Island County Auxiliary Communication Service

If you are interested in learning how to operate a radio, visit the Island County Amateur Radio Club website. Radio club operators meet monthly and offer classes to prepare you to take the licensing test. Club members participate in community events across Island County.

Communications during a disaster

Communications are essential during a disaster to not only to report injuries and damage but also to determine the conditions surrounding your family and neighbors – Is the neighborhood water supply functioning? Do we have neighbors that need help? Where is everybody? 

During a major disaster normal communications infrastructure may not be available.  Besides damage to cell and other communications systems, these systems may become overloaded during an emergency and become unusable. Cell systems can be prioritized for first responders and other government relief agencies leaving the system unavailable to the public. Without normal communications infrastructure, how can we communicate?

Using Radios During a Disaster

When normal communications systems like cellular or the internet are unavailable, CERT and Map Your Neighborhood recommend a central meeting location where neighbors can meet and information can be passed. An alternative to face to face is the use of radio. Cell phones are just radios connected to the phone infrastructure. Two-way radios allow communication without infrastructure. First responders use radio to communicate during a disaster.  Families and neighborhoods can too. 

Types of Radios Available to Families and Neighborhoods

The easiest radios to obtain and use for families are Family Radio Service (FRS) radios. These are small and relatively inexpensive. FRS radios have 2 watts or ½ watt of power depending on the channel used so range is limited to line of site which translates to .3 to 1 mile depending on terrain. This distance covers most normal uses of these radio. These radios can also be used for camping trips and hiking to stay in touch. FRS radios can be purchased from retailers.

Choosing an FRS radio 

There are many different styles of FRS radios, but they fall into two categories. The “blister pack” radios are the cheapest and normally come two in a package. These have all the same features as the more expensive radios but usually have a more limited range since they only produce ½ watt of power. 

For limited use in small neighborhoods or around a campground, these radios will work just fine. For slightly more expense, you can get radios that have 2 watts of transmitter power. These radios are usually better built and have larger battery capacity. Unfortunately, there is seldom an easy way to determine the power output of an FRS radio from the advertising and published specifications. 

Radios advertising 30 miles of range and requiring 4 AAA or 3 AA batteries are normally 2 watt radios. Also, radios that cost less than $49.99 per pair are normally ½ watt radios.  

FRS Transit Power by Channel

Channel Transmit Power Channel Transmit Power Channel Transmit Power
1 Up to 2 watt 8 Up to 0.5 watt 15 Up to 2 watt
2 Up to 2 watt 9 Up to 0.5 watt 16 Up to 2 watt
3 Up to 2 watt 10 Up to 0.5 watt 17 Up to 2 watt
4 Up to 2 watt 11 Up to 0.5 watt 18 Up to 2 watt
5 Up to 2 watt 12 Up to 0.5 watt 19 Up to 2 watt
6 Up to 2 watt 13 Up to 0.5 watt 20 Up to 2 watt
7 Up to 2 watt 14 Up to 0.5 watt 21 Up to 2 watt
        22 Up to 2 watt

NOAA Radio Channels

NOAA Weather radio channels can be important to monitor during a weather or earthquake event.  NOAA Weather channels broadcast alerts and regular weather forecasts 24 hours per day. Many FRS radios come with the ability to receive these channels.  Some models include the ability to receive alerts when warnings or watches are issued by the National Weather Service. This is a nice feature to have on your FRS radios.  

Batteries & Charging

FRS radios normally come with rechargeable batteries and a drop-in charger allowing you to keep the radio charged while not in use.  Rechargeable batteries can be a problem during a long power outage if you don’t have power to recharge them. 

When purchasing an FRS radio for emergency use, get one that can also use AAA or AA alkaline batteries.  You can keep a supply of these batteries on hand and use them to power the radio when the rechargeable battery is depleted. Also, some newer radios have a USB-C charging port so you can charge your radio just like your cellphone. 

Operating FRS Radios

Operating FRS Radio

FRS radios are walkie-talkies, i.e., handheld radios with built-in antennas, microphones, and speakers. They will have buttons for changing channels and volume and a PTT (Push-To-Talk) button to cause the radio to transmit. After turning on your radio, you select the channel that you want to use to communicate with your family, friends, or neighbors. All radios need to be on the same channel. Pick a channel based on the distance you want to talk using the chart above.  Higher power means longer distance given the same terrain. You also need all radios to be on the same privacy code.  See below for a discussion of privacy codes. 

After the channel has been agreed upon, to talk to other radios, you press and hold the PTT button and speak into the microphone. After you push the PTT button, hesitate a moment to make sure the radio has had time to start transmitting before you speak otherwise the first few syllables of your speech may not be transmitted.  Also, do not talk directly into the microphone as you will transmit the sound of your breath so try to speak across the microphone. Hold the radio 1-2” from you mouth and speak across the microphone. When done talking, release the PTT button so you will hear a response. Remember to turn up the speaker volume of the radio to a comfortable level. 

FRS Radio Privacy Codes

All FRS radios have what appears to be two channel numbers. The big number is the actual channel number and when changed, changes the frequency the radio transmits on. The smaller number is the privacy code number.  This represents a sub audible tone that is transmitted along with your voice. If two radios are set for the same privacy code, then they will hear each other when they transmit. If the codes do not match, they will not hear each other. This is because the privacy code tone tells the other radio to turn on its audio, i.e., open its squelch.  If the privacy code is set to 0, then you will hear everything that is transmitted on that channel. Privacy codes don’t stop people from hearing your conversations. If your radio is set for example to privacy code 2, any radio whose privacy code is 2 or 0 will hear your transmission. The advantage of using privacy codes is so you don’t hear other conversations on the same channel that you don’t want to hear. One other caveat is that not all radio manufacturers use the same tone for identical privacy codes, so you need to test before using privacy codes between different radio manufacturers. 

Choosing a GMRS Radio

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios use the same channels as FRS radios but are allowed more power and the ability to use repeaters. GMRS radios can also use bigger and better antennas than FRS radios. All of this improves the range of GMRS radios. 

However, to legally operate a GMRS radio, you must get a license from the Federal Communications Commission. The license does not require a test like amateur radio. Using the FCC online application system, you can request and receive your GMRS license. 

There is a $35 fee and the license is good for 10 years. The license covers anyone in your immediate family. The other difference between FRS and GMRS radio is that during operation of GMRS radios you must identify your transmissions with your GMRS call sign that was assigned to you when you were granted the GMRS license. This does not mean you identify each time you release the PTT. It means that when you are finished with a conversation on GMRS radio or every 10 minutes during a conversation, you must clearly give your GMRS call sign. 

GMRS Transmit Power by Channel

Channel Transmit Power Channel Transmit Power Channel Transmit Power
1 Up to 5 watts 8 Up to 0.5 watt 15 Up to 50 watts
2 Up to 5 watts 9 Up to 0.5 watt 16 Up to 50 watts
3 Up to 5 watts 10 Up to 0.5 watt 17 Up to 50 watts
4 Up to 5 watts 11 Up to 0.5 watt 18 Up to 50 watts
5 Up to 5 watts 12 Up to 0.5 watt 19 Up to 50 watts
6 Up to 5 watts 13 Up to 0.5 watt 20 Up to 50 watts
7 Up to 5 watts 14 Up to 0.5 watt 21 Up to 50 watts
        22 Up to 50 watts