Hurricane Ian highlights another important need in a disaster


In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ian, hundreds of thousands of Floridians found that their cellphones did not work.  The towers were inoperative, either due to storm damage or because their power had been cut off.  Many were repaired within a day or two, but apparently several hundred cellphone towers are still not working, leaving large areas without that means of communication.  Add to that the destruction of the few remaining telephone landlines, and you have a “communications desert” covering (probably) several thousand square miles.

This highlights the need for some form of emergency communication for you and your family members, and perhaps for close friends or associates who will band together to help each other in times of need.  There are any number of fancy radios and accessories out there, and a brief Internet search will find more information about them.  I’d like to keep it simple and low-cost, and talk about the Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) systems.  I’ll also mention Citizens Band (CB) radios.

Briefly, FRS was authorized in 1996.  Its radios are limited to 2 watts maximum power, and have 22 channels (shared with the more powerful GMRS service).  Under normal operating conditions, its usable range is up to a mile;  under exceptional conditions, it might reach out to 30 miles or more, but that’s very rare and unusual, and won’t be feasible using a hand-held radio.  It’ll need a base station with a longer and more sensitive antenna, and no interference with line-of-sight between transmitting and receiving stations (e.g. buildings, hills, etc.).

GMRS requires a license in the USA, although no tests are involved;  merely the payment of a fee (currently $70) to the FCC for a 10-year permit.  It uses the same channels as FRS, plus a few more, and can transmit at up to 50 watts power (although 5 watts is more usual in hand-held devices).  Range is not necessarily greater than FRS, particularly if buildings or hills limit line-of-sight distances, but due to its higher power, GMRS signals mostly have less interference and “noise” than FRS.  GMRS radios can also use detachable antennae, giving greater flexibility.

CB radios are well-known in the USA, particularly thanks to their use by truckers and the many CB-themed trucker movies of the 1970’s.  They use 40 channels, and operate at up to 4 watts power (although single-sideband [SSB] radios can use up to 12 watts).  Their effective range is 1-2 miles in areas with obstacles such as tall buildings or hills, and up to 20 miles in line-of-sight (although half that is considered good by many users).  They’re popular with truckers and other road travelers, and also with boaters on inland and coastal waters.  However, they are so widely used that interference from other transmissions is common in heavily trafficked areas.

What about costs?  These vary widely.  For a simple comparison, I’ll take handheld radios manufactured by Midland, a prominent US vendor, and compare their prices on Amazon.  There are dozens of manufacturers and scores of models available – these are merely examples.

I highly recommend reading customer reviews of the radio(s) in which you’re interested.  The ratings are all over the place, some excellent, some terrible, but a lot seems to depend on where the customer is located and the kind of terrain/obstacles around which the radio(s) will be used.

For most of us (including yours truly) cost and complications are limiting factors.  The cost factor speaks for itself – if I want every member of my family to be able to communicate with each other in an emergency, I can’t afford anything gold-plated or high-technology.  Furthermore, I need something relatively simple and easy to use, which doesn’t require a lot of training to make sense of it.  (I trained in radio communications in the military, which helps, but many of those with whom I might need to communicate didn’t, and don’t have that level of knowledge.  The K.I.S.S. principle definitely applies, particularly for families with younger children!)

For those reasons, my basic emergency communications outfit is the Midland GMRS two-way radio mentioned above.  I bought the waterproof version, which was only available in a camouflage finish at the time.  Click the image for a larger view.

They come with a rechargeable battery, or can use 4 AA batteries if they can’t be recharged for some reason.  They offer reliable communication up to a couple of miles in the area in which I live, and sometimes more depending on atmospheric conditions.  On the road (for example, if my wife and I are traveling in separate vehicles) they’ll help us keep in touch as long as we aren’t more than a mile or two apart.  For a low-cost short-range communications option, that’s about as good as it gets.

For extended range and/or more difficult operating conditions, you’ll have to spend more money.  High-end CB radios can reach out 10 to 20 miles with the right antenna, but they’re typically vehicle- or desk-mounted units (not hand-held), using vehicle or mains power, and cost up to several hundred dollars.  There’s also full-blown “ham” radio equipment that requires a special license, but can communicate over hundreds or even thousands of miles – and can cost thousands of dollars, too!  I’m not going to get into that here.

If you don’t have any form of emergency communication other than your cellphone, I recommend you look into one of the options mentioned above.  They may turn out to be a life-saver – and I’m not exaggerating when I say that.



  1. Those are great short range solutions anywhere, regardless of cell phone usability.
    For longer range comms, especially to "normal" people with cell phones, or when mountains block even radio signals (like plenty of places near me), I have a Spot X satellite locator/ messenger. unlike most satellite locators, it has normal functions as well as emergency functions. I can send texts to any cell number from anywhere in the Americas if I can see the sky, and if I want I can attach my location to that text.
    It is a self contained unit; it doesn't need bluetooth to a cell phone unlike most units and you can send any message, not just a small number of preset messages. It also has basic GPS functions.
    I got mine for sale last Christmas for $200 and I chose features that cost me $14 a month. When everything falls apart, I presume it will stop working, but for now it is a great way to communicate from anywhere to any (working) cell phone.

  2. A new solution is a Starlink dish internet connection. Make a data connection through to one of Elon's satellites and you bypass the ruined domestic communications infrastructure layer entirely. From here you can call phones elsewhere via a Skype/Google/VOIP service, or even place a voice call between phones with the Signal app installed.

  3. Re: GMRS – are they like CB radios, in that you can broadcast out to whoever is on at the time, or are they limited to calling the other one of the pair?

  4. Both GMRS and FRS radios are radios – they broadcast to anyone listening on that particular channel.

    One thing to keep in mind if you live close to the border is that other countries may not allocate the radio spectrum the same way the US does. I recall that with CB radios, those frequencies are used for business radio in Mexico. CB radios close to the border may have to deal with Mexican taxicab dispatching on some channels.

  5. Thanks. I wondered whether GMRS would be suitable or useful for someone who RV's around the country solo in the boondocks, just as one more way to contact people – help – when there's no phone.

    I've used someone else's radios a few times, but they could only contact another in that matched set. Some sort of encryption, I guess.

  6. As a ham operator, I still prefer CB as my "street" radio. There are a lot of antennas and other "help" you can use to add performance to the radios. They're also usually 12VDC powered, so you can hook them up to the car or car battery and get them up and running fast. Do some searching on line now, before disaster hits, for "homebrew" CB antennas. You can cook a dipole antenna up with about 16ft of wire, a length of coax antenna cable, and a connector in less than a half hour!

    FRS has its place though. They're small and lightweight. If you're looking for very local, easy-carry comms, those radios are the way to go. Handheld CB's tend to be bigger and heavier, and drain their batteries quickly.

  7. I will leave a commendation for Amateur "Ham" Radio. I am biased as I have held a license continuously since 1977 and had a Novice entry level license from 1970 to 1972. There is a great deal of EMCON preparation in the Amateur Community. I may be participating in a Volunteer Fire Department exercise in November. And weekly I check into communications networks by voice.

    The current entry level license, Technician, is not difficult to get. Amateur Licenses do not require Morse Code proficiency anymore so that the test are technical and rules only. The Technician level allows all modes on the assigned bands (they are not specifically channelized) from 50 MHz (Hz=cycles per second) up with up to 1500 watts output. There are limited High Frequency privileges between 3.5 MHz and 30 MHz. The General class license is not too much more difficult. However, each level of testing must be taken and can be taken in succession in the same testing session.

  8. The price of a GMRS license has recently gone down. IIRC, it is now $35. I know several folks who use that as a basic short range family communications. I have one, as well as a 'HAM' License (KB5TSI) and I've been active in EMCOM for a long time.
    But back to the point of the article, during some of the ice storms we had here in Oklahoma we ran 2 'Health and welfare' nets a day at 7 am and 7 pm. For a lot of the folks who checked in, that was the only outside communications they had, running off of batteries while waiting for power and cell networks to come back in the rural areas of north east Oklahoma.

  9. Another ham here, various family members have gotten the technician ham rating so we can communicate in times of trouble. It requires the most investment in time and money, but the range is much better than those alternatives you mention. If you need more range than a CB, go ham.

  10. As for ham radio, passing the tests is very easy, picking up enough practical knowledge to use VHF/UHF radios isn't that hard either. Most of the learning is safety, legal and technical. Any attentive person with a 9th grade education can become a good operator if they apply themselves. Mastering the full spectrum of the hobby takes a bit longer if want to get into the math and science.

    As for the paranoid that are afraid that having a license will put you on a list, you can get a PO Box on the application instead of a home address. Plus if you aren't on at least a dozen lists, you aren't playing to survive. 🙂

  11. I am a "ham" radio operator (of course!). There is a Boy Scout merit badge covering all you need to get a basic Technician license. If you study a bit you can take all the tests in a single sitting and could even get an Extra class. The question pools are public information and are available if you search for ARRL question pool so there are no surprise questions!

  12. Rasio is good, but perhaps better for the ordinary person would be a satellite phone. If you can afford it.

  13. I am a retired satellite communication engineer. CB radio is not a good choice for emergency communication. A better solution is a Marine VHF radio. I recommend it above Ham radio because it doesn't require any special license. It has a range of about 60 miles. The best solution is a satellite phone with a data link.

  14. I worked for Sprint during Katrina. We learned that SMS can often get through when calls don't, because they don't need to maintain a connection–they just have to connect to a tower for a fraction of a second to send or receive. Just be aware that your battery will run down quickly as it constantly searches for a signal.

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