Family service radios

The mailbox

I’m skipping the “Why we prep” section this week. There were so many responses to last week’s column on amateur radio that I needed all available column space to reply.

For example, when I warned that a federally licensed amateur radio operator was fairly easily identified, a poster decided to help prove my point: “Pat’s either using a pseudonym for his writing, or he is unlicensed. One of the two. (I checked the FCC database. …).”

Another commenter took me to task about my contention that crooks could use the FCC license database to plan robberies: “I have never once heard of someone getting their equipment stolen because they were talking on the radio about a vacation. It never ever happens. Do you really think some random thief will spend thousands of dollars on equipment and countless hours learning to use it well, just to try and rip off people who live hundreds of miles away?”


Couple of things here. I can listen to two-meter conversations using SDR (Software Defined Radio) on my computer within a roughly 50-mile radius of where I live for about $25. I’ve heard lots of my neighbors talking to each other about their vacation plans and the brand-new radio gear they just got.

I’m not the only person out there who has expressed a concern about theft. Matt Thomas, managing editor of, would seem to disagree with you as well: “Most of us have a pretty big collection of expensive radio toys. We also have the FCC call sign database pointing every criminal to the exact street address where they can find our expensive toys.”

Finally, making authoritative statements like “It never ever happens,” when there’s no way you can possibly know, doesn’t make you look too wise. You might want to work on that.

In last week’s column, I surveyed some (very few) of the rules and regulations concerning amateur radio, specifically those related to becoming a “ham.” And as predicted, I was handed my head, gently to be sure, by those stalwarts of the radio world: licensed amateur radio operators. Fortunately, their training held and most of the comments were polite.

What I wasn’t expecting was the disdain these folks have for the “toys” that are FRS (family radio service) radios. I got emails and comments about what a waste of time FRS was, and as one poster twice put it, FRS is “useless.”

So let’s take a look today at the “useless” FRS radio, particularly in regards to its utility for the prepper.

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FRS, as an FCC-approved communication system, came about in 1996 at the instigation of Radio Shack (which, in the olden days of my youth, truly was a radio shack, filled with etch-able circuit boards, resistors, capacitors and those newfangled transistors). The FRS frequency band ranges from 462.5625 megahertz to 467.7125 megahertz, constrained into 14 specific channels that are spaced 2.5 kilohertz apart. An FRS radio, with certain restrictions, can be used by anyone without an FCC license. The two most important restrictions are: (1) the transmission power is limited to a half a watt; and (2) the antenna must be fixed to the radio so that it can’t be replaced with a larger antenna.

Now, just to muddy the waters, the first seven FRS channels are shared by another FCC-authorized radio service: the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). GMRS radios can legally transmit at a much higher power than that allowed in FRS: five watts versus 0.5 watts, and a lot of the handheld radios sold out there today are hybrid FRS/GMRS. This merger allows their manufacturers to claim the availability of 22 channels and much greater theoretical range.

I don’t plan to cover GMRS in this column, but you need to know that if you get one of these hybrids and use the shared FRS/GMRS channels at the higher wattage, you need to have an FCC license to do so legally.

Most FRS radio manufacturers also push the envelope when it comes to listing the maximum transmission range. A primer on line-of-sight FRS range can be found at this link.

As a rule of thumb, you can figure that your FRS radio is good to a practical maximum of one mile or less. (Out here at my spread, I can get a couple of miles in one direction over flat land and about a half-mile into the wooded hills.) Because FRS is line-of-sight, your range may be significantly less in urban situations with lots of buildings.

Pretty unimpressive ranges, huh? So why do I disagree with the ham folks on the usefulness of FRS radios? Simple:

  • FRS is unlicensed, meaning I don’t have to go to the government for their permission.
  • FRS is low-powered, and that means I’m not broadcasting way far and gone. If I’m talking to a compatriot out at the hillside overlooking the highway, it’s unlikely that someone on the other side of the hill ON the highway is listening in. (Always check your ranges before using radios tactically.)
  • FRS radios are cheap!

See, amateur radio hobbyists are modern-day explorers, and they pump money into their vocation. Their goal is to reach out and touch someone long distance – and the longer the better. Bounce a signal off the moon? Sweet! Talk to Zanzibarians (Muppet reference)? High five! Talk to a family member 300 yards off next to a downed horse in a heavily wooded draw? Not so much.

Mushroom cloud

Or, let’s try this scenario. The much pooh-poohed systemic failure has actually occurred. A true “lights out” event is in flower. Kim Jong-Un is now a fully baked Pillsbury dough boy, but the EMP he launched first has dropped the U.S. power grid.

Here at the compound, a number of invited “guests” are arriving in search of safety and shelter. The homestead radio operator is busily listening to events and communications from around the world and the nearest communities on the high-end gear. Strategically we’re doing all we can do to gather information.

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But the tactical side of our security needs communication capability as well. Having a watch five miles down the road is a good idea. That observation post (OP) is assigned a higher-power radio, but the vast majority of our security radio needs will be with FRS radios because most of our OPs are well within a mile of the compound, all of which have already been surveyed for FRS communication viability. And I can put a lot of radios out there, because I bought tons of them for $3 a piece at thrift stores and online sources like Goodwill.

I don’t have to worry that my local coms are being heard off-site. And if one of my newbies falls and breaks his FRS radio, I sigh, reach into the bag, and hand him another with the admonition to be extra careful since I’ve only got 20 more radios left. Also, batteries aren’t a problem because the older FRS radios I bought use either double or triple As, and I have a lot of those (rechargeable) in stock.

So I have a real use for those “useless” radios. I could spend more for higher-end radios – and I have, for specific uses. But for every $50 or $100 radio I buy, I can get 10 or 20 FRS radios – and this column is called the Practical Prepper, after all.

Next week we’ll look at another class of disparaged radios – the CB (Citizens Band) radio of Smokey and the Bandit fame. So put the hammer down, keep an eye out for the bears in the air … and get prepared.

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