Family Radio Service (FRS) radios are the most straightforward two-way disaster communication you can get because these walkie-talkie-style handheld radios are simple to use. They are a good starting place to build emergency and disaster communication and learn if you need the more complicated radios like General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and Amateur Radio (HAM.)
FRS radios are the first thing I bought for my disaster communications because I wanted to test each type of radio from the least to most complex to build redundancy into my emergency communication system. I’m also working on my Amateur Technican’s license (HAM) which is the most technical of the radio systems but I can already see that many in my survival group will not have the skill-set (enough interest) to operate complicated radios systems.Scott, Ready Squirrel
To learn more about FRS, read on.
What is an FRS radio?
The Family Radio Service (FRS) is a private, two-way, short-distance voice and data communications service for facilitating family and group activities. The most common use for FRS channels is short-distance, two-way voice communications using small hand-held radios that are similar to walkie-talkies.Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
My radio is the Midland X-TRA, talker. This radio (and others) also come equipped to scan 10 NOAA weather channels. I say in my FRS video below that I couldn’t get an NOAA signal. I just tried scanning the NOAA channels again, and a weather channel came in, so it does work.
FRS radios are the easiest to use for disaster communication
FRS radios are the most accessible two-way communication a prepper can use. They don’t require a license, anyone can use them out of the box, and channels are used instead of frequencies.
Also, FRS radios are powered by rechargeable or regular batteries you can stockpile for power outages and other emergencies like bugging out. Following is a list of the channels and frequencies on an FRS radio.
Chart #1 FRS Radio Frequency Chart (MHz)
|Ch.NO||Ch. Freq||Ch. No||Ch. Freq|
Differences Between FRS and GMRS Radios
I was confused when I looked for my first radio for emergency preparedness. FRS and GMRS radios are similar, but there are some distinct differences. Some may want to jump directly to GMRS, but I concluded that I want both in my prepper arsenal. Below is the breakdown of both FRS and GMRS.
FRS has dedicated channels that aren’t interfered with by radio, tv, or mobile phones like CB radios, and they transmit on 1/2 to 2 watts of power. Unfortunately, by law, FRS radios have antennas that you cannot remove to improve the radio signal, and you can’t boost the signal as you can with GMRS.
FRS radios operate on the UHF band between the 462 and 467 MHz frequency range. There are 22 channels. On channels 8 through 13, you can reach out about 1/2 mile; on the other channels, you can reach out further depending on the environment. So what is the range of FRS radios?
FRS radios allow for line-of-site communication within a limited distance. In less-than-ideal conditions, expect to get 1 mile of communication. They are best adapted for use when you are close to the others in your group. Say within 1 mile. Under perfect conditions, as in an open water environment with no obstructions, expect to get 5 miles.
Do you need a license to use FRS radios?
There is no a required FCC license for FRS radios, it is a rule-based radio, so if you follow FCC rules, you are good to go. Next up, GMRS probably my favorite overall disaster communication radio service.
GMRS Radios are a more robust version of FRS and use the same frequencies (462 MHz to 467 MHz), but they differ in that they use repeaters to extend the range, and the antenna can be legally replaced to boost the signal.
If you plan on using GMRS with repeaters (booster towers), research your local area before purchasing your radios, some locations don’t have GMRS repeaters.
GMRS radios have higher wattages than FRS and more power which means a stronger communication signal. GMRS does require a license, but there is no written test like there is with amateur radio.
The FCC requires a license for GMRS because they have repeater functionality, wattage, and removable antenna.
With a handheld GMRS radio, expect a useful range of up to 5 miles to 20 miles with a mobile station you might find in a bugout jeep or off-grid cabin.
GMRS radios broadcast up to 50 watts, but most handhelds broadcast at 5 watts. In addition, GMRS radios have a removable antenna, so you can replace the antenna and hook up to a rooftop antenna or tower for more signal reach.
You need a license to transmit on GMRS but not to listen (receive.) Next up, can you use FRS radios with GMRS radios?
Can FRS radios speak with GMRS radios?
FRS and GMRS radios can communicate because radios manufactured after 2017 share the same channels. However, most mobile units cannot transmit on channels 8 through 14, and some mobile radios don’t have those channels on the unit, so you can’t even listen. Why? Because the FCC says so. If you want to communicate between FRS and GMRS, ensure you are on the same channels.
If your radio has privacy tones, codes, or subchannels programmed, both radios have to be on that privacy sub-channel, or both have to be off otherwise, the radios will not communicate. Next, is a list of GMRS frequencies and channels.
Chart #2 GMRS Frequencies (MHz)
|CH. NO||CH. Freq||CH. No||CH. Freq|
Alternative Communication to FRS radios (6 Types)
You can use other communication types to round out your emergency communication plan. After you get comfortable with your FRS radios, start building redundancy into your comms by incorporating these forms of communication into your emergency plan.
- Cell phones are outstanding means of communication and information in a disaster.
- Cell Phone Networks have many moving parts and are easily damaged or rendered useless in an emergency.
- During 9/11, the internet and mobile phone networks went down. In a nationwide situation like a tactical nuclear strike or some form of terrorism, it is likely they will go down again.
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service)
- GMRS radios allow you to use repeaters, and the dedicated channels/frequencies aren’t used as much as FRS so you won’t be walking over other people’s radio traffic in an emergency.
- Some are battery-operated.
- You need a license to transmit on a GMRS radio
- Mobile stations need alternate power sources in a Grid Down scenario
CB radios are a solid alternative to FRS radios. They are mobile or base radios, but handheld versions are available. When I put a mobile radio in my bug-out Jeep, it will be either a CB or an Amateur radio. Maybe both. Following are the pros and cons of CB radios for disaster communication.
- No license required
- Good distance
- Signal interference from radios, mobile phones, and TVs
- Need alternate power source in Grid Down scenario
Satellite phones are for particular types of disaster communication. The phone and service costs are astronomical compared to other types of emergency communication. That said, somebody out there might need what they offer.
- Work just about anywhere there is a line of communication with the satellite constellation.
- Satellite phones will not work in a grid-down scenario
Satellite Messengers were made popular by outdoorsmen. Think of any situation where you are in a remote location, be it a sailboat in the south pacific or the jungles of Panama. A satellite messenger might be the only means of communication. So what are the pros and cons of satellite messenger? Let’s take a look.
- GPS tracks your location
- Two-way text messaging
- Way Points
- Weather Report
- Battery Powered
- Blue-tooth to cell phone information transfer
- Subscription fee
- Short battery life
- Need clear skies to get messages out
Amateur Radio (HAM)
Ham radio is arguably the best means of emergency communication (it probably is). Still, it’s also something you can dig deep into by tinkering with antennas and radio builds and participating in emergency organizations like the Amateur Emergency Radio Services (ARES) or Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). Let’s look at the pros and cons of Amateur radio.
- Most Capable Radio
- Send and receive globally
- Amateur radios are not limited by line of sight; the signal bounces off the Ionosphere.
- Excellent Hobby
- Require licensing
- Complex (there is a learning curve)
- Need alternate power source in Grid Down scenario
Communicate between a Ham Radio and an FRS Radio
Ham Radios have all of the FRS channels fully unlocked and can communicate with FRS radios; however, it is against FCC regulations because Ham radios exceed the maximum power output for FRS of 1/2 to 2 watts, and they have a detachable antenna which is not allowed on the FRS frequencies.
To learn more about these communication types, read Ready Squirrel’s article, Disaster Communication: Prepper’s Guide.
Thanks for stopping by Ready Squirrel. If you have anything to say, let me know in the comment section below.
Keep on prepping.
Kind Regards, Scott