Several people have asked what our recommendations are for radios; not only amateur radio equipment, but also scanners and shortwave monitoring. Communications are a vital aspect of our every day lives. Communication will be just as important, or more so, in a disaster or emergent situation. Having reliable equipment relieves the end user of much frustration and could be a life saver.
First, a very brief discussion of radio frequency is in order for those readers who have not made any study of radio previously. Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation which moves at the speed of light from the transmitting antenna. This radiation takes the form of electromagnetic waves. Higher energy waves have a higher frequency (number of waves per second) and a shorter wavelength (distance between each successive wave peak). Lower energy waves have a lower frequency and longer wavelength. Frequency is measured in megahertz (MHz) or millions of waves per second. Different portions of the entire frequency range are grouped together and given shorthand names to aid in their discussion.
The portion of spectrum which interests us for purposes of this article runs from approximately 3 MHz up to 3,000 MHz. This range has been grouped into three sections. High Frequency (HF) runs from 3 MHz to 30 MHz. Very High Frequency (VHF) goes from 30 MHz to 300 MHz, and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) runs from 300 MHz to 3,000 MHz.
HF is primarily used for long-range communication. HF signals are reflected from the ionosphere which allows them to propagate beyond the horizon. HF signals may take several reflections off the ionosphere and off the earth to travel great distances. This kind of atmospheric reflection is referred to as skywave propagation. VHF and UHF are considered line of sight frequencies. VHF and UHF are limited to distances not much greater than the distance to the horizons, assuming no obstructions to the line of sight. In certain atmospheric conditions, VHF signals may be reflected by the atmosphere, allowing for greater range, but this happening at UHF is exceeding rare and neither should be relied upon for communication. Most VHF/UHF signal propagation is direct wave or surface wave propagation, and reflection.
Line of Sight — Local Communications
FRS, GMRS and MURS
The Family Radio Service and General Mobile Radio Service are two services, using some overlapping frequencies, intended for very short range communications. These are mostly hand held radios and are typically found in plastic bubble packs in outdoors stores. Operating on GMRS allows slightly higher power output, but requires an FCC license which can be purchased for $85. Your family may all use the same license. FRS has no license requirement. The frequencies used in both are near the amateur radio’s 70cm band (UHF). The Multi-Use Radio Service was original for business use, but is now open to anyone without need for a license. It operates on frequencies near the amateur radio 2m band (VHF).
We make no recommendations here. There is very little to differentiate available FRS and GMRS radios, and MURS radios are not widely available nor made by many manufacturers. Many in the preparedness community use the Baofeng UV-5R, mentioned above, to communicate on these frequencies. This is officially against the rules of the FRS, GRMS and MURS FCC rules, as radios used on those frequencies must have been approved by the FCC for that use, which the UV-5R has not. There is a general feeling out there that as long as you are using the frequencies respectfully and not causing interference to others, that such use will be overlooked. So far it has been overlooked, but that could change.
We have used many different models of FRS and GMRS radios, and have used the Dakota Alert MURS radio. Their usefulness will depend very much on where and how you are trying to use them. I am easily able to talk, even on FRS (the lowest power of the three), ten miles across the valley to a user on the other valley wall. But on the valley floor, people may have trouble talking even over a half-mile because of trees, buildings, or land swells. You may find it useful for neighborhood communications, but should do some signal testing before asking everyone to go out and get one. Compared to the Baofeng radios, each of the FRS, GRMS or MURS commercial radios have had better audio quality and better noise suppression.
GMRS allows the use of repeaters which may increase its usefulness if you have GMRS repeaters in your area. Many areas don’t have that benefit.
Many people who have a passing familiarity with FRS or GMRS radios believe that the “privacy codes” advertised with these radios allow your transmissions to be scrambled so that others are unable to hear or understand your radio transmissions. This is absolutely not the case. All the privacy codes do is filter out the transmissions of other people not using the codes, so that when channels are busy it is easier to hear the transmissions from your partner privacy code people. Users who are not using the privacy codes are able to hear the users who are using the codes. People using scanners and other monitoring radios will have little or no problem hearing your “private” conversations. Additionally, the codes of one radio manufacturer may not work at all with another manufacturer because they may be using two different types of encoding to get the same result. On top of that, some radios even label the frequencies as different channels from one another!
A radio scanner is an electronic device which can be used to constantly scan a range of radio frequencies for transmissions. When the scanner receives a signal, it stops for an amount of time (before continuing its scan) so that you can listen to the transmission or pause the scanner to stay on the received frequency. Scanners can cover anywhere from the upper shortwave/HF bands all the way up to 1GHz and higher, though there are often gaps in the covered frequencies to exclude frequencies, such as for cellular phone, which would be illegal to intercept. Scanners can cover commercial and private airline traffic, police, fire departments, emergency medical services, military, FM broadcast, amateur radio VHF and UHF transmissions, television broadcast, federal government radio, and more. For the person who wants to know what is going on around them in an emergency, some kind of scanner is an essential device for maintaining situational awareness.
Older scanners could have as few as ten memories that you could program, and it would scan through those ten channels. Later models expanded to multiple banks of, for example, fifty memory slots. There you can scan through all fifty channels in any of the memory banks. Modern scanners can download entire databases from sites like radioreference.com and automatically scan frequencies based on your zip code.
The models being used in our area are the Uniden BCD436HP and BCD536HP. The former is a handheld unit while the latter is a base/mobile version. These are both digital scanners capable of decoding APCO 25 Phase I & II transmissions. Many public service agencies across the country have upgraded their radio systems to digital trunking systems. If your scanner is not capable of decoding the digital trunking, then you simply will not hear those transmission. Having that digital ability adds quite a premium to the cost of the scanner. If you cannot afford these models, there is still value to having a non-digital scanner as there are still quite a few analog transmissions in the area. Also, much of the inter-departmental interoperability transmissions takes place on analog radios.
In our local area, most of the local police departments, jail, and some fire are using APCO 25 Phase I for their radio transmissions. A lot of fire department communications are simply VHF FM transmissions. There are some digital mobile radio (DMR) trunking systems in the area, and at least one NXDN trunking system, but they are mostly commercial use systems. If you want to be able to scan those, your BCDx36HP will need to be upgraded if it hasn’t already. You would need to register your radio with Uniden, apply the latest firmware update, and then purchase the upgrade key through the Uniden site. After you have purchased the key, you can then enter the key in your updated scanner, and it unlocks the function. There are separate upgrades for DMR and NXDN. Each upgrade costs around $60.
Amateur (ham) Radio is a licensed radio service governed by the FCC in the United States. There are three current license levels — Technician, General and Amateur Extra. Qualifying for each level requires passing a knowledge exam and a small fee. Each succeeding level authorizes the use of more frequencies by the amateur radio licensee. Amateur radio has been allotted large swaths of radio frequency for their communal use. As a result, amateur radio has the greatest flexibility in transmission power, modes, antennas, communication range, and network resiliency of any communication modes available to the private citizen. In general, there are three styles of radio for the amateur operator: handheld (or HT), mobile, and base station. HT and mobile are discussed just below. Base stations are discussed in the Beyond Line of Sight section.
Handheld radios can be carried in one hand. They generally cover one or two frequency bands (usually 2m and 70cm), though some have three or four. Typically, they will only transmit frequency modulated (FM) signals. Their price point can be anywhere from $30 to $300. They are easily portable and carry their own power supply (a battery). Because of their portability, lower price, and battery power, they are popular with preppers.
One very popular, low-end handheld is the Baofeng UV5R. At a price point below $35, this radio is ubiquitous in our area. Many people in the area own these radios. The UV5R covers the two meter (2M) and seventy centimeter (70cm) bands in the amateur radio spectrum. It also has wide receive capabilities in the UHF/VHF range, and the unusual ability to transmit through much of that range, though doing so is a violation of FCC rules in the case of the FRS, GMRS, and MURS rules, and illegal many other portions allocated to public service or airline traffic. The UV5R achieves its low price point by cutting quality in various portions of the electronics, especially in the lack of quality filtering for both transmitting and receiving. Many examples of the radio exceed guidelines for spurious emissions. Reliability has not yet been proven. Despite all of that, the flexibility and low price make it an easy recommendation. In an life-threatening disaster, having the ability to transmit on the extra frequencies could save someone’s life. There is also something to be said in favor of everyone around being familiar with at least one radio type, so that if you need to borrow someone else’s radio, you have an idea how to use it. And, of course, having any radio is better than having none.
Having said that, owning a quality radio is much better than owning a cheaply made radio. A radio with good quality reception and audio filters can make it many times easier to hear a transmission clearly, and reduce ear fatigue if you are having to listen to a radio for a long time to monitor for news or other information. Having better transmission circuity means sending out a clearer, better defined signal that will be easier to hear by listeners. And having a radio built with ruggedness mind will last longer than a cheaply made radio.
The Yaesu VX-6R transmits on 2m, 1.25cm, and 70cm amateur bands. It is submersible to three feet for up to thirty minutes and is very rugged. It has wide reception from 504 kHz ~ 998.99 MHz. The VX-5R and VX-7R are older models with the same ruggedness, which you may be able to purchase used and would be very good radios. One convention showcased a VX-7R that stayed powered on, submerged at one meter depth for over eight hours. That is nice confidence to have if you have to cross a river or operate in a wet area, or just want a radio with proven toughness.
Mobile radios are designed to be mounted in a vehicle. They are generally too large to comfortably carry by hand, but can be backpacked. For power, they are wired to the vehicle battery, so use outside of a vehicle necessitates either a separate AC-DC power supply or a 12 volt battery. Mobile radios have much more variety than handhelds. They range everywhere from single band, FM-only units to transceivers that cover all of the amateur high frequency (HF) bands plus a portion of the VHF and UHF bands. Mobile radios pack a lot of transmit power compared to handhelds. Where most handheld transceivers top out at 5 watts of power, mobile radios usually range from 50-100 watts. Mobile radios do not usually come with an antenna, so you must supply that as well. Costs for a mobile radio can range from $100 to $1000 depending upon features.
Many users will use a multi-band mobile radio as their base station, attached to an AC power supply and permanently mounted antennas. Sometimes this is so that they can take the radio out for emergency operations when necessary, but sometimes it is simply because the cost is lower than purchasing a radio designed as a base station radio.
One very popular mobile radio both in our area and in the wider emergency communications community is the Yaesu FT-857D. This radio covers the HF, 6m, 2m, and 70cm bands. It also has a wide receive range, allowing the user to monitor broadcast AM and FM stations, weather broadcasts, and some public safety and aviation transmissions. The 857D is often called an “all band, all mode” radio, even though it does not cover all available amateur bands, because it covers the most used bands. Mode refers to transmissions modes such as FM, AM, SSB, CW (morse code), and digital modes. This unit can cover just about anything you would want to do with amateur radio both in and out of an emergency situation. The FT-857 transmits at 100 watts on HF and 6m, 50 watts on 2m, and 20 watts on 70cm. You can power down to as low as 5 watts if you need to save battery power or just don’t need more power. This radio is currently running at about $850 new online.
For people who want to use the FT-857D as a portable unit outside of a vehicle, some will build a custom, portable radio box, containing the radio, battery, tuner, and other supplies. AMP-3 out of Portland makes a nice TEC Pack-Bag designed for this radio, though it will soon be discontinued. They also carry a double battery pack with wiring harness for the same bag. These are not cheap, but if you aren’t handy building things yourself, they are good, durable products that will help you organize a radio go-bag.
If you’re more concerned with local communication, and want to forgo most of the HF bands, then the Yaesu FT-8900 is a good option. This mobile radio covers the 10m (top end of the HF bands), 6m, 2m and 70cm. It transmits in FM mode. This radio is dual receive, meaning that you can monitor two different frequencies on the same band or different bands simultaneously. This radio will also cross-band repeat, meaning that the radio receives a signal/transmission on one frequency and then sends that signal out on a different frequency on a different band. Cross-band repeat can be very useful in emergency situations. One example would be if temporary communications needed to be set up between two towns, but there is a terrain feature between which blocks line of sight frequencies. You can park your FT-8900 on top of that feature in cross-band repeat mode and enable radio communications between the two locations. This radio transmits at 50 watts on 10m, 6m and 2m, and transmits 35 watts on 70cm. The FT–8900 is currently running at about $330 new online, but can be found used.
There are also several people using the Powerwerx DB-750X radio for both voice and digital communication. This radio covers the 2 meter and 70 centimeter bands at 50 watts and 40 watts respectively. Power can be set as low as 5 watts. This is another FM radio. This radio is also a dual receive radio, but not a cross-band repeater. The DB-750X would cover the most common amateur frequencies used locally as well as the frequencies currently used in our digital packet system. These currently cost around $300 new.
Last, but not least, is the Yaesu FT-2980. This little mobile only transmits on the 2 meter band, but that will suffice for routine, local, voice traffic in the area and for VHF digital. It transmits at 80 watts, but can be turned down as low as 5 watts. It can transmit in FM and packet modes. The receive range is wide enough to be able to monitor FRS, GMRS, MURS, some aviation traffic, and some local public safety frequencies. The audio is very nice on this radio. Several operators in the area are using this as a base radio in their home, and it works very well for joining our weekly VHF voice net and packet chat. These retail around $190, new, but can be found as low as $130 with rebates.
Packet radio is not a style of amateur radio, but rather a conglomeration of equipment used in order to transmit information in the digital mode known as packet radio. Locally we operate a packet network on the 2M band.. A packet system allows you type messages to another station in a computer program which then sends that text message over the radio to a receiving packet system, much like a primitive email system. Packet radio’s benefits are transparency (meaning that the terminal node controller (TNC) does most of the work hidden behind the scenes), error correction (the TNC will automatically detect errors in transmission and automatically request that packets be resent), and automatic control (meaning that if you leave your station running, other operators can connect to your system and leave you digital messages that you can read later). Packet stations can also relay messages from one TNC to another with range, thus sending messages beyond your own station’s range. If you are not aware of a packet radio network in your area, then you may skip this section. The equipment that is considered standard for VHF packet stations in our area includes: Kantronics KPC-3+ TNC, Raspberry Pi 3 computer, and a Yaesu FT-2980 radio. Members interested in this should contact the communications team about getting set up for this and obtaining a copy of the memory card for the Raspberry Pi with all of the applications pre-loaded.
Citizens’ Band radio is an unlicensed radio service in the upper HF frequencies. CB has better range than FRS, GMRS, and MURS because of the lower frequencies, the higher power allowed, and the authorization to use removable/external antennas with the CB equipment. Being up near the top end of HF and low end of VHF, the skywave propagation for CB signals is spotty, but when propagation is good signals have been received 1,000 to 2,000 miles away. We make no recommendation in this space either, not because CB isn’t useful to have for monitoring trucking movements or other communication, but simply because so few of us in the area are using it. The only recommendation we’ll make here is to purchase a model with SSB rather than just AM if you are looking for a CB radio.
Beyond Line of Sight — Regional Communications
Shortwave radio runs from approximately 1.7MHz up to around 30MHz of the radio spectrum, or from the end of the AM broadcast band up to a bit above the Citizen Band radio and amateur radio ten meter bands. It includes the majority of the long distance amateur radio band transmissions as well as many foreign government and commercial broadcast stations (though commercial broadcast has been on the decline in recent years), international ship and air traffic, military radio traffic. Shortwave monitoring is still an excellent method to receive news, and especially foreign perspectives on world news. Many shortwave radios will also include medium wave, long wave, AM broadcast, and/or FM broadcast frequencies in addition to just shortwave. In the preparedness community, many will obtain a shortwave radio in order to listen in on amateur radio operators during a disaster as well as receiving news.
Shortwave radios are receive-only. You cannot transmit with them. This is offset by price. Where an amateur radio transceiver for the ham radio portions of the shortwave frequencies will often cost upwards of $1,000, a good shortwave listening radio can be had for $100 – $200. We recommend that you obtain a shortwave radio which includes single side band (SSB) support. This will allow you to receive more transmissions that one which only supports AM transmissions.
Tecsun is our brand choice for shortwave. The Tecsun PL-660 and PL-880 are current models supporting SSB. The older PL-600 is also a good model and could make for a bargain used purchase. These are all portable models. For an even smaller, more easily pack-able shortwave radio, there is the CountyComm GP5/SSB radio. These recommendations are based on usage within our own group. There may be other excellent choices available which we simply have not used.
Base station radios are designed to operate from a fixed location off of an integrated or separate power supply. They generally have the most power, operating modes, frequency coverage, and features of the various radio styles, typically operating at 100-200 watts of power. Some base station radios are HF only with AM, FM and SSB operation, while others are all mode, all band. Amateur radio operators who are very much into their hobby and long distance communicating (DX) will often have a base station costing thousands of dollars, drawing out the slightest whispers of signals with exceptional filtration, frequency selectivity, high gain antennas, preamplification of signals, digital signal processing, and more. That’s more than we need to get into. You’re here because you want to know about radios for emergencies. If you get into the amateur radio hobby itself, you can look more into those high end radios.
For our purposes, the only current radio we’ll recommend here is the Icom IC-7300, HF plus 6 meter, all mode, 100 watt transceiver. This radio can receive everything from 0.030-74.800MHz. It has a built-in tuner and also a real-time spectrum scope on the front of the radio in a touch screen interface. The spectrum scope makes finding signals much easier as you can see them on the scope and go directly to them, rather than blindly tuning through the band, hoping to find someone transmitting. This spectrum scope works because the IC-7300 is a software defined radio (SDR), which makes it capable of listening to all signals across a band of frequencies at the same time as opposed to a conventional receiver which only receives the one frequency to which it is currently tuned. It does require a separate external power supply. While this radio cannot communicate locally on the line of site bands other than 6m, it can operate on all of the common long distance bands and be used for local NVIS (near vertical incidence skywave) communication. If you want to be part of the AmRRON‘s long distance communicators group or simply do your own emergency monitoring and communicating, this could be the radio for you. The radio retails around $1,350, though sometimes with rebates you can find it as low as $1,150.
That being said, there are several excellent options on the used market. While there may not be someone in the Assembly who has one of these radios, they will still do everything that an HF radio needs to do, and help for you will be found if you need it. The Icom IC-706mkIIg covers HF, 6m, 2m, and 70cm at 100 watts for HF and 6m, and 50 and 20 watts respectively for 2m and 70cm. It is a well regarded rig and can be found for sale used in the region of $330. The Yaesu FT-897 and FT-897D covers the same bands, with the “D” model adding support for 60 meters. Even the transmit power is the same as the 706. These radios are equally well regarded. These go for a bit more used than the 706, but can vary. The 897D is only recently discontinued compared to the 706 which was discontinued almost ten years ago. The Icom IC-703 is an HF only option which only transmits at 10 watts. the 703 Plus adds the 6 meter band. This radio would work just as well for listening as the other radios listed. These used radios are just as capable as the new IC-7300 discussed above; the SDR aspects of the 7300 make it a bit easier to use to some.
If all of those recommendations still seem a bit steep in price, but you are comfortable tinkering with electronics, then you might even consider trying something the µBITX kit, which is an HF SSB/CW, low power, amateur transceiver that you can build yourself. The kit costs $129 as of this writing. No one local is using one of these that I know of, so it will be unfamiliar to all, but I list it as an option for those looking for a low cost challenge. Otherwise, seek a used HF option.
Unlike the IC-7300 mentioned above, most HF amateur radio transceivers do not have a built in tuner. In electrical terms, the impedance of the radio needs to match the impedence of the connected antenna in order to transmit at full power. If the radio detects a small mismatch, it may partially turn down its transmit power automatically. If the difference is too large, it may not transmit at all in order to protect the circuitry of the radio. A full explanation of this problem is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that if you are going to be transmitting on an HF transceiver, you most likely will need to also purchase a tuner to go with your radio. In layman’s terms, the purpose of the tuner is to trick the radio into thinking that antenna matches the impedance of the radio, so your radio can dump all of its transmit power into the antenna. (Read more about it here if interested.) If your antenna is already well matched, then you won’t need a tuner, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, and there is always the possibility that you’ll want to transmit outside the frequency range where your antenna has the best match. LDG Electronics is a manufacturer of very good tuners. They make some tuners for specific models of radio as well as generic tuners. Seek ye there to match a tuner to your need.
For whatever radio you have, if you are going to attach the radio to a remote antenna, you will need to decide what kind of cabling to run from the radio to the antenna. To be short, use coaxial cable. RG-58 is good for HF frequencies, but starts to lose signal in the VHF and UHF range. RG-8X will work well at UHF/VHF for runs of 25-50 feet. RG-8U for UHF/VHF runs of 50-75 feet, and LMR-400 for runs around 100-150 feet. The cost rapidly rises per foot for the less lossy cable, so purchase what makes sense for you. The difference at UHF can be a three times stronger signal between using RG-58 and LMR-400.
This ended up a lot longer than originally intended, but having gotten to this ending point there is so much more to say and explain about radio communications. I did my best to keep the explanations simple for people just getting into this mysterious world of radio communication. Everything above is needfully simplified and generalized. Savvy communicators will be complaining about the lack of a “portable” radio style, or the inclusion of Baofengs at all, or any number of other things that could or should have been elaborated, explicated, or extirpated.
Hopefully the intended audience will find some usefulness here, but understand that there is a lot to learn. Buying a transceiver without actually using it boots nothing. Even modern scanners can be dauntingly complicated to use. If you’re not keeping the firmware and frequency database updated, you may find that it can no longer track the frequencies in use around you at the time you pull it out of the box. Train with your radios now so that they are actually useful to you if disaster strikes. Training and tutorials are available now, from neighbors, friends, books, local emergency or radio groups, the internet, and endless Youtube videos. If you bought a pair of radios to talk to your mother down by the river during a disaster, but neither of you gets on and practices from time to time, the odds are that in a disaster you won’t be talking to your mother, or anyone else.
Thanks to NC Scout of the Brushbeater blog who provided comments on an early version of this article. I may have introduced errors in later additions. He writes much more eloquently and intelligently on radio communications topics, among other things. Go to his site for further education.