Our Personal History of Using Hand-Held Radios
Joe first used hand-held radios in the military when conducting surveillance. Joe and I used CB radios on sports car rallies before cell phones came into use. And now our neighborhood CERT teams have had walkie-talkies for over 17 years.
Sharing information with your team without having to look up a number, without having to dial, without having to connect – simply by pushing and talking – is incredibly efficient.
And when every other method of communication is down or jammed, a walkie-talkie can be a lifesaver – literally and figuratively.
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 expect to transmit?
Warning: Don’t believe what you read in sales literature!
Distances claimed by the manufacturers must have been tested in a vacuum somewhere, with no buildings, no trees, no traffic, no dust and no interference of any kind! We look at these specs for comparison purposes, but don’t believe them. When you’re considering walkie-talkies, you’re talking about messages traveling from less than a mile to maybe 5 miles until you’ve tested to find out what you get in your particular setting.
There are two main types of radios and the 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) and this higher power can expand your reach by as much as five times.
- Many radios combine both FRS and GMRS. Keep reading for the advantages/disadvantages of having both.
Tip: If there’s a question about distances, buy ONE pair of radios and test in your own setting before you invest in multiples.
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 on the campus.
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 a copy of our neighborhood radio channels matrix here.)
If you have an FRS/GMRS radio, some channels are shared. But channels 15-22 are for the exclusive use of GMRS, with its higher power rating. (Using GMRS requires an FCC license that costs $70 for five years. It’s been proposed to drop this licensing requirement but nothing has happened yet. As has been pointed out, the license may cost more than the radios . . . so keep this in mind as you consider your purchase. And I must ask, in an emergency, who’s going to be checking whether you have a license?)
Most radios also offer a “privacy code,” which will block outside chatter on a particular channel.
Warning: “Privacy code calls” 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 for “more mature” team members (i.e., anyone not born with a smart phone in their hand), 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 channels, an easy-to-open battery compartment, and a sturdy case.
Users will need SOME training. And remember, in an emergency, everything will become much more difficult! (I’ve reported before about our neighbor whose house caught fire. She was unable to call 911 because she kept dropping her phone!)
Be sure to repeat training on a regular basis to be sure users are up to speed and batteries still work.
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 for emergency radios. In a real emergency, there will be no power, so as soon as the rechargeable battery is exhausted, you’re out of luck.
We have also conducted repeated tests regarding alkaline battery reliability and life. An early test put Duracell at the top of the list; two years later, we found that Eveready batteries outperformed both Duracell and Costco’s proprietary brand. Recently we tested another private label and found no real difference between it and the brand names.
So, as of this update (March, 2017), we suggest that you look for convenience and cost when purchasing batteries. Amazon has its own brand now, too – you can assume rapid turnover of that inventory and thus you’re probably getting a “fresher” battery.
Caution: A battery may be labeled as having a “Ten Year Life,” but if it’s already 2 years old when you take it off the shelf . . .
New battery technology appears all the time; you may want to do your own tests.
5-Are your radios compatible with one another?
We all heard the stories about how police and fire departments couldn’t communicate during 9/11 because their radios operated on different channels. Today, they’ve made progress but some even well-known brands still do not necessarily “talk” to others. If you’re outfitting a number of teams, or replacing outdated devices, be sure they work together.
6-What sort of warranty comes with the radios?
We have had good luck with our radios right out of the box. But every legitimate manufacturer will offer some sort of warranty. Check to be sure you know its features:
- Does it matter where you bought the radio? (a purchase through eBay, for example, may require a copy of the receipt)
- Does it matter if you are the original owner?
- How long does the warranty last?
- Who pays for shipping if the radio needs to be returned?
- What conditions are NOT covered? (Typically, misuse or abuse of the item.)
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 check the current price and 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.
In case you’ve noticed, we continue to recommend that you start your shopping at Amazon. We find it consistently has the best selection and the best prices, and the customer reviews are particularly helpful.
Walkie-Talkies for Emergency Teams
| Basic functionality for your emergency team
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).
It's FRS/GMRS with 22 channels. The price is for a pair; each comes with three AAA batteries and a belt clip. There is a power-saving feature, but no privacy features. One additional feature: a “roger beep” that lets listeners know you’ve finished speaking.
For general use, I'd recommend this one.
| Bigger and tougher
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 more: twice the range (theoretically – Go back and read the comments about RANGE!) good weatherproofing, NOAA weather channels, and a vibrate mode. Bright back-lit face, ear plug, and a good thin flashlight beam built into the bottom, which I really like.
This radio operates on a rechargeable NiMH battery or with AA batteries.
|Another proven brand
We've used Midland radios for our team, too. This one is the Midland LXT600VP3 36-Channel GMRS with 30-Mile Range, NOAA Weather Alert, Rechargeable Batteries and Charger
It offers even more channels (an extra 14), 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 as well as black!
| Great for kids and family
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)
This is one of the least expensive of all the radios we have right now, and the simplest to operate. And it has received good ratings in particular from families (of all ages) who use the radios to stay in touch in campgrounds. Uses three AAA batteries.
| Want still more choices?
As you can see by the photo, this Midland package includes the radios and also charging stations, earphones for silent operation, and a charging plug for the car dashboard. Compared to the models above in our chart, it has longer range (caution, as always), more channels and more privacy options, and more emergency/safety feature including the usual weather alerts and also an SOS siren signal.
It has a much longer list of features, but I think its HI/MED/LO power settings would be very valuable, letting you adjust transmit power and thus conserve battery life.
Midland GXT1000VP4 36-Mile 50-Channel FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio (Pair) (Black/Silver)
| Radio with GPS -- another level altogether
I wanted to include a top-of-the-line model for comparison. This Garmin radio offers something unique that hunters, hikers and survivalists look for -- a GPS feature. If keeping track of team or family members is something you would value, check this out.
Garmin 3" Garmin Rino 755t
GPS enabled hand-held radios are considerably more pricey than the simple FRS/GMRS models we've been talking about. But the technology is pretty astounding.
As you would expect, this radio has all the usual weather-related and emergency features. You can see animated radar on its Its screen! It can send out emergency signals that show/tell exactly where you are located. As for a compass, the radio has what they describe as a "3-axis tilt-compensated electronic compass with accelerometer and barometric altimeter sensors." (!)
The radio also has a camera (probably as good as or better than your iphone) and, what's notable, pre-loaded topographical maps. (Other GPS enabled radios may have a base map installed, but you will have to purchase and download additional maps.)
Prices on radios with GPS start around $300 and go up from there. Check out accessories for these radios, too -- cases, Bluetooth, etc. Again, these are for dedicated and committed hand-held radio users. You know who you are!
And if you’re interested in looking at more, here are some recommendations from Amazon.