How to Make a Smart Radio Buying Decision

When the big earthquake hits, we will be out of electricity for an extended period—that means the batteries at the base of most cellphone towers will run down, and the same will happen to all of our cellphones. The cordless phones we have in our homes will be useless. All of the CERT programs in Marin County will use radios to maintain communications with teams in the field and between the CERT command posts and their served agencies. Some CERT programs will use FRS/GMRS walkie talkies, some will use amateur (ham) radio, and some will use proprietary business-band radios.

This article will devote most of its attention to readily-available walkie-talkies—the ones you can keep at home and have immediately to hand when needed. But we will also briefly cover the amateur radios as well as the business-band radios.

Not included in this discussion will be Citizens Band (CB) radios or Marine VHF radios—neither will be appropriate to use in an emergency, and the reasons why not will also be briefly mentioned at the bottom of this report.

Walkie-talkies

two packages of radio

Buy these 5 watt models

Walkie-talkies, or FRS/GMRS radios, are readily available locally at Big Five and REI or online at many retailers. At first, the array of selections looks daunting, but here are three hints to simplify matters:

  • First, don’t pay more than $90 for a pair
  • Second, get the most wattage, if known, for your dollar
  • Third, make certain the radio you buy accepts regular AA batteries

When shopping for walkie-talkies, you DO get what you pay for—do not waste your money on the least expensive radios. Unless you come across a great bargain, you should plan to spend at least $50 on a pair.

Ignore the distance claims and focus on 5-watts

The more expensive the radio, the longer-range they claim. Sadly, packaging often does not mention the radio’s actual output power in watts. Without knowing the radio’s output power we have to take price and claimed mileage together for a guideline, namely a 30+ miles range radio with a relatively high price is usually a better built higher quality radio. This assumes the longest-range, most expensive radios contain higher quality components which yield better performing radios. The guideline also says beware of cheaper radios claiming 30+ miles range.

A radio’s claimed range—like 30+miles— assumes something like you are on top of Mount Tam and trying to talk to a ship out at sea, with no trees or buildings in the way. Radio waves don’t travel through water or metal—trees are mostly water, and stucco houses have metal mesh behind the stucco. So once you put trees and houses in the way of your radio-path, a radio rated at 15-22 miles might reach several blocks. The most expensive ones rated at 30+ miles might reach 1-2 miles in normal Marin County communities. So don’t scrimp buying the less-costly, shorter-range walkie-talkies. And remember, to get the longest range out of any radio, go to a high point, get out of the trees, and face toward the radio you intend to contact.

Make sure it will take AA batteries

packages of radios

Don’t buy these models

Do not even consider buying walkie-talkies that will not accept AA batteries. Many of the radios will come with rechargeable battery packs with a charging cradle—that’s fine, only if the rechargeable battery pack can be removed and replaced by regular AA batteries. During a period of extended power outage, or during a long shift out in the field with a CERT team, it will not be possible to recharge your battery-pack.

Battery tip: If you’re using regular AAs, do not store the radios with the batteries inside. They WILL corrode, and ruin the radio. When you really need the walkie talkie, it’ll be toast. Second, store the radios and batteries in a cool place, not in a car that will get hot in the sun.

Rechargeable batteries . . . or not

You can, of course, use rechargeable batteries, though that is not recommended for emergency-communication radios. Rechargeable batteries carry only 1.2 volts per cell, versus 1.5 for regular non-rechargeable batteries; that means less wattage out, and a weaker signal. If you do have a set of walkie-talkies that have rechargeable batteries, charge them every month or so. Twice a year, use them so the battery-pack runs down and all you get is static—then fully recharge them again. But always store them with a stash of regular AA batteries in a plastic bag right handy, and don’t leave home without that stash of AAs.

Consumers Reports has rated non-rechargeable AA batteries, and gives the highest rating to the Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries. They are great, and the longest-lasting AAs out there. But they are awfully expensive as of this 2015 writing. Consumer Reports gives the “biggest bang for the buck” rating to Costco’s Kirkland brand and the lowest rating to the CVS brand, with the Duracell brand rated somewhere in the middle, even though it is more expensive than the Kirkland.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license requirements

The walkie-talkies that are sold these days are “hybrid” FRS/GMRS radios. The FRS (Family Radio Service) radios need no license—but they are limited to a puny ½ watt! The GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) frequencies are permitted to go up to 5 watts—and that is what you want for CERT use. The use of GMRS frequencies DOES require an FCC license—it costs $90 for five years. We do recommend that you apply for such a license; it requires no test. The FCC is considering the elimination of this license requirement, but that has not yet occurred. Visit the FCC website for more information.

There are 22 channels for you to use on these walkie-talkies, and it’s easy to get confused about which frequency (even more important, what output level) you are using.

  • The first seven channels can be either FRS or GMRS, but you have to know how to switch back and forth from FRS to GMRS.
  • The next seven channels (8 through 14) are FRS ONLY, and automatically limited to ½ watt.

For CERT work, you’ll want to steer clear of these channels, unless you are talking between team members in the same immediate block.

  • The remaining channels (15 through 22) are GMRS-only, and thus transmit at the highest power your radio can put out. Again, the wattage depends on how much you paid for the radio. It’s easy to understand why most CERT teams would prefer channels 15 through 22.

Learn how to use the radio

This is the bane of FRS/GMRS radio-users. The good news: all handheld radios have the Push-to-Talk (PTT) button in exactly the same place: on the left side of the radio. But after that, each manufacturer, and often different models of the same manufacturer’s walkie-talkies, have different buttons, and different menus. For the most part, sadly, the buttons’ uses are NOT intuitive. So make several copies of the users’ manual, and be certain to store a copy in the battery-bag with each radio. How do you change channels? How do you change power settings? How to switch from FRS to GMRS in Channels 1-7? You can only answer these questions after studying the users’ manual. “Experts,” even licensed ham radio operators, will not be able to help you without the manual. Well in advance of a CERT drill or a real emergency, get familiar with the quirks and foibles of your particular walkie-talkie! Again, do not lose your owners’ manual, and keep a copy with each radio—it takes two to talk, and you’ll need two owners’ manuals when the situation requires you to make adjustments to the frequency or privacy codes on the fly.

The downside to walkie-talkies

If you have ever tried to use walkie-talkies to stay in touch with your family at the County Fair or at Disneyland, you have already experienced the downside: there are LOTS of those radios out there, and relatively few channels. In an emergency, there will be a great deal of undisciplined use of the same frequencies that CERT teams are attempting to utilize. A lot of patience and rigor will be required in order to get important messages through to the command post.

Amateur (Ham) Radios

Some of the CERT programs in Marin County rely on licensed amateur radio operators to provide their communications needs; if you live in one of those communities, we strongly urge you to get a Technician License, which will qualify you to use three frequency bands for mostly local use. Getting that license does require some study, and knowledge of Ohm’s Law (volts, amperes, ohms, and watts.) But it is NOT difficult; there are several Marin hams who are less than twelve years old. Both the Marin Amateur Radio Society and the Sonoma Mountain Repeater Society give classes, and administer the FCC exams. The easiest way (though not recommended by most serious hams) is called the “HamCram” sessions, which give you all 300 questions and answers—you spend all morning and early afternoon memorizing the entire question pool, then in mid-afternoon you are given the 30-question test. The pass rate is about 90%. Of course, the retention rate of the technical information is abysmal. But now you’ve got your entry-level ham license, and might get bitten by the bug.

Purchasing a ham radio

Once you get your license, you will outfit yourself first (usually) with a handheld radio called an “HT.” You can, if you choose, get an HT with many bells and whistles, including GPS, for as much as $600. But, on the other end of the scale, there are several quite good Chinese handhelds in the $30 range. They are made by Wouxun (pronounced “oh-shing,”) and Baofeng (pronounced “bo-fung.”) They are easily obtainable on-line. These radios, in “simplex” mode, talk radio-to-radio just like walkie-talkies, and have the same power output (5 watts.) But those radios can also connect with the many “repeaters” on Mount Tam, Sonoma Mountain, Big Rock, San Pedro, Mount Diablo, the Sutro Tower, etc. Those high-elevation repeaters will then simulcast the transmissions at high power so you can cover the entire Bay Area (and beyond) with a little 5-watt HT. Not only that, but the Chinese radios can also be programmed with the GMRS frequencies, so they can do double duty.

Unlike the GMRS band, the FCC enforces the use of the amateur radio frequencies quite rigorously, and the fines and penalties are quite severe. So don’t get a ham radio without first getting licensed!

“High-band” or “Business-band” Radios

Several CERT programs, mostly in Southern Marin, depend on “high-band” radios for their field teams. The radios are quite expensive (about $500 each,) but are very durable and dependable. The City of Mill Valley has received exclusive rights for four frequencies from the FCC; two of the frequencies are sub-licensed to the Southern Marin Fire District’s CERT teams. Unlike the ham frequencies or the GMRS frequencies, there will be no interference from other users—they are exclusive to these CERT teams, and the frequencies involved are not accessible by GMRS radios or most ham radios. Several dozen radios are stored in caches are located at fire stations, where CERT members will go to be mobilized. There are higher-power base stations located at these fire stations, so communications are assured between most of the pockets and canyons of the communities and the local EOC. The frequencies are pre-programmed into the radios, so there are far fewer buttons to master. Fire and police units are equipped with radios that can connect directly with the CERT frequencies.

Citizen Band (CB) Radios

CB radios (“10-4, good buddy”) became quite popular in the 1970s, but interest waned in them with the advent of cellphones and GMRS radios. These frequencies are still in use, and have developed their own culture. Very few CB handheld radios are available, and they are more expensive than GMRS radios. They are mostly available as mobile rigs, employed often by truckers. If you ever tune into the CB frequencies, be prepared for some pretty blue language.

Marine VHF Radios

Handheld Marine-band radios are easily obtainable on-line or at West Marine. They are more expensive than GMRS radios, and have fewer channels. But they look like regular walkie-talkies, and have the same (5-watt) output. Since these frequencies are reserved for maritime traffic, the US Coast Guard, and commercial fishers, their use is severely restricted. Safety at sea is taken quite seriously; so use of Marine Band channels by land-based units is closely monitored, and severely punished. Never, ever, attempt to utilize Marine Band radios for family communications or CERT work!

Summary

For family communications, and for some CERT teams, purchase 5-watt FRS/GMRS walkie-talkies that use AA batteries. Take them camping or to a carnival or amusement park, play games with them, and get familiar with all the buttons and frequencies. Practice good radio protocol, so it will come naturally in an emergency. And have fun!