Emergency radios for my extended family

Started by Optimist, December 11, 2022, 07:27:46 PM

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Optimist

I'm working on figuring out emergency communications for my family. I've got a bunch of close relatives in my immediate area, and lots more aunts, uncles and cousins that live in town and would come out here if anything long-term or especially nasty was happening.

Cell phones are obviously the most likely form of communications to be used in disasters, and I'm working on ways to keep them going, but they haven't been reliable here during major power outages. This thread is going to focus on radios for us as a backup during normal emergencies and something that might outlast cell phones during longer term scenarios.

Most of my relatives live within a distance of me measured best in hundreds of yards rather than miles. If I can reach out to a mile I can contact nearly everyone. If I can reach 2.5 miles I could also contact some friends and a few more relatives that aren't full-time in the area. If I can reach four miles that gets me most of the town that is across the river from us (from my house, it's much closer if I actually go down to the river). Fourteen miles gets the next town up the road from us. The area is rural so buildings are sparse but it is heavily forested. Hills between us and the town cross the river are not a problem, but they might block LOS to the town down the road.

The amount of friends and relatives in the area varies greatly. Sometimes there's only about half a dozen of us, sometimes there are multiple dozens. People have seasonal jobs and a lot of older relatives are snowbirds.

The plan I'm tentatively going with is as follows:
1. Get a bunch of inexpensive FRS radios and batteries
2. Get a solar setup to recharge batteries
3. Get a GMRS license and some better quality radios
4. *optional* setup a GMRS repeater
5. *optional* Get into ham radio (this is not dependent on completing step 4)

I decided on FRS/GMRS as FRS is a commonly used and license-free while having a greater variety of affordable radios than MURS and CB. I think the majority of us are close enough together that most any handheld will reach. The people 2.5 miles away might not be reachable with FRS, and I also doubt I could reach the town across the river unless I went down to the bank. However, a GMRS license isn't expensive and I think with the ability to attach better antennas to GMRS radios those places would be within reach. (I know it is legal to use GMRS without a license in an emergency, but I think I'd rather get the license for testing and practice in normal times.) With a more powerful GMRS radio and a good antenna I think the town fourteen miles away could be reached.

Something that is both a positive and a negative is that I'm pretty sure FRS/GMRS is the most popular radio service in the area, so there's a possibility things could get "crowded" if enough people started using them during an emergency. On the plus side it means we'd be much more likely to be able to get in contact with people outside of our group. I know that the elementary school and one of the local businesses use them. This is a very popular area for people from the city to come to snowmobile, and I would guess that many of them have FRS/GMRS radios and their weekend cabins are also their BOLs.

To start with I plan on getting inexpensive FRS radios, some of which I'll give away now and some of which I'll hold on to hand out during an emergency. When I get the GMRS license I'll try to get some better quality radios that I mostly keep myself (I'm worried that if I hand them out now they'll end up getting misplaced, which is not nearly as big of a deal with a $15 FRS radio as with a $90 GMRS radio). As I build up a supply of radios I'm thinking the better GMRS radios can go to family members and the cheaper FRS radio could then be spared to hand out to neighbors to use if they need them.

We've got a good spot at a property my mother owns at the top of a hill overlooking the river valley where most of us live and the town across the river. This is still very close to where most of our houses are clustered, and where we have a big garden and greenhouses, so it's not a place that is hard to get to. I think that eventually it could be a good place to setup a base station with a good antenna during anything prolonged. Possibly a GMRS repeater, although that costs enough money that I'm not sure that I'll do it.

I do have my Tech license for amateur radio. I got it many years ago, but it was on a whim and I never did anything with it. I might get back into it eventually as it's probably a better option for reaching people further out. I did figure out enough to know that I don't enjoy radios enough to be a real radio nerd, so I don't plan to invest heavily in it unless for some reason I start to enjoy it more. Even though it would be legal to hand out a bunch of cheap ham radios during an emergency I just think the FRS/GMRS solution is probably a better fit for me.


Optimist

I got a Black Friday deal on FRS radios. Buy Two Way Radios had Midland X-Talker T10s three for $35. I got three of those, so nine total radios. I had looked at these before as they were inexpensive and were "water resistant" (no IPX rating so I'm guessing barely water resistant). In liked that they used AAA batteries, as if I plan for them to eventually be second-string radios that I might hand out to neighbors those neighbors are more likely to have their own supply of batteries and I'll be less mad than if they somehow managed to lose or ruin a more expensive rechargeable battery pack.

Here is a link to the radios I got, although now they are charging $30 each which is much more than the pre-sale price and probably not a good deal:
https://www.buytwowayradios.com/midland-x-talker-t10.html?___SID=U

I just started using them today so I don't have a review. The battery compartment is a very tight fit that's a little hard to open, I'm guessing that's where the "water resistance" comes from. One weird thing is that when turned on lower part of the display stay lit up but the upper parts don't light up. That makes it impossible to read but it starts working normally after maybe ten seconds. That was in two different radios I pulled out of the same bubble pack, I'm not sure if they're all like that. I hope to do some distance testing in my area soon.

I also have three other Motorola FRS radios that I pulled out of the garbage at work. They acted all wacky when turned on, but after removing the battery packs and placing AAs in them the display seems to work. What I'm not sure is if there's something else seriously wrong with them, I'll need to get someone else's help in testing them out.

I want to give two pairs of radios and batteries (along with some inexpensive AAA headlamps) to family members for Christmas this year. I am hoping to have some sort of plan as to what channels to use as part of the gift. I've been scanning around and figured out which channel the local business uses. I asked a lady who used to work at the elementary school which channel they use, but she couldn't remember. I was going to message a guy I know who went through some local CERT training what radios they use and if there is a channel we should use to call in emergencies on, but annoyingly he seems to have deactivated his Facebook very recently. I'm was trying to figure out a channel we could talk on that would overlap with others who are already using the radios locally.

I once heard someone in a podcast promoting a plan that was something like "at 9 AM/PM turn your radio to Channel 9 and listen for 9 minutes." I can't remember the actual number he used, but it was supposed to be an easy thing to tell people with the idea being that a couple times a day everyone would be listening on the same channel and if you needed assistance you could transmit at that time with a greater chance of someone hearing you.

Anianna

Definitely test the range.  When we were on the farm, we got the kids walkies that were supposed to have a 10 mile radius but would cut out a half mile down the road.  Fortunately, they didn't leave that half mile radius without an adult, so it wasn't a big deal for us, but it definitely would have been if we had been relying on that range.
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Optimist

Quote from: Anianna on December 11, 2022, 08:18:58 PMDefinitely test the range.  When we were on the farm, we got the kids walkies that were supposed to have a 10 mile radius but would cut out a half mile down the road.  Fortunately, they didn't leave that half mile radius without an adult, so it wasn't a big deal for us, but it definitely would have been if we had been relying on that range.
Yeah, I'll definitely have to test these out. It's the winter so there isn't nearly as much vegetation right now, but on the other hand if it's snowing that's probably going to cut way down on range.

Half a mile would get the large majority of people I would want to reach, but my father and stepmother are a little outside of that range.

MacWa77ace

NT2C is the expert, so hopefully he will correct me, but you might look into MURS radios, IIRC they may be available  higher output wattages than GMRS or FRS and you don't need a license. Its a 'business' radio channel with only a few channels, but if your in the country I would expect you shouldn't have to much cross traffic.

@NT2C is there a way for a group of people to work off a single HAM license? One person has the license but the group uses the registered call sign for identification, such as "NT2C mobile 2 to NT2C base"? Etc.

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NT2C

Quote from: MacWa77ace on December 13, 2022, 10:37:39 AMNT2C is the expert, so hopefully he will correct me, but you might look into MURS radios, IIRC they may be available  higher output wattages than GMRS or FRS and you don't need a license. Its a 'business' radio channel with only a few channels, but if your in the country I would expect you shouldn't have to much cross traffic.

@NT2C is there a way for a group of people to work off a single HAM license? One person has the license but the group uses the registered call sign for identification, such as "NT2C mobile 2 to NT2C base"? Etc.


FCC requires there be a control operator for each transmission (operator who can instantly take the transmitting station off the air) so, no, not under current rules.
Nonsolis Radios Sediouis Fulmina Mitto. - USN Gunner's Mate motto
Sic quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit; occidentis telum est - Seneca the Younger, Epistles

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MacWa77ace

Quote from: NT2C on December 13, 2022, 03:06:59 PM
Quote from: MacWa77ace on December 13, 2022, 10:37:39 AMNT2C is the expert, so hopefully he will correct me, but you might look into MURS radios, IIRC they may be available  higher output wattages than GMRS or FRS and you don't need a license. Its a 'business' radio channel with only a few channels, but if your in the country I would expect you shouldn't have to much cross traffic.

FCC requires there be a control operator for each transmission (operator who can instantly take the transmitting station off the air) so, no, not under current rules.

What are your thoughts about the MURS?
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NT2C

Quote from: MacWa77ace on December 14, 2022, 08:57:21 AM
Quote from: NT2C on December 13, 2022, 03:06:59 PM
Quote from: MacWa77ace on December 13, 2022, 10:37:39 AMNT2C is the expert, so hopefully he will correct me, but you might look into MURS radios, IIRC they may be available  higher output wattages than GMRS or FRS and you don't need a license. Its a 'business' radio channel with only a few channels, but if your in the country I would expect you shouldn't have to much cross traffic.

FCC requires there be a control operator for each transmission (operator who can instantly take the transmitting station off the air) so, no, not under current rules.

What are your thoughts about the MURS?
Truthfully?  I think it's crap.  It's essentially CB with half the power and only 5 channels.  On top of that, it's mixed use with Part 95 operations mixed with older business band operators that are primary on their frequencies.  It's a system that will be vastly overloaded in any kind of disaster and of minimal capabilities outside of disaster comms.
Nonsolis Radios Sediouis Fulmina Mitto. - USN Gunner's Mate motto
Sic quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit; occidentis telum est - Seneca the Younger, Epistles

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MacWa77ace



I forgot about CB's, 4watts no license, handhelds, base stations, mobile car radios and 40 channels.

You could put up antenna's at everyone's houses, and with those extend the range a little depending on trees and hills. And run the base stations off 12v car batteries that are recharged via float charger when there is power, and solar when there isn't.



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Raptor

Quote from: MacWa77ace on December 14, 2022, 11:02:47 AMI forgot about CB's, 4watts no license, handhelds, base stations, mobile car radios and 40 channels.

You could put up antenna's at everyone's houses, and with those extend the range a little depending on trees and hills. And run the base stations off 12v car batteries that are recharged via float charger when there is power, and solar when there isn't.




This is a great plan especially if you get a combo CB/SSB set and can get an external antenna on the roof of the house.
Licensing for CB is simple and if you set a contact time as above (Channel XYZ @ 9am & 9pm for 9 minutes ) you should decent coverage base to base. It would be difficult to predict the range ahead of time but this could work nicely albeit not for portables.

Licensing details. 
https://cbworldinformer.com/do-you-need-a-license-for-a-cb-radio

CB with SSB
https://www.amazon.com/President-McKinley-USA-Channel-Radio/dp/B01N0A8GO2/ref=sr_1_3?crid=3RMBDOZI4Q4KZ&keywords=cb+with+ssb&qid=1671228090&sprefix=cb+with+ssb%2Caps%2C97&sr=8-3


While this in NOT an apple to apples comparison when cruising we used handheld VHF in the dingy for shore excursions. If we could see the boat (or bridge) 4 +/- miles, we could talk to it with a 5 watt handheld VHF-FM. We could hear the boat much farther away but then it's antenna was mounted non a mast 55 feet up and it transmitted with 25 watts.  
I will never claim to have all the answers. Depending upon the subject; I am also aware that I may not have all the questions much less the answers.

As a result I am always willing to listen to others and work with them to arrive at the right answers to the applicable questions.

Optimist

Sorry it took so long for me to get back to this. Got busy with family stuff over the holidays.

CB is something of interest to me, and I'm not so heavily invested in FRS/GMRS yet that I wouldn't be willing to got down that route again.

There are a few things that make me still think that GMRS might be the better option for me. (The following is off the top of my head and I might not be remembering then properly.)

  • I wouldn't need a CB license (based on my understanding) but the GMRS license is very cheap and covers my whole family.
  • CB is limited to 4 watts, GMRS is limited to 50 watts.
  • The CB height limitations for antennas are much lower than GMRS, but probably high enough for my purposes.
  • Antennas on both can be replaced with better ones.
  • Both have HT, mobile and base station models. CB has more mobile and base station options, but GMRS has been catching up. GMRS has more HT options.
  • GMRS can have repeaters, while CB can't.
  • CB has a much longer wavelength than GMRS. It's been a long time since I studied radios, but I think that means CB has better potential for distance while GMRS might be a little better at penetrating obstructions at short range (antennas and power being equal). Don't take my word for that, I did wifi networking stuff in college but that was a long time ago.

I need to look into it again but it seemed like for the decade or so there was a big explosion of new models of GMRS radios and CB was kind of falling by the wayside, but I've heard some people say that CB is starting to gain popularity again among people who want to stay within the law and don't want a license.

I did do a test on the FRS radios I bought and they work fine for the cluster of properties that most of us are in but do not work for some of the further ones. From my car to another person inside the house it was very clear out to a quarter mile. At a half mile it was pretty staticky and I would have to get out of my car to be heard clearly. If we were both outside it would work better, but on the other hand this is winter and when things leaf out again the range my decrease considerably.

NT2C

Might consider CB SSB for greater ERP.
Nonsolis Radios Sediouis Fulmina Mitto. - USN Gunner's Mate motto
Sic quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit; occidentis telum est - Seneca the Younger, Epistles

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Optimist

Quote from: NT2C on January 08, 2023, 04:16:15 AMMight consider CB SSB for greater ERP.
I'm not sure what that means. Is it something like "more bang for your buck" in terms of radio power? Like a 4 watt CB might outperform a GMRS radio even though it is transmitting at a higher wattage?

NT2C

Quote from: Optimist on January 10, 2023, 06:19:55 PM
Quote from: NT2C on January 08, 2023, 04:16:15 AMMight consider CB SSB for greater ERP.
I'm not sure what that means. Is it something like "more bang for your buck" in terms of radio power? Like a 4 watt CB might outperform a GMRS radio even though it is transmitting at a higher wattage?
SSB stands for Single Sideband.  If you picture a normal CB signal as a sine wave, SSB would be using only the upper or lower portion of that wave (and that's even what the two parts are called, upper and lower).  FCC rules restrict full wave "normal" CB signals to 4 watts output, but for SSB you're allowed 12 watts ERP (Effective Radiated Power), greatly boosting signal performance.  It's a little harder to work with since the signal can vary quite a bit and need some tuning on the receiving end (pretty common for folks on CB SSB to sound like Donald Duck sucking helium) but there's a control to tune it on the front panel of the rig so it's easy enough to do.  The rigs are a bit more expensive than a "normal" CB though, generally 3x+ the price.
Nonsolis Radios Sediouis Fulmina Mitto. - USN Gunner's Mate motto
Sic quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit; occidentis telum est - Seneca the Younger, Epistles

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