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Emergency Radio Communications for All or Anyone in Times of Disaster!
By Don Butler - Hamuniverse.com

This article hopefully will start you thinking about how you would get lifesaving emergency radio communications information in or out  from where you are right now or most anywhere if you had a major disaster happen as you read this.
WHAT BACKUP DO YOU HAVE? You will see this question repeated several times in this article. This article pertains to the U.S. only but parts of it pertains to everyone worldwide.

A major disaster could be an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire storm, ice storm, major electricity blackout, explosion, wide area flooding, very heavy snow, and most any natural or man made disaster that can harm people over a wide area, causing in many cases, death and major destruction. During major disasters, emergency radio communications are a lifeline to emergency aid, rescue and preserving life. What backup do you have? 

How would you transmit or receive emergency radio communications to or from the proper people or authorities like Police, Fire Departments, First Responders, local radio and TV stations, 911, get weather reports and even communicate with your neighbors or family when all of your present methods fails. Cell phones will most certainly in most cases be useless. What backup do you have?

So what "are" your present methods to make an emergency call for lifesaving help or how would you receive much needed information if all radio and TV stations near you were off the air or you had no electric power to power your radios and TV's? No, you could not use the computer, the internet is most likely down. Not your smart phone, no cell phone service. So your smart phone is not as smart as you thought!
You may say, "All of this is not likely, but I would use my cell phone or land line phone as the first to try." And at the same time, many thousands of others are trying to call all at the same time and down goes the phone service or it could take hours to get a connection during extreme heavy and frantic calls.

What if all phones were down and you can't get to a radio or TV that can receive local stations? How would you power your portable AM/FM radio with dead batteries, even if the local stations were operating? You have no access to AC power, it is down so no TV! Your trusty portable radio that you usually use on AC power does not work because the battteries in it, (that you forgot about), are dead!

Your hardwired land line phone may go out due to power being lost or the main phone lines are cut! All of your phones are DEAD and no radio or TV or computer service! Do I seem to be repeating myself...yes....on purpose so you will "get it".
What backup do you have? Don't rely on your neighbors, they may be down too!

Remember that if you have a cordless phone or any phone that uses AC power to operate, it relies on AC power to function. If the electricity is OFF, your phone cradle won't be powered! Even though your actual cordless phone is battery powered, the base cradle won't be powered. It requires AC power....so it won't receive the signals from the cordless phone when you try to make a call....any call! DEAD! 

What if you were in your car and you had no cell phone service due to your location? What backup do you have? You might say, "The car has an AM/FM radio.!" But how would you get a lifesaving message OUT to be heard? What backup do you have?

So now you have survived this disaster but you are trapped as far as communications are concerned, especially at getting a lifesaving message out to anyone that can hear you! What backup do you have?

Another possible situation...you're camping on the river bank, at your favorite lake or in a location far from any populated area. What communications backup do you have?

If all normal communications methods are DOWN regardless of where you are, what would you do in case of a severe emergency to get help, or just to get much needed information on what happened? News, any news......and FAST!

The answer may be more simple than you think!

There is little if anything you can do after a disaster without some form of communications and sense you have not already answered the question...WHAT BACKUP DO YOU HAVE?.....What do you do to get emergency help???


Now let's get you some backup!
Be ready in a radio communications emergency!

In an emergency life and death situation, anything and everything goes!

Any radio capable of transmitting can be used to make an emergency radio call. The key word in that last sentence is "transmitting".

In the U.S. it is perfectly legal to use any radio transmitter on any frequency to seek emergency lifesaving help as long as it is lifesaving help you seek. The problem with using just any transmitter is that no one may be listening at the time you seek help or they may be out of range of the transmitter you use! Would you know how to use it in the first place?

You need to use one of many transmitting devices for emergency radio communications that "should" be monitored. Even an abandoned police car, fire truck, taxi cab, etc radio may still work. A life may depend on you using it to try calling for help!

Some of the more popular emergency radio communications devices and services that may be monitored other than police vehicles, fire vehicles, etc are:

CB radio, FRS radio, GMRS radio, MURS radio, and last but not lease, amateur radio also called "ham radio." Can you guess which of the radio types listed above usually work when the others don't? We will answer that question a bit later in this article.

Each of the above types of emergency radio communications devices have disadvantages and advantages. You must weigh the advantages of each and also the disadvantages by doing your research for your particular needs and your location.

To save you some time and research, here are the major disadvantages and some advantages of each types of emergency radio communications devices in no particular order:

CB RADIOS  - No license required, Mass confusion, no order whatsoever, everyone trying to talk at the same time, very noise prone, must have DC power from vehicle or power supply that requires AC power to convert to DC when using inside home. Large antennas and limited range due to 4 watts output limit. Not many CB operators follow the very simple FCC rules that even a child can understand. Most CB radio operators are not even aware that there are RULES required by the federal government to operate a CB radio! Many illegal high powered CB operators literally take over the channels as their own!
Vulgar language can be expected! Not family friendly! NOT A GOOD EMERGENCY RADIO CHOICE! But if this is all you have, it's all you have!

FRS RADIOS - Small walki talkie types, hand held. No license required, 22 channels shared with the GMRS radop service, maximum power allowed 1/2 watt effective radiated power, very limited range and frequencies, (don't believe the advertising hype of 35 miles or more! Line of sight communications or less, battery powered and walkie talkie types only. No external antenna can be added...Operates on the UHF radio frequencies. Anyone of any age can use them. Crystal clear voice (FM) when within limited range. 
Not a good emergency radio choice in my opinion due to limited range but they can serve a needed purpose when it comes to an emergency. 

GMRS RADIOS - License required, still limited range but more than FRS type radios. The band of frequencies (23 channels on UHF) is shared with the FRS radio service. There are eight channels reserved exclusively for GMRS and seven "interstitial" channels shared with Family Radio Service. GMRS use requires an FCC license, and licensees are permitted to transmit at up to 50 watts on GMRS frequencies, depending on the type of station, but 1 to 5 watts is more common. Base stations allowed (GMRS channels ONLY), antenna height restrictions. Can be congested in metro areas. Good choice for rural locations.

MURS RADIOS  - No license required. Only 5 frequencies allowed. Low power, 2 watts maximum, Shared with businesses. More range under normal conditions than FRS radio. Operates on the VHF band and external antennas are allowed (60 feet) above the ground or 6.10 meters (20.0 feet) above the highest point of the structure to which it is mounted, whichever is higher) for more range. Channels can be very congested in metro areas. Good for rural areas when neighboors are nearby and not miles apart. Possible choice for emergency radio communications due to longer range but I doubt that I would use them in a large metro area due to the congestion of the limited frequencies, especially in times of emergency disaster. There will be little to no control over when a channel may be used or by who.

Note that all four of the radio services above operate on a "shared" frequencies or channel basis and are limited in power and range. In large metro areas, much congestion of them can be expected. Much like CB radio.
Also note that ONLY FRS and GMRS radios are compatible. CB radios and MURS operate on entirely different radio bands and won't work with other radio types. So don't expect to use them that way.  No.....We did not forget ham radio...keep reading.

Ways to have a limited backup communications "system" in and around your neighborhood.
Get your neighbors involved!
Since most people can afford the inexpensive FRS radios, may we suggest that you start an emergency neighborhood radio group, or call it a "Neighborhood Radio Watch" in and around your neighborhood! This requires that many of your neighbors within a few blocks of your home buy and use FRS radios and ALWAYS monitor a specific channel that is predetermined and ALWAYS monitor it for emergencies when other methods of communication fail you...or your neighbors. FRS radios are very small and light weight (like walki talkies) that can fit in the palm of your hand and can be clipped on belts, various items of clothing or kept handy within ear" reach when someone calls.
Most FRS radios will cover a normal neighborhood very well within a few blocks, not miles. Remember that they are short range and battery powered.

How this would work.
Each neighbor or as many as possible would buy one or more FRS radios, (they usually come in pairs), and are usually found locally at retailers or online. They won't do anyone any good in emergencies unless they are monitored by at least one neighbor on a rotating basis around the clock. Most have an "alarm" or call alert function when they transmit that sounds much like a telephone ringing to get attention. Some have a short blurp, blurp blurp (audio tone signal) to let you know someone is calling.

It is very important if you have an emergency to let the person on the other end of your emergency transmission know these simple facts below.

After you press the mic button, use the words, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, then release the mic button. DON'T YELL! This will only distort your voice. Speak close and across the front of the radio, not directly into it to help prevent breath noises. Repeat this procedure several times and wait between calls for any answer.
When someone hopefully answers your call, then give them the 4'W's below:

Where, What, Who, When

1. Where - Give YOUR EXACT LOCATION ADDRESS where the emergency is occurring!
If by some chance, the person answering your call knows first aid, all the better, BUT make certain, if a life and death emergency is in progress, that somehow, 911 is called with all of the details needed by them. If you are the person getting the info to 911, let them know that you are using radio to help relay the emergency help call that is occuring at a different location than yours. Make sure the 911 operator knows WHERE the emergency is! Then follow the instructions of the 911 operator if any. Answer all of the 911 questions as completely as possible and follow the exact instructions given by the 911 operator.

2. What - What is the nature of the emergency (give exact details if possible), and if emergency help is needed to be called using 911, if it is working, and you can't get a 911 operator. If more than one victim, give the number of people needing emergency assistance.

3. Who - Tell them who you are.

4. When - How long ago did the emergency situation happen? Add any other details about the emergency as needed.

DO NOT MAKE AN EMERGENCY CALL ON THE FRS RADIOS OR ANY RADIO UNLESS YOU HAVE AN ACTUAL EMERGENCY! Don't cry "wolf" when the "wolf" is not around, you may need help or your family NOW and if YOUR practice of crying "wolf" is frequent, you may be ignored when it is too late!
It is important to remember that if a MAJOR disaster occurs, 911, will be almost useless due to the shear number of calls overloading the systems, so be patient or use any method needed to get the emergency message to the proper authorities.

Non-emergency use of FRS Radios! The fun side!

During non-emergency situations, they can always be used much like the old "party line" phones to just chit chat with your neighbors and keep up with the latest gossip or anything you wish to talk about. FRS radios are a great companion for the elderly in your neighborhood! Get to know them and call them often. If you do have elderly people in your neighborhood with FRS radios, check in with them over the radio from time to time even at a specific time daily. Many elderly senior citizens love to chit chat and "visit" so make time for them when you can.
Remember that what you say on your radio can be heard by others so be careful what you don't want someone to know. If you have kids that use them just for fun, they can run down the batteries very quickly, so remember to keep the batteries replaced or charged at all times! A better idea is to not let the kids use them as toys! Make sure that they know that they can be used in times of emergency to call a neighbor. Teach them the "emergency" calls.

Things to know about your FRS emergency radios that are IMPORTANT!
You should always have a fresh set of rechargeable batteries in the radio and another backup set charging. It might also be a very good idea to have a 3rd set of batteries charging...as a backup for the backup. On receive only, many FRS radios will last a day or two without recharging! Transmitting really drains the batteries so beware. ALWAYS HAVE BACKUP BATTERIES!

Experiment with them and another neighbor to see if there is a "best" location within your home to use them. Usually you will have better "range" if you are near a window or on an upper floor. If the other person you are talking to is noisy, then move your radio a few inches to the right or left or up or down. This may improve your transmissions and reception.

To make any neighborhood "radio watch" work, it will take a bit of work and co-ordination between you and your neighbors. During the planning stages, have at least 1 or more monitoring "stations" set up in a central location of the neighborhood. This helps them to have coverage over the entire neighborhood area rather than being on the "end" or edge of the radio range without full radio coverage. So as an example, if the area you are trying to cover contains 2 square blocks or more, then look at a map and determine what the center of the neighborhood radio coverage is and co-ordinate from that central point using 1 or more people to monitor the preset channel (used for emergencies or a CALL channel) and try to have someone near that location monitoring at all times. The key to making this work is in knowing that someone IS monitoring a specific channel at all times!!!!!
You may even want to set up a regular "check in" radio session daily or once a week or so with all of your neighbors which can be fun and rewarding by meeting new people. Once the "radio watch" word is spread around the neighborhood, it may be a great aid to you, especially in times of emergency. Even knowing that 1 person is always "there" when you make a radio call can be very comforting to you.

We have spent considerable time writing about the use of FRS type radios but remember that they are short range, very short range, but work very well within their design specifications. If cost vs life saving is a factor for you and your family, this may be a good choice but I personally would not use FRS as my primary emergency communications method. But, ANYTHING IS BETTER THAN NOTHING!


The other types of emergency radio communications type radios like the GMRS, MURS, AND CB radios can also be used in much the same way as the FRS radios.  But in normal times of non-emergency, some are required to have a license. So this must be considered.

DO NOT USE THE LICENSED TYPES for ANYTHING other than strict emergencies if you are not licensed to use them. Severe penalties (fines) can be issued to you by the FCC up to several thousands of dollars. Don't chance it!

Backup your backup emergency radio!
When you need your backup radio for any reason and it is damaged beyond use, then you no longer have a backup! What do you do? To help prevent being "dead in the water", you may want to consider having a second backup radio in a nearby but separate location just in case your primary radio is damaged.... this could easily happen. If your primary backup radio is destroyed and or you can't find it, then plan ahead just for this situation. Have one in your car or other "secure" location. Tell all of your family members about the location.

Don't forget your backup radio and keep the batteries charged on a routine schedule! Dead batteries are useless to you unless you can recharge or replace them. HINT! Don't store your backup radios in freezing temperatures or high humidity or wet conditions unless their specifications will allow it. Most electronic components in them are not designed for extreme environments and may not work when you really need them! Don't let the kids "play" with them if they are backups.
Below are some of the more popular, "NO LICENSE REQUIRED", CB, FRS, and MURS radios that you can either get locally or from Amazon.com or other retailers.
Click on any of the links for more info!
Do you have a backup method of radio communications?


Getting much needed local information from public services radio!
Enter scanning radio!

You can monitor (not transmit), most police, fire, ambulance, first responders, weather radio and many other local emergency radio transmissions near you including ham radio by using a "scanner" type radio!
Note that in some states, these are illegal under certain situations, especially in vehicles so check your local regulations.

Using just the simple telescoping antenna that comes with most desktop "scanner" type radios, you can listen to the local "news" as it happens. Where do you think most broadcast radio and TV stations get the "heads up" or advanced notice on news as it happens, especially emergency type communications so they can get live crews out to cover it? Scanner radios of course!
You can either use desktop models or hand helds. Desktops usually operate with regular house AC power. The hand held models operate from batteries. So you will need a method to recharge or replace them. Note that in many large "metro" areas, that normal scanner radios will not work. You will need special "trunking" or digital type scanners. Your scanner retailer can advise you on what type you need for your area.

Scannermaster is the largest and most trusted scanner only dealer in the U.S. and they can tell you exactly what type of scanner you will need for your area using a huge database of systems used across the U.S. Click this link and fill out the simple form. They will suggest the various scanner types that will work in YOUR area. Don't guess what type you need. Let them do the research for you....and the best part....the research is FREE!

Severe Weather emergency radio communications!
Many ham radio operators are official trained "Storm Spotters" with eyes on the ground to report severe weather that radar does not and can not "see" and they report severe weather as it happens directly to the National Weather Service office in their area by using emergency radio communications via ham radio frequencies. You will hear severe weather news as it happens "first" from the spotters using a scanner tuned to the "ham" frequencies in your area! These usually take place on the 2 meter ham band.
In many cases you can get advanced "warning" via a scanner radio of a potential bad weather situation just around the block from you that you would not hear about until it is "to late". Police officers and other first responders on patarol are also attempting to keep an eye out for tornados, but they report them indirectly to their dispatchers who in turn report them to the National Weather Service office....so some delay, sometimes minutes, in getting important weather warnings to the public is always there unlike trained ham radio operators who are being monitored directly by the National Weather Service in most areas.

Most commercial broadcast radio and TV stations monitor the ham radio weather spotter frequencies in their listening or viewing area and use them as a source for more weather information. When you hear the weather man mention the word "spotters", he usually means trained ham radio operators who are reporting directly to the National Weather Service office nearest to them. Many storm "chasers" are also licensed ham radio operators. You hear these radio transmissons using a scanner as they happen in real time!

Having a "method" to hear emergency radio communications nearby could help your peace of mind.This time saved by being informed by listening to emergency radio communications, could well lead you to prepare for the "worst" before it gets to you. Without the scanner radio receiver, you may never know what is about to happen or could happen until it is too late!!!
See this important article loaded with info about scanner radios! Yes, I wrote it too.

Things to think about before a disaster situation! 

How are you warned of severe weather regardless of where you are?  
Do you have a reliable battery backup powered weather warning radio? You can get a few seconds to a few minutes advance warning by having a weather warning radio. It could save your life!
They only receive weather forcasts and weather warnings and watches. They are not a "scanner" type radio. You can easily set many of them for various levels or warnings or watches for your area rather than hearing all watches or warnings for all areas. They can be set to monitor the weather silently and to "alert" you when a watch, warning etc is in effect for your area. I can tell you from experience that when you have it set for a "watch or warning" you will certainly know about it when one is issued! It WILL GET YOUR ATTENTION!
While writing this article, weather radio receiver alerted me to a "Severe Thunderstorm Watch" for my area. Later that night around 2:00 AM, a "Tornado Watch" was issued! It really got my attention!
The National Weather Service tests their alert system once a week by sending a test alert to confirm that your weather radio is working. Mine has never failed me!

Charging your batteries!
How would you charge your radio receivers and walkie talkie batteries if you had no electricity?
Pretend that it will be an unknown length of time until your home electricity comes back on. It could be days or even weeks! Your batteries will soon deplete to "DEAD" if they can't be charged without electricity! Depending on the weather or emergency, you could have a set schedule to turn them on to help extend the life of the battery charge.
SOLAR BATTERY CHARGERS only require sun shine and could be your answer! Most can recharge many different types of batteries. Check them out and you be the judge as to whether or not you need one.

What about those hand cranked radio devices that you may have heard of?
They all work much the same way, but be leary of the cheap plastic gears breaking making many of them useless. Check the reviews, (read them) and buy one that only has high reviews. Otherwise save your money!  

You should consider having a complete set of charged batteries and spares for each of your battery powered devices that you might use under power blackout situations.
So how long will a set of batteries work? Find out by putting in a new set of batteries in your portable radio or other device you want to check, look at the time and date, record or remember it, turn the device on to a local station at comfortable listening volume and let it run UNTILL IT DIES. Jot down the time and this will give you a good average on how long the batteres will work. Plan accordingly with backup batteries! It certainly is better to have too many than not enough. How many will depend of course on the length of the power blackout. 


Ham radio AMATEUR RADIOS (Ham radios)  - When all else fails! Requires a license which is easy to get, however in extreme emergencies, anyone can use them without a license. You must pass an exam to use any ham radio frequency in normal times! THE LICENSE IS FREE and issued by the federal government. (The FCC)  Many ham radio station options to choose from, local to worldwide communications range, maximum legal power of 1500 watts. Antenna size ranging from very small, only inches tall, to huge. Walkie talkies, and simple vehicle stations can have tremendous range when operating in conjunction with local ham radio repeaters. Many repeater systems nationwide have over 100 miles range and some have range over several states when all connected together! In some locations, you can sit in your living room and talk to another ham using only a hand held transceiver in the next city, or state. 
Mobile radios in your vehicle or home on the HF bands can have thousands of miles range using only the average power of a 100 watt light bulb or less depending on the mode! Battery or AC powered. Multiple modes of transmitting, including voice, Morse code, (not required anymore), digital modes using your computer, real time TV and so much more. Morse code is not required for any ham radio license and is not on the exam! With a more powerful ham station, you can even bounce your signals off the moon!  
Costs can be very cheap for hand held battery powered radios that can be connected to outside antennas, about the price of a cheap CB radio or into the thousands of dollars for more sophisticated stations with huge towers, antennas and station equipment. You are only limited by your budget and operating skills and license level!

So ham radio as you might have guessed by now is the SINGLE BEST CHOICE for emergency radio communications. Anyone of any age can become a licensed "ham" radio operator. NO, you don't have to be an electronics whiz kid! The entry level exam contains only 35 multiple choice questions and the exact questions and answers are published online....free. Just search for "Technician question pool" on Google. There is a link below to check out how to get started with getting your ham license. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you get your ham radio license.

The range of each type of emergency radio mentioned in the article above, except one, ham radio, is usually limited by the low power output of the transmitter, limited frequencies or channels, terrain, popularity under normal conditions and many more factors.

Only one of the types of emergency radio communications methods mentioned above usually come out way ahead of the others and it has been proven to "work" best in emergencies when all other means of emergency radio communications FAIL. The federal government sanctions the use of ham radio to get the message OUT when "ALL ELSE FAILS". So ham radio IS your best choice among any other means of emergency radio communications for you or your family! Noting else comes close. So you may ask why is a ham radio station better than all the rest if everything else goes down?

The main reason is that ham radio operators are trained communicators with radio backgrounds gained from much experience and training and each ham station is independent of any infrastructure that WILL go down in the face of disaster. They are not connected to any "grid" in times of power failure! Many "hams" can easily move their emergency radio equipment and antennas to a different location if needed. Regardless of where we are, we can usually get a message "out" when there is no other method. Can you imagine moving or building a cell phone tower that had crashed to the ground in under an hour? Many hams can move a complete ham station within minutes and be on the air!  
If I sound biased and you can see that I am leading you toward getting into ham radio.........,
I am a licensed ham radio operator and have been licensed since 1989 giving me many years of experience using radio, not just as a "hobby", but in helping to save lives when called upon! Worldwide, there are about 3 million of us that volunteer our radio equipment, services (unpaid), and skills in times of need. In the U.S. there are about 700,000 licensed "hams" or so and most are ready willing and able to do emergency radio communications! We are every day "folks" just like you from every background you can imagine. We are here to help. 
You will learn how to be better prepared "radio wise", only if you answer the question,
"What backup do you have?"

ENTER HAM RADIO into emergency communications and open the whole wide world of radio communications not just in times of emergencies!

More good reading below! 
ABC'S OF GETTING A HAM RADIO LICENSE!  It is more simple than you think!

Click the link for more information about ham radio licenses and what you can do with it when licensed)

Family Survival Guide in Emergencies! Loaded with good info, a must read!

Emergency Power, Portable, Wind, Solar, Emergency Generators and Family Emergency Survival Buyer's Guide 
Methods to power your home in an extreme emergency or just as a source of backup.


Questions? Please email me using the subject line  ham radio question  in your email.
I will attempt to answer any of your ham radio questions or point you in the correct direction. Please only ham radio related questions.
If you have questions about any of the other radios services mentioned on this page, use Google, it is your friend.

(I hope you can answer the "backup" question on this page before it is too late!)
And remember the only thing guaranteed in life is..... death...... sooner or later!
Will you be prepared? There is NO backup for that!

Best Regards to all and get that "backup" plan started...yesterday!
Don Butler N4UJW Hamuniverse.com

email  n4ujw AT hamuniverse.com   remove the AT and replace with @ and close all spaces.