Our History of Using Walkie-Talkies
We used hand-held radios in the military, CB radios on car rallies, and now our neighborhood CERT teams have had walkies-talkies for over 12 years. If you’re looking to provide these handy two-way radios to your Emergency Preparedness teams, here are six questions to answer before you buy.
1. How far do you need to transmit?
Don’t believe what you read in sales literature. The distances claimed by the manufacturers must have been tested in a vacuum somewhere, with no buildings, no trees, no traffic, no interference of any kind! We check these specs for comparison purposes, but don’t believe them.
There are two types of radios and which type you get helps determine your reach. FRS (Family Radio Service) radios operate with a power of ½ watt (500 milliwatts) and work well for local transmissions – up to 1/2 mile, say. GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) devices generally transmit at higher power levels (1 to 5 watts is typical) can expand your reach by as much as five times.
Tip: If there’s a question about distances, buy ONE set of radios and test before you invest in multiple sets.
2. How many channels do you need?
There are 22 mobile radio channels. In our neighborhood, we have assigned different channels to different streets. A business might want to assign different channels to different business FUNCTIONS.
In any case, think about how you will set up your communications protocols before you make a final decision on how many channels you need. (Want ideas for how to set up a communications matrix? Request ours here.)
Many walkie-talkies are FRS/GMRS, meaning they can share some channels; channels 15-22 are for the exclusive use of GMRS, with its higher power rating. (Using GMRS requires an FCC license that costs $85 for five years. It’s been proposed to drop this licensing requirement but nothing has happened yet.)
Most radios also offer a “privacy code,” which will block outside chatter on a particular channel. Calls really aren’t private; listeners can hear what you say, they just can’t interrupt.
3. How handy are your users?
Like other electronic gadgets, the smaller the device, the more functions each button needs to be able to perform. We have found that slightly larger radios are a heck of a lot easier to use. In particular, we look for an obvious on-off switch, easy-to-adjust volume, and an easy-to-open battery compartment.
In every case, users will need SOME training. And remember, in an emergency, everything will become much more difficult! Be sure to repeat training on a regular basis.
4. What kinds of batteries do you need?
As you can imagine, radios come with a variety of power options. Some offer disposable, regular alkaline batteries, either AA or AAA. Some have rechargeable batteries and come with a plug-in charger stand. Some offer both options.
We prefer regular batteries over rechargeable batteries. In a real emergency, there will be no power, so as soon as the rechargeable battery is out, you’re done. We have also conducted repeated tests and find that EverReady batteries outperform Duracell and Costco’s proprietary brand. New technology appears all the time; you may want to do your own tests.
5. Are your radios compatible with one another?
Some even well-known brands do not necessarily “talk” to others. If you’re outfitting a number of teams, or replacing outdated devices, be sure they work together.
6. Do your radios have a good warranty?
Here are some of the radios we’ve used and/or tested. If you click on the image or the link, you’ll go directly to Amazon, where you can continue shopping. If you purchase through Amazon, EmergencyPlanGuide.org may get a commission. (They call it an Advertising Fee.) It doesn’t affect how much you pay.
|Let's start with one of the most popular and least expensive radios. This is the Uniden 16-Mile 22 Channel Battery FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio Pair - Black (GMR1635-2). We have chosen this no-frills radio for everyday use for our team, replacing the even simpler but just-too-small Motorola. It's FRS/GMRS with 22 channels. The price is for a pair; they come with three AAA batteries and a belt clip. There is a power-saving feature, but no privacy features.
For general use, I'd recommend this one.
|This is a Motorola that I like. For one reason, it's a lot easier to keep track of than a black radio! Motorola MS350R 35-Mile Talkabout Waterproof 2-Way Radio (Pair)
The body of this radio is nearly twice the size of the Uniden, and chunky. With a bigger price tag, you get a lot more: good weatherproofing, NOAA weather channels, a vibrate mode. Bright back-lit face, ear plug, and a really good thin flashlight beam built into the bottom. This radio operates on a rechargeable NiMH battery, with mini-USB cable.
|We've used Midland radios, too. This one is the Midland LXT600VP3 36-Channel GMRS with 30-Mile Range, NOAA Weather Alert, Rechargeable Batteries and Charger It offers an extra 14 channels, plus 121 security options. (121?) Power comes from three AAA batteries or rechargeable power pack. It also has a totally silent mode, plus a voice-activated option which might be important in emergency situations where you need both hands. Comes in yellow, too.
|I included this radio in my review because different folks are looking for different looks. As you've gathered, I like yellow. This radio is blue -- it also comes in pink (and you can get other radios in camouflage colors, too.) Motorola MG160A 16-Mile Range 22-Channel FRS/GMRS Pair of Two-Way Radio (Light blue) is probably the simplest to operate of all the ones we have, and has received good ratings in particular from families (of all ages) who use them to stay in touch in campgrounds. Uses three AAA batteries.
|I wanted to include one of the top-of-the-line Garmin radios. You may not find exactly this model Garmin Rino 650 US GPS
since they seem to be changing. But Garmin offers something unique, and that is a GPS feature. If keeping track of team or family members (out to a range of about 2 miles) is something you would value, check this out. Prices on Garmin FRS/GMRS/GPS models start at about $200 and go up from there.
And if you’re interested in looking at more, here are some recommendations from Amazon.