Emergency Communications

Information is king, and the most efficient way to relay information is via a communications device. Cell phones are certainly our primary means of communications (next to direct talking of course). But following an emergency, cell towers may or not work. If they do, there will be serious competition for signals. In this case, texts will be most reliable. If cell towers are down, you might be able to use your landline, but let's be honest, how many of you still have one of those? If the internet is still working, e-mail or direct messaging would be a great alternative. And of course there is the old fashioned method of "The British are coming, The British are coming." This method is commonly called the runner method, because you are literally running around relaying information.

In addition to the above, you may want to consider the use of two-way radios as a method of backup communications. But there are some things you need to know. And, you need to already have radios. So, the topic of this module is backup communications, with an emphasis on two-way radios.

The first consideration with radios is this: Two is one and one is none. A successful communication will require at least 2 radios. So, unless you have friends and family who already have radios, one radio will not do you any good. Get at least two of them. I personally have 8, and they don't just sit around waiting for an emergency. We use ours on road trips with multiple vehicles, when camping and hiking (especially with my kids), when boating, mountain biking, etc. And radios are not expensive. But they can be intimidating if you are not familiar with them. Let's look at some options.

Two-Way Radios

When it comes to two-way radios, there are several options to consider. The most common options are ham radios, FRS radios, GMRS radios, and CB radios. Let's take a look at each of these:

Ham: Amateur Radios

Link: https://www.fcc.gov/wireless/bureau-divisions/mobility-division/amateur-radio-service

License required: Yes

Test required: Yes

Range: Depends on the radio, but potentially unlimited

Rule: Part 47 C.F.R, Part 97

Ham radios (also referred to as amateur radios) are getting more and more popular, especially for emergency use. All licensed ham radio operators must have a basic knowledge of radio technology and operating principles and must pass an examination to obtain for an FCC license to operate on radio frequencies known as the "Amateur Bands." These bands are radio frequencies allocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by ham radio operators. While all radios operate off of the principle of "line of sight," Ham radios can legally use much more power than other two-way radios, and they can utilize repeaters to increase their range. On a good day, they can even bounce or skip off of the ionosphere, increasing your distance drastically (across the planet). Once licensed, you can use your ham radio to talk across your neighborhood, across your town, around the world, or even into space, all without the use of Internet or cell phones. Anyone, however, can purchase and monitor, or listen on a ham radio, but to transmit or talk on a ham radio, a license is required.

GMRS: General Mobile Radio Service

Link: https://www.fcc.gov/general-mobile-radio-service-gmrs

License required: Yes

Test required: No

Range: 5-20 miles, depending on radio and repeater setup

Channels: 30 (22 shared with FRS and 8 repeater channels)

Watt Limit: No more than 5 watts on channels 1-7, no more than 0.5 watts on channels 8-14, no more than 50 watts for channels 15-22 and the 8 repeaters.

Rule: Part 47 C.F.R, Part 95 Subpart E

The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a licensed radio service that uses 30 designated channels (around 462 MHz and 467 MHz): this is 22 GMRS/FRS shared channels and 8 repeater channels. While a license is required to operate on these GMRS frequencies, this license is simply fee based, meaning, there is no test required (unlike the Ham radio license). To get a GMRS license, you must be at least 18 years old. Your license will be good for 10 years, costs $70, and extends to anyone in your immediate family (including your children). Once your license expires, you will be required to purchase another license to continue your GMRS privledges. The most common use of GMRS channels is for short-distance (typically 2-5 miles), two-way communications using hand-held radios.

FRS: Family Radio Service

Link: https://www.fcc.gov/wireless/bureau-divisions/mobility-division/family-radio-service-frs

License required: No

Range: Up to 1 mile

Channels: 22, all of which are shared with GMRS

Power Limit: Less then 0.5 watts on channels 8-14, less than 2 watts on channels 1-7 and 15-22.

Rule: Part 47 C.F.R, Part 95 Subpart B

The Family Radio Service (FRS) is a private, two-way, short-distance voice communications service for facilitating family and group activities. The most common use for FRS channels is using small hand-held radios that are similar to walkie-talkies. The FRS is authorized 22 channels in the 462 MHz and 467 MHz range, all of which are shared with GMRS. There is no license required to operate on FRS frequencies, but the radios must be FRS certified under part 95. This is not anything you need to worry about. The manufacturer ensures that these radios are licensed correctly. Part of this requirement is they must be preprogrammed with the FRS channels and have a fixed antenna.

FRS radios include motorola and midland type radios. These are the radios you can buy in the camping section of any outdoors store. They are preprogrammed with several channels (probably 22). Anyone can buy these radios. Even my girl's "Elsa and Anna" toy radios are FRS radios, with just one channel. I can actually program the same channel they talk on into my programmable ham radio and talk with them. These radios are most commonly use for family, camping, and outdoor use, and are a great item to have as a back up communications device.

MURS: Multi Use Radio Service

Link: https://www.fcc.gov/wireless/bureau-divisions/mobility-division/multi-use-radio-service-murs

License required: No

Range: 2-8 miles, depending on the antenna, and a base station can extend this up to 20 miles.

Channels: 5

Power Limit: 2 watts

Rule: Part 47 C.F.R, Part 95 Subpart J

The Multi Use Radio Service (MURS) is a private, two-way, short-distance voice communications service. Formerly available only for business communications, the FCC has kept five MURS frequencies (channels in the 151 – 154 MHz spectrum range) license-free and open for public use since 2000. The usual range of communications between MURS stations is less than a few miles, depending on terrain and obstructions, but A MURS Base Stations can reach up to 20 miles. But, unlike FRS radios, MURS radios can use up to 2 watts (4 times more than FRS), and also, MURS radios can use any type of external antenna as long as the tower height (with antenna) is no greater than 60 feet high.

CBRS: CB Radio Service (Citizens Band)

Link: https://www.fcc.gov/wireless/bureau-divisions/mobility-division/citizens-band-radio-service-cbrs

License required: No

Range: 2-8 miles, depending on the antenna, and a base station can extend this up to 20 miles.

Channels: 40

Power Limit: 4 watts for am use and 12 watts for single side band use.

Rule: Part 47 C.F.R, Part 95 Subpart D

Citizens Band Radio Service, or CB for short, is a private, two-way, short-distance voice communications service for personal or business activities of the general public. It is authorized 40 channels between 26.965 MHz and 27.405 MHz. This service is commonly used among truckers, although some consider the CB radio service a dying breed. There are maximum power levels authorized for use, and these levels depend on whether you are transmitting on a single side band (SSB) or an AM signal. AM transmissions are only approved for up to 4 watts of power while the SSB transmissions are approved for up to 12 watts of Power. No CB channel is assigned to one individual, meaning the 40 channels are all shared on a “take-turns” basis. However, Channel 9 (27.065 MHz) is reserved for emergency communications or traveler assistance, and channel 19 is considered the "Trucker" station. The one distinction between CB and FRS/MURS/Ham is CB can be used for business use as well as personal use.



  • MURS permits four times more power than FRS (2 watts vs 0.5 watts).

  • At MURS frequencies, signals bend over hills better, but FRS signals are better at bouncing off of surfaces and penetrating into/escaping out of buildings.

  • You may connect a MURS radio to an external or exterior antenna. FRS radios must employ a non-detachable antenna. For vehicle-to-vehicle operation with external (roof-mount) antennas, MURS should provide three to ten (or more) times the range possible as compared to FRS radios.


  • GMRS handheld radios have typically two to five watts transmitter power while GMRS vehicular units transmit typically with 10 to 50 watts. There is no limit on the power of GMRS stations operating on the primary channels. GMRS stations may transmit with no more the 5 Watts power on the seven “interstitial” frequencies (Channels 1-7 / those shared with the FRS).

  • GMRS operation requires an FCC license.

  • At MURS frequencies, signals bend over hills better, but GMRS signals are better at bouncing off of surfaces and penetrating into/escaping out of buildings.

  • For vehicle-to-vehicle operation with external (roof-mount) antennas, MURS should provide one-and-a-half to four times the range possible with GMRS handheld radios also connected to roof-mount antennas. Depending on the surrounding terrain, MURS units connected to roof-mounted antennas might even outperform full-power (50 watt) GMRS mobile units, although the GMRS units should have a greater range in open terrain.

  • Many GMRS radios can communicate through repeater stations for extended range (typically up to twenty miles or more, sometimes much more). The new FCC Rules will prohibit repeaters in MURS.


  • CB radios may transmit with more power than MURS units may, but communications range is highly dependent on channel congestion and atmospheric conditions. CB communications can also be significantly degraded by noise from vehicle ignition systems and from other man-made sources.

  • CB signals bend over hills and around obstacles much better than MURS (at 150 MHz) or FRS/GMRS (at 460 MHz) signals.

  • Vehicle-to-vehicle MURS communications will probably be comparable and possibly quite superior to that available in the CB service.

  • MURS communications will not suffer from the kind of long-range “skip” interference frequently encountered on CB radio at 27 MHz.


If you're going to keep radios as a backup, I'd recommend keeping radios that do not require an external power source, such a radio that must be plugged in. Instead, look for radios such as hand helds (aka. walkie talkies) that operate off of batteries, and then make sure you have provisions for keeping these running, whether it is storing extra batteries or a having a charging source for rechargeable batteries. You may or may not have power in your house, so you need to consider how you will charge these radios in the case that you do not have a working outlet. A great alternative to AC power is a small set of solar panels that will charge devices via a USB port. Then you can get USB battery chargers, and now you are charging your radios from the sun. These are great items to keep with your radios, and really, any of your electronic devices, such as cell phones, flash lights, etc. If you don't use your radios often, which is often the case with 'back up' radios, remove the batteries and keep them with, but not in, your radios. And make sure you test your radios occasionally for operability, and to make sure you remember how operate them.

Frequency Charts:

GMRS/FRS Frequencies and Power Limits

GMRS Frequencies

MURS Frequencies

CB Channels/Frequencies

In Summary:

I have several radios that our family uses all the time, such as when we are camping for on multi-car road trips. But their primary purpose is to provide us with alternative communications in case the cell towers ever go down. Having backup radios gives me one less thing to worry about when it comes to our family plan, because I know I will be set in the event normal communications go down. Along with MURS radios, I have my Ham license and a couple Ham radios. And as the neighborhood emergency prep leader, I have made sure I have several people in the neighborhood that have radios as well. We have previously discussed what our neighborhood communications plan is and if necessary, we could deploy that plan in a matter of minutes.

Page updated: 2/5/21