellco "flips a bit" on your phone's account number, and you get priority routing on the network, That will cost you about $4/month simply to be enrolled, and about $1/minute if you use the priority option by entering a star code before your call.
Actually, its the DHS that runs GETS/WPS, not NTIA. While CERT teams may qualify, personal use of WPS or GETS is frowned upon, not that anyone is usually checking. Rates for WPS activation and usage varies by carrier, and not all carriers will support it in all locations.
Also, WPS only gives you priority on the radio side. The wireline side of the call would require a GETS card/number. DHS recommends using WPS and dialing the GETS access number to make sure the call gets through.

Still, given what the OP was asking for, were going down a rabbit hole with the CERT/WPS path. For family use, GMRS/Amateur is probably your best bet. If you really require something, check into a satellite telephone service, like Iridium.
 

mmckenna

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I would also add at the survivability of any cell site is going to rely on a number of factors, including location, type of disaster, type of installation, etc.
Hurricane Katrina took down a lot of towers. Subsequent flooding took out cell sites, telephone company CO's, MSO's, electrical substations, etc.
Earthquakes out here in California that would be big enough to cause a big enough disaster are going to be a region wide thing, so expecting wide spread damage to the infrastructure would a realistic thing. I was here for the big quake in 1989 and it took out a lot of power, phone networks, etc. Restoration took a while since so many areas were damaged. It's usually not a good idea to assume that any specific systems or location are going to get restored quickly. The utility companies are going to be stretched very thin. Restoration of services to support hospitals, first responders, critical infrastructure will come first. That is, of course, once all the fires are out and victims have been rescued. Getting technicians in the office/trucks and on site takes time, too. Often in these large disasters it requires brining in resources from out of the area. I remember back in the 1989 quake Telus out of Canada was down in California helping out Pacific Bell. Pacific Gas and Electric had crews from all over the place, including companies from adjacent states.
 

KC4RAF

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When hurricane Charley hit us, cell phones went DEAD!

For days. Just before we were hit, everybody was trying to call somebody; overload. Either CB or ham radio was about the only comms going. Some GMRS. FRS did well for families that did travel but a few hunbdred feet. Rely on cell phones? I learned better.
 

Delta33

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For days. Just before we were hit, everybody was trying to call somebody; overload. Either CB or ham radio was about the only comms going. Some GMRS. FRS did well for families that did travel but a few hunbdred feet. Rely on cell phones? I learned better.
I agree Roger, cells are not as bulletproof as some would think.
 

kayn1n32008

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First, you may be surprised at the robustness of the cellular system, as stand-alone towers may keep standing and running for 36 hours or longer on their emergency generators.

Lol. The cellular system is significantly less robust than landline service.

Very few sites have generators, and battery backup is maybe 8hrs IF you are lucky. Fibre is delicate, and susceptible to being cut.

Couple that with LTE/WCDMA/HSPA requiring fibre or high bandwidth microwave back haul to fibre makes for a very very vulnerable system.
 

kayn1n32008

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For days. Just before we were hit, everybody was trying to call somebody; overload. Either CB or ham radio was about the only comms going. Some GMRS. FRS did well for families that did travel but a few hunbdred feet. Rely on cell phones? I learned better.


Oh yea, for having to have comms while travelling, 2-way is the way to go. If cellular is your only option, make sure you are with a provider that have coverage where you are going. Once the system is swamped, stick to text messaging, it may take a while, but it will get through if the infrastructure is still working.

I have mobile gear that I can put in my wife's car, with a magmount, plus portables. Both VHF and UHF. I have licensed LMR frequencies I could use on VHF if need be.
 

Rred

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McKenna, you make good points, as usual. But after Wilma, the landlines flooded out and died within hours, along with the buried broadband cables. The cell towers largely run for 36-48 hours afterwards, just on battery or generator, whatever they had. The backhaul? Was also buried cables, and some of that must have flooded out. Towers can be configured many ways, some actually direct traffic out in three different directions, with no hardwire connection to the backhaul. So depending on what the locals have done, they can be incredibly robust or incredibly frail.

The backhaul itself is another local issue. The internet, 20 years ago, looked like a big "H" that ran across the middle of the US with one leg up and down each coast. One break (like the Amtrak train that derailed in VA around 1999) and the whole Northeast went offline. Today? More backhauls, more backbone, and many businesses bring in two providers from two different service directions.

Utility lines in quake zones are often required, for some years now, to plan for that. The cables may be laid in a "Z" in the quake fault area, so that as the ground moves the "Z" straightens out and prevents a break. What LA has done, I don't know. But they did start the CERT program, and they did anticipate a total infrastructure loss, being one of the few major cities (counties) that tell their teams "When communications go down, self-deploy and begin SAR". I would not be surprised if they are ahead of the curve in many other ways as well, subject to the usual cost restraint arguments.

Will the cell system go down? Maybe. Maybe Goodyear will attach COWS to their new airships.(G) A truly big disaster hasn't yet hit, so no one really has planned a response to it. Except, after Mr. Bush got all educated about why he couldn't send the military in to respond to Katrina, they quietly (literally, secretly) slipped an addendum into the defense appropriations bill (about 6" thick, no one ever reads them all, I think it was 2006) which basically repeals the "Posse Comitatus Act" and allows the President to issue an executive order declaring a state of emergency (separately from the Stafford Act) at which point he's allowed to send in all military resources for domestic purposes--including relief and law enforcement.

VERY different from Katrina.

In any case...anything you can buy off a rack, is likely to be overwhelmed and useless. Anything that looks like it works, someone else may try to grab from you. The best bet? Right, pick a meeting place, and get out of Dodge unless you're part of the recovery teams.

And don't ask your carrier any questions about fuel or backhaul...they're liable to call DHS and say "There's a man asking questions..." and just get all paranoid about it. Even the routine maps (lie maps of the internet backbone) were pulled from most or all of the internet.

Much bigger more complex issue than which technology might work, I think we can agree on that. There's a lot that is simply not discussed, for fear of panicking the voters.
 

kodo

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Basically, I've been trying to research what kind of walkie talkie to buy and I'm finding it confusing. All I want is a radio that I will be able to contact my wife with in the case of an emergency if we are separated when it happens (i.e an earthquake). I'm finding that the basic ones have a disappointing range of 1 or 2 miles. I live in Los Angeles and want to make sure I have a better city range capabilities as I work a couple miles from home. I understand you can buy different antennas to help with range, but the walkie talkie I liked, a Midland, did not have the ability to swap antennas out. BaoFeng seemed to be the answer, but they all require licenses, which I would do if they had online courses, but there are no classes available. Please help, I want this for emergency use. Thank you.
Back to the OP's question

Baofeng makes a perfectly functional and inexpensive radio. I have the UV82 in my BoB, and have heard great things about the UV5R. You can also get an array of cheap antennae for them.

Key points
1. Program all the standard GMRS, FRS, MURS, and Weather frequencies. They are probably going to be crowded, but keep them on hand anyways. MURS frequencies will afford you 2w of tx power, unlicensed.

2. Find some oddball unused frequencies that nobody in your area uses. Program those in too. Use them if **** really really hits the fan in a big way(Like Walking Dead status) and you can't risk every jackass with a Walmart radio eavesdropping.

3. Have pre-established radio procedures and contingencies. Keep a laminated printout with each radio. Make sure everyone knows how to actually use the radios. This is probably the most important part. Write up a communications plan, rendevous points, codes, evac plans, etc.

4. Of course make sure to get proper licensing and permits for everything. Unless it's Walking Dead status, then nobody from the FCC will be alive to fine you. ;D

Related reading:

https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1449695072664-f9e63377160573cd3050158874dc548c/cert_emergencycommunications_ppt_100615.pdf
 

jonwienke

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Back to the OP's question
2. Find some oddball unused frequencies that nobody in your area uses. Program those in too. Use them if **** really really hits the fan in a big way(Like Walking Dead status) and you can't risk every jackass with a Walmart radio eavesdropping.
Frequency obscurity IS NOT SECURITY. Negan will have a scanner with Close Call, or a laptop with SDR# and a $20 dongle that can scan 10MHz of bandwidth per second and will find your frequency as soon as you start using it. If you have things to discuss by radio that could get you or someone you care about hurt or killed if the wrong person overheard you, then get a digital radio that supports some decent flavor of encryption. The TYT MD-380/390 is a decent option; its Enhanced Privacy encryption may not defeat the NSA, but it is not trivially crackable, either. And the 390 is waterproof.

3. Have pre-established radio procedures and contingencies. Keep a laminated printout with each radio. Make sure everyone knows how to actually use the radios. This is probably the most important part. Write up a communications plan, rendevous points, codes, evac plans, etc.
This is good advice. Emergency gear is useless if it is not properly maintained, or you and your loved ones aren't able to operate it correctly in stressful situations. Planning and preparation is key--have a well thought out plan, and practice it periodically to make sure it makes sense and your gear is in working order.
 

mmckenna

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This is good advice. Emergency gear is useless if it is not properly maintained, or you and your loved ones aren't able to operate it correctly in stressful situations. Planning and preparation is key--have a well thought out plan, and practice it periodically to make sure it makes sense and your gear is in working order.
Absolutely 100% right on.
Far too often I see suggestions of "program in everything". That might work if a bunch of people with strong radio background and a lot of training are using the radios, but for most family and/or non-radio savvy types, it's a real bad idea.
If you really need an -emergency- radio, and you are not into the zombie apocalypse b.s., program a radio with a single channel. Disable all the options. What you want is a two way radio that has an on/off/volume and a push to talk button.
Far to often I run into cases at work where I get the generic complaint of "the radio system is down". I check, radio system is fine. I go to the customer and find there's a bunch of people with radios. Usually batteries are dead. Someone will be off on one talk group, someone forgot to turn theirs on. That guy over there lost the antenna. Someone else is using an FRS radio and doesn't understand why channel 1 FRS doesn't talk to channel 1 on the 800MHz radio. I could go on, and on, and on...

What I discovered works best for my family is to have a commercial quality radio. Program in one channel and one channel only. Duplicate that channel across all the personalities/channel slots in the radio. Same PL/DPL, same frequency, everything. Turn off ALL functions, keys, etc. The only controls that actually do anything are the on/off/volume and the push to talk. That way whoever picks up the radio only needs to know how to turn it on. Doesn't matter which buttons they fat-finger, doesn't matter what they "think" they know. Turn it on, push the button, talk.
I went as far as to set up the mobiles, all CDM-1250 or CDM-1550's with a "Home" button. That's actually a button cap on the face of the radio that says "HOME". No matter what the radio is set to, pressing the "HOME" button switches the radio back to one predetermined channel. All my wife has to do is turn the ignition in her car on, the radio automatically powers up on the right "home" channel, and talk. If someone messes with the radio, all she has to do is press the home button, and it's good to go.

It's the K.I.S.S. method of doing things, but it works well, especially for those that are not radio nerds.
 

UPMan

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Even with the BaoFengs and similar, if you are communicating by direct simplex (i.e. not through a repeater), you are going to be limited to line-of-sight. Reliable line-of-site ranges on most of the earth is 2 blocks to 2 miles. Basically, as soon as the other person is over a hill or other land mass, communication stops. As soon as they are behind a building or other substantial structure, communication becomes unreliable.

On calm water (i.e. no obstructions, no waves), line of sight is about 6 miles when the radio antennas are about 6 ft above the surface of the water. Land tends to be bumpier than calm water, though.

You can achieve dramatic distances (we test our "cheap" radios out to 50 miles successfully, but we test from the top of a mountain into a long valley). Radio output power and radio sensitivity then become the key variables that determine communications distance. In almost any other situation I can think of, terrain and obstacles, not power and sensitivity, are the main limiters of communications distance.
 
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Rred

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Most of the BaoFeng radios (most, not all) are illegally sold for illegal operation on frequencies and services that they cannot be legally used on. Without arguing that they are still an effective tool in an emergency kit, I simply point this out because as long as you will be breaking the law by simply using the radio (in most but not all cases) you might as well set the power level to HIGH. You'll stand a better chance of emergency communications, and the potential fine or penalty will almost certainly be no different.

What do they say? In for a dime, in for a dollar? If compliance is not an issue, then performance ought to be.
 

N4GIX

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Most of the BaoFeng radios (most, not all) are illegally sold for illegal operation...
Illegal operations I'll grant you, but it is not "illegal" to sell them. It's without question unethical to sell them.

They aren't a controlled substance after all! :lol:
 

robertmac

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Legal or not, one needs to know how to program radios. I hear a lot of new hams, basically for emergency use, get licensed but never on the air. They have no concept of how to field program their radios, or even what frequencies to use. This was never more apparent then when the floods hit and they had no idea what repeaters were to be used or even how to program them in. I feel in an emergency, a lot of people will be using radios talking into air never land, or unable to communicate because the frequency they chose was also chosen by hundreds of others. There is no substitute for knowledge and practising.
 

Rred

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If the radio has not been type accepted as a ham radio by the FCC? Yes, it IS illegal to advertise it and sell it "in commerce" as a ham radio. No, I can't cite you the CFR on that, but you've no doubt read th fine print in many ads from the Big Three for new radios that always say "Pending Type Acceptance...." and that they cannot legally be sold IN COMMERCE as ham radios until that happens. All they do is announce the radio will be available for sale, after it is legal to sell it.
Since the radios inevitably have more than 500mW of power and removable antennas, they are illegal for FRS use as well. And then some few are legal for GMRS, for Part90 or 95, but that's still the minority of them.
A ham can use pencil stubs and home-grown crystals as a radio, that's legal. But the stationery store can't advertise and sell the same product FOR use as a ham radio. That's intentional, to keep mass-produced crap off the marketplace while allowing experimenters to go further. Nice theory, even if it falls short with enforcement.
 

Delivers1234

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Legal or not, one needs to know how to program radios. I hear a lot of new hams, basically for emergency use, get licensed but never on the air. They have no concept of how to field program their radios, or even what frequencies to use. This was never more apparent then when the floods hit and they had no idea what repeaters were to be used or even how to program them in. I feel in an emergency, a lot of people will be using radios talking into air never land, or unable to communicate because the frequency they chose was also chosen by hundreds of others. There is no substitute for knowledge and practising.


Q: in a legitimate emergency can't anyone use a ham radio without a license?
 
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