I’d like to make a case for GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service ) emergency two-way radio communications. GMRS stands for General Mobil Radio Service and is found in the UHF frequency band at frequency 462.xxx. GMRS was designed as a short-distance two-way radio communications. GMRS does require an FCC license, but there is no test. You can go to the FCC web site and apply for and pay for the license and receive the license within an hours’ time.
As you know, if you want to use a Ham radio, you have to pass a test to get your license, and then you are permitted to use some of the radio bands for communications. Most Hams limit themselves to using the 2 meter band (which is in the VHF frequency range) and the 70 centimeter band (which is in the UHF frequency range). Most people can study for and pass the test in a couple of weeks. Anyone of any age is allowed to take the test, and if they pass they get the license. That means your whole family can each get a Ham license which costs $14.00 per person. I would encourage everyone concerned with emergency communications to take the test and get a license, which is good for 10 years. If there are 6 people in your family and they all pass the test, it would cost $84 for the family to use the radios for communications. There are a few limits as far as power and frequency use, but when thinking about emergency communications, most think of using a hand held radio called an HT (Handy Talkie). Most HT’s put out about 5 watts and the signal travels “line of sight.” You can expect to get a couple of miles range out of them using the antenna that comes on the HT. If you want more range you can change antennas and add height and gain more range. <read more about handheld radios by clicking here>
Now let’s look at GMRS. The GMRS frequencies are in the 70 centimeter band, again in the UHF range. You would want to use a HT for your personal short-range communications. They are allowed to put out 5 watts on the GMRS frequencies and the signal is “line of sight”. A GMRS base station is allowed to output up to 50 watts. You could expect to get a range of a couple of miles out of them using the antenna that comes on the HT. If you want more range you can change antennas and add height and gain more range.
Again, you do need a license to use GMRS but there is no test to obtain the license. You need to be at least 18 years old and pay the fee. That’s it, you get the license. The fee is $85 and is good for 5 years, at which time you have to purchase another license. $85 sounds like a lot of money compared to $14 for an amateur radio Ham license, so let’s break that down a little. If there is one person in your family, it would cost $85. For one person it would probably be fairly easy to just go ahead and take the test and get the Ham license. However if there are 6 people in your family, it would cost $85 for the GMRS license and still no test. If there are 10 people in your family, it would still cost only $85 dollars for the GMRS license and still no test. If there are 20 people in your family, it would cost $85 and still no test for anyone. Ok, you get the idea.
Well, how many can use the radios on one license? A GMRS license is granted to a “person”, and that person’s family is allowed to use their own radio, on that same license. Here is who the FCC says can use the license: Licensee, Licensee’s spouse, Licensee’s children, grandchildren, stepchildren, Licensee’s parents, grandparents, stepparents, Licensee’s brothers, sisters, Licensee’s aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and Licensee’s in-laws.
Now, assuming you could get all these family members to pass the Ham license test, how much would it cost to license your whole family at $14 each? And don’t forget each of them would have to study for and pass the Ham license test.
Ham and GMRS handheld radios are very similar, the cost of the radios are also very similar, and the range is very similar. You are allowed more frequencies with the Ham radio, but my guess is you want your whole family to be on the same frequency at the same time so you are only going to need one. GMRS is limited to 15 frequencies, so there are a few extra ones in case another group is using the one you have chosen.
Now the bad news, there are a lot of GMRS radios out there, but very, very few of them are licensed. During an emergency situation many will want to use those radios and many will be on the same frequencies as your GMRS radios. There will be conflicts and problems. However, in the mean time you will have practiced using your radios and will have developed codes that say much more to your group and mean nothing to others that are listening. Your family will be able to pass information using your “codes.” You will also have developed a way to keep the batteries charged and re-charged, so after a while you will be the only ones left using the frequency you have chosen. This is all part of preparedness.
Using GMRS frequencies in this way will also give you and your group (family), lots of practice using and communicating. Those skills and knowledge will transfer to Ham radios if you ever want to go that way. If you are so inclined, there are GMRS repeaters that are usable, and you can even build one yourself. A GMRS repeater allows for higher wattage communications and better and higher antennas. These repeater set-ups will allow you to get the same distance coverage as Ham radio. You are also allowed up to 50 watts with mobile GMRS radios, so there is reason to be disappointed in the coverage.
You may feel that because FRS and GMRS share some of the same frequencies and that FRS owners will spoil your party. Remember FRS is limited to ½ a watt, compared to GMRS’s 5 watts. That channel sharing can be used to your advantage if you have small children that want a radio of their own. Get them a FRS radio and put it on a FRS frequency that you can monitor with your GMRS radio. And all the while you are using another channel to communicate with others. Because I have a GMRS license in addition to a Ham license, I have the GMRS frequencies programmed into my scanner. I very seldom hear any traffic on a GMRS frequency, and when I do it is usually after school when a couple of kids get some FRS radios and start talking to each other. I will usually bypass that frequency for an hour till they get tired of saying “what – what” to each other and they lose interest. Sometimes I will hear traffic on the freeway talking back and forth to each other via GMRS but they are soon gone up the road. I can say that in my area, the GMRS frequencies are underutilized. My guess is you will find the same thing in your area.
You can go to Wal-Mart and purchase FRS/GMRS radios. However you can also purchase GMRS radios from the big name radio producers. I like to purchase my GMRS radios from eBay or Amazon. I don’t buy the expensive ones as that defeats the idea of purchasing radios for the whole family. The ones I
purchase run under $16 each when purchased in bulk. I like the Baofeng BF-888S radios, and have been pleased with the quality for the price. Many Hams are using Baofeng radios (UV-5R) <click to read more about the UV-5R> and are satisfied with them. They all use the same programming cable, and the BF-888s has to be programmed with the GMRS frequencies with a computer. That allows you to control the parameters of the radio for your whole group.
If you have ever wanted to try 2-way radio communications, but didn’t feel you wanted to go to the trouble of studying for and passing the ham test, check out GMRS radios. You may be surprised what you find, and if it doesn’t work you are only out the $85 cost of the license and the cost of the radios, and they will probably be re-sellable.
There are GMRS repeaters available to purchase that will extend the range of the handhelds considerably. There are also GMRS repeaters already set-up in a lot of areas that are available to be used. A used GMRS repeater will run you about $175 – $250.
And regardless of whether you like them or not, whether you intend to use it tactically or not, since there are so many of them out there it would be a good idea to have monitoring capability to see what others are doing.
Summary – GMRS radios are a valid communications option when it comes to emergencies, disasters, or “grid-down.” And in the mean time they can be useful and fun for your family.
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