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Global Skywatch

amateur 2-way radio

Most people naively assume their telephones and Internet will continually fulfill their communications wants and needs without fail. You are not that foolish. I know that because you are here.

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) currently rules the radio-frequency airwaves in the USofA. In order to lawfully learn and practice two-way-radio communications today you need to follow their rules. One of them is that in case of serious emergency you can use any radio that is available and capable of communication. That same exemption applies in case of a breakdown in rule of law. Here I will focus on learning and using radios according to FCC regulations.

You do not want your first two-way-radio experience to be in a dire emergency any more than you want to learn automobile driving when you are in a hurry to the emergency room or learn shooting when bad guys break into your bedroom. Start gearing up and learning NOW.

FRS walkie-talkies

Cheap handheld two-way radios are widely available in variety stores and sporting goods outlets. They are mainly very basic FRS (Family Radio Service) limited by law to a maximum of 0.8 watts of transmitted power utilizing small rather inefficient built-in antennas. While they may claim a 5-mile range, there is nowhere ON EARTH they will do that. Half a mile is realistic. Depending on conditions their range may be less than that.

That may be all you want. Use this page as an aid to deciding what your need is. Choose your investment of time and money on the two-way communications you feel balances all factors for you.

More range is not always better. The rest of the world does not need, or likely want to hear you chatting on your radios. Sometimes you don’t want others listening. Even the most advanced radio operators do not use more power or range than they need to complete desired communications.

GMRS radios

General Mobile Radio Service radios are very similar to FRS radios, but they are authorized more power, can use far superior antennas, are allowed use of repeater stations and the FCC wants you to get an inexpensive examination-free license that covers your household for ten years. Not everyone purchases that license. I have not heard of anyone getting in trouble over the lack thereof, but won’t recommend doing without.

GMRS HTs (hand-held transceivers) might claim 25-mile range, but just like the FRS claims, that does not exist on this planet with their original antennas. These HTs are switchable from 0.5 watts, to 5.0 watts, and some go to 8.0 watts transmitted power. With add-on antennas, the range can vary dramatically from a half-mile to 5 miles or quite a bit more with specialized antennas aimed in a specific direction.

GMRS mobile transceivers look and install more like car stereos, require 12-volt external power and connect to remote antennas away from the operators. This separation of humans from the RF (radio frequency emissions) allows them to transmit at up to 50 watts of power without risking RF injury (like X-ray, microwaves and such). That combines to extend two-way communications regularly to 25 miles or more depending on conditions. Note that these radio signals DO NOT travel through hills, mountains or a lot of trees. “Line of sight” is more often the limit than actual distances.

These radios are often found in “radio shacks”, your studio, office, garage or somewhere indoors running off a 12-volt power supply (solar or transformer). Coax cable designed for two-way-radios connect them to antennas mounted outside, usually 20 or more feet in the air depending on your site’s line-of-sight requirements.

Sometimes these shack radios are employed as repeaters. They simultaneously receive and re-transmit radio traffic that reaches them with the right coding included in the signal. Repeaters can turn low-powered HT signals into much higher powered signals and retransmit from one side of a physical barrier to the other side. Use of repeaters is not allowed on FRS, but is fine on GMRS.

Now your GMRS signal can go 50 miles or more… but you are DEPENDENT on that repeater’s continued functioning… something serious emergency comm designers do not do without a Plan B.

CB radio

This was the first two-way radio most of us heard about. It remains alive and well, though significantly improved like all other electronic technologies. In the USofA the transmission power limit for the old CB standard AM signal is 4 watts. With a really big antenna that will go 5 miles or so, but Mexican operators have different limits that could interfere with your signals… as do some state-side operators who exceed legal limits.

The newer version of CB is called SSB (single side band). It focuses the whole signal into a much narrower band thus acting like a 12-watt signal in range and clarity. Any CB radio younger than 20 years old will probably do this mode. Those 9-foot-tall whip antennas you have likely seen on pickups are more efficient than shorter ones, but for a radio shack system you can go even taller for more send/receive efficiency.

CBs are most commonly the car-stero-sized 12-volt radios in trucks and cars. They are also in a handful of radio shack or dispatcher “base stations” often with excellent stationary tower-mounted antennas. CBs in HT configurations also exist, but are not very popular as their antennas severely limit their range in the designated frequencies.

Interference, static, noise are the main drawbacks to CB. That, and their range is limited. There are no repeaters in this realm. The up-side is their ubiquity. When people find their assumed communication tools are not functioning they may turn to that CB radio in their farm truck. We can get information to/from people in this realm. We can also integrate it into our other two-way radio modes.

Technician-level HAM

This is the first of three amateur radio operator levels the FCC authorizes. I have taught many classes for this level with none of the students failing to pass their exams if they stuck with me through the whole nine-week set of 2-hour classes, read through the ARRL Ham Radio License Manual and did some online practice at

I am confident most could do it without the instructor. Just read the book and use in study mode. Do not get overly focused on learning the material as you read. Some of it may not make sense to you. That is okay. You have to pass the exam in order to practice with and learn more about it. What you need will come to you.

With the Technician license comes the legal ability to use all of the above radio modes PLUS tools and frequencies that others cannot use. The HAM radios are more powerful than those for non-licensed users and all are eligible for repeater use. There are far more repeaters available to HAMs than non-hams.

You also cannot help but pick up more knowledge about how radio signal propagation works and how you can work with it. Joining the HAM community also opens up knowledge that experienced operators eagerly share with others who are making the effort to share their hobby.

General-level HAM

The General class is the second level. The exam is much more challenging. The knowledge expectation is distinctly higher than that of Technicians. After my classes get through the often difficult chapter 3 on electronics, I tell those who found little difficulty there that they should begin studying to take their General class exam on the same day they pass their Tech level. You must pass the Tech exam to take the General, but if the one comes easy you are likely able to do both.

General class licensees are authorized use of HF bands. They are called “High Frequency”, but are much lower, larger in wavelength and significantly more expensive to gear up for than everything listed above. The gain is in very long range capabilities – across the nation and around the world.

There is also a very useful mode for Generals and above that focuses its signal straight up to bounce off the outer atmosphere and back down for a 50-100 mile range unaffected by mountains or other barriers.

For more information I share a couple of documents. The first is called General Emergency Communications Plan. It is 32 page .pdf covering phone trees amateur radio and more.

General Emergency Communication Plan 091212-1

Below is a BIG .pdf that covers grid-down communications THOROUGHLY.

grid down communications