When emergencies strike, using a phone, internet connection or other “normal” means of communication can often become very difficult, if not impossible. Cell towers and phone lines become overcrowded, and internet bandwidths slow.
Here are 6 emergency communication options to consider:
These Are Your Best Survival Radios:
FRS radios are a good value and most have a power saver mode to make batteries last longer. Communications are usually crystal clear.
One drawback is limited range – most claim to have a range up to two miles and more over water. While this is generally true across open flat ground, the range is dependent on line-of-sight. In my area the terrain is serious rolling hills with timber. The range with a FRS is 1 mile max and usually ½ to ¾ of a mile. FRS radios would be better suited to open areas, or use around camp.
GRMS radios are a better value as they have a range of 5 miles or more line-of-sight, with more over water. Because they have a higher power output, they do require a license, here again in an emergency, who cares? One of the best values I’ve seen is the Midland XTRA Talk 700 series radios. They claim to have a 30 mile range, though usually the claims are under ideal terrain and conditions.
Overall the GMRS radios have quite a bit higher range over FRS radios in my hills and timber (due to higher power output).
FRS/GMRS Note – Privacy codes that are advertised on these radios are not really privacy codes. They merely screen out any transmission that is not coded and you don’t hear it. Anyone without the code on can hear the signal in its entirety. This means what you receive is coded for privacy, not what you transmit. It works kind of like a coded squelch.
3. CB Units
By far the only low priced radio unit that performs excellent in the timber and hills is the CB radio. Used units are all over the place at cheap prices. The output power on these units can be increased easily with booster amps and antennas. Hand held units are around, but performance varies greatly on each brand, as well as features.
With handheld CBs, there are some real bad ones out there. The best advice with handheld CBs is to ask around and find someone who has a good one.
The disadvantage to CBs is that the airwaves are almost totally cluttered with skip and static most of the time. Plus since they were so common, a lot of people used to have them and listen to them. Nowadays, they are pretty much outdated and considered obsolete due to the low priced FRS and GMRS radios on the market.
4. Ham radios
Ham radios are another choice, but having only limited experience with these, I feel there are others who could better address this area.
5. Regular Receivers
It’s good to have just a plain old radio around to try to pick up any common info. If looking for some suggestions, these are some of the absolute best survival radios. Two of my favorites are the AM/FM Weather band crank, solar, and battery with a built in light. It’s cheap and effective.
Secondly, a good compact multi-band shortwave receiver with external antenna and power jacks is a must. Remember though, it needs to be compact and light. Here again for the first choice Midland has the best I’ve seen as the model XT511 series radios. It has it all (except shortwave), plus communication with GMRS and FRS.
Although a scanner can’t transmit, a good one can receive and search out about any frequency out there. Handheld scanners offer flexibility and opportunities to gather and monitor all types of transmitted information. This can be very useful in emergency situations. Most of the time you can hear first hand what’s going on directly from the source before the media even has it.
Almost all of theses devices are loaded with features such as power save mode, caller beep, privacy codes, and etc. You can, in just about every case, turn off any unwanted features.
The main drawback with any wireless communication device is that you never know who is listening and when they are listening. Any good scanner can pick up signals from these devices and even from cellphones.
It has always amazed me how many people don’t realize that their cellphone calls can be heard by anyone with a good scanner. Your location can even be narrowed down over a period of time depending on your type of radio unit, and your conversation. You should remember that you are just like a common AM or FM radio station when you transmit.
But in my opinion, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages as long as common sense is used.
All transmissions should be coded. There should never be any reference to real places, real people, or events past or present. That is unless you just don’t care if everyone knows who you are and where you are!
The codes should be relatively simple, but not obvious. Setting up a map into zones will do if you simply call each area by a code name (IE: sector 5). Code names for people shouldn’t be too difficult either. There are handles on CBs as well as ones commonly used on the net, although I’d use something different than I commonly use today in those circles.
Events are no different. Sometimes I’ve found that a subject comes up in a conversation on the air that you don’t have a code for. A little common sense says just play a little bit of ‘charades’ and you’ll get there without ‘selling the farm’ so to speak. It should go without saying that if the codes are, or could be compromised, that there should be a plan B or even C, or if there’s no choice, use the ‘charades’ trick until you get reorganized.
All of the above require some sort of power source. This is usually in the form of batteries. If possible, try to get items that use the same type of battery as much as possible. Alternately, try to keep items in common groups of batteries. Don’t get something that takes an oddball battery unless it’s something you can’t live without.
One should remember that in an emergency situation, batteries would not be readily easy to obtain. Therefore about the best alternative would be rechargeable batteries. Some rechargeables (NiCd) carry less voltage so you will shorten your transmit range. Nimh types rule here, as they have fewer recharging issues. Whatever your choice, have plenty of spares. No battery lasts forever!
Rechargeable’s can be recharged a variety of ways. My personal choice would be solar energy. Solar energy is quiet, and is only dependent on a fairly clear day and a place that has good sun exposure. Ideally a bank of solar panels charging a group of 12v batteries could be used to power about anything.
There are converters to change the voltage to any voltage you want. They could recharge lesser voltage batteries, or with an inverter, can run many 110v appliances. There are also allot of appliances which are made to work on 12v as well. Good sources for these are RV specialty stores.
Something to think about. What battery would be the easiest to scavenge in an emergency situation? (hint>most any car has one)
My Personal Best Choice: The Garmin Rino
To sum it all up, a handheld radio is just a tool. Like a tool, you have to decide how you are going to use it and if it fits your needs as a tool. In other words, don’t buy it for the looks or what it has built in. All the features in the world aren’t any good unless you’re going to use them. If batteries are expensive or hard to come by, make sure it’s worth it. It’s all a matter of personal choice to fit you or your group needs.
I wrote this article several years back, and have done much testing and trying on many models and types of radios. I finally came across one that meets all my needs.
It is the Garmin Rino series radios. In a nutshell it is like a PDA and Smartphone wrapped into a neat package. It has the radio features plus GPS, texting (some models), calendar, weather/emergency radio receiving (some models), electronic compass, waterproof, rechargeable, and on and on. I know, I said don’t buy the extras unless there’s a need, but sometimes you aren’t sure of the need until the emergency arises.
There are features that make the Rino series absolutely outstanding, in my opinion. You can send your position by the push of a button in real time to another Rino user and it will show on their built in map. But the best is that you can scramble your communications to where no other radio or scanner can understand what you are saying or transmitting. The only drawback is that another Rino radio, in scramble mode, can understand it.
There are many different models of Rino radios. Basically you get what you pay for. I started with the Rino 120 and eventually moved up to the Rino 530hcx. These are now older models, as there is a new Garmin 600 series of radios. However that is a good thing, as the 500 series can be purchased for less than the original retail price on ebay and Amazon.
You might say “I don’t need that, as I already have my Smartphone”. But hold on! We have all seen how they quickly become useless in major emergencies. Cell towers cease to function without power after a short amount of time, and they get overwhelmed by everyone trying to use their phones all at once. So don’t count on it as your foolproof choice. The Rino doesn’t rely on cell towers for communications, and in most emergencies the GPS satellites will keep functioning for a long time to use the maps.
Well, the DH and at least one of our “guy friends” are gonna get happy about this! Thanks, JfI!
Communications are a must, and there are many ways to go about it. Advertising by communicating is not good though.
We had a forest fire last year and the fire fighters all had radios about 9″ long, 3″ wide and 2″ deep. Those things could communicate 20 miles away in really rugged terrain. What kind do they use, can ‘normal’ people buy them, and can you change channels like on walkie talkies?
Now, that’s a good question, Pam.
Anybody know the answer?
Without a manufacturer name, and a model number for the radio, I can only speculate. Most professionals use Motorola radios, and they are likely VHF frequency units. Yes, they are expensive, and the frequencies they use are very restricted for government agencies only. They might even use repeaters to extend their range, and the Garmin units can do that too. Here again, a point to remember, a scanner can easily hear what they are saying.
Come to think of it, you are right about the repeaters and some of the neighbors have scanners that they listen to all day and night. It’s a small town, the police scanner is more interesting than TV because you know who they are talking about, personally. And we worry about the government intruding on privacy. I always feel like a Peeping Tom around scanners, very uncomfortable.
When I put my head in a “Red Dawn” scenario, it seems like any communication might be bad because you are alerting “them” that you are even out there somewhere.
That’s part of what I like about the Garmin Rino series. They are the only civilian radios that I know of that will let you scramble your conversations. The government wasn’t going to let them have that option in the beginning, but relented and let them go for it. The government was also a bit resistant to letting transmit positions at the high power transmit settings, but they gave in there too.
Anyone interested in communications in an emergency, should go to the Garmin website and look at the features that the Rinos offer. I think I could write a whole article just on what they will and can do!