Can We Talk?

How About Our Radios?

Just this past week, a new patrol member was conscientious enough to bring along a couple of store-bought radios, hoping they’d be useful for patrol (and indeed, they were). I was able to use my own radio to communicate with the ones he brought, which added to the patrol’s effectiveness, and also reminded me that we all need to understand how these popular tools operate.

Let’s commit to having a professional understanding of the tools we carry and use. There are professionals and volunteers who rely on tools like handcuffs, flashlights, and two-way radios to keep their communities safe. But there are far too few of them who know how best to use those tools. Folks inadvertently blind their friends momentarily with a flashlight. Handcuffing issues can be safety and liability problems, and need to be taken seriously, but they are used rarely outside law-enforcement. What about radios?

We all benefit from good communication skills (with or without technology). And our safety patrols almost always have greater effect if we can competently talk to each other via radio. Let’s clear up some confusion, and add some knowledge.

Channels are NOT frequencies.

You already know this if you’ve ever used a car radio. You have a favorite “station” or two, I’m sure.

Of course, every Guardian Angel’s favorite is AM  970, since Curtis does his radio show there. A little Google search will remind you that AM970 is station WNYM. And let’s just assume that your car radio is programmed to get there by pressing button #1. In this case:

  • Frequency is 970
  • Call Sign is WNYM
  • Channel is 1

That’s right: the channel is your choice. You could get in another car, programmed by somebody else, and listen to Curtis on 970, by pressing #3 (or any other chosen number). The FCC decided that 970 could be used at certain power, by station WNYM, but anyone can tune in and listen, and they can program their own car radios any way they want. So how does this affect your radio comms on patrol?

Bubble Packs and FRS

Plenty of folks (like our new patrol member) make good use out of the radios found in “big-box stores” like BestBuy, WalMart, RadioShack, etc. These typically follow the Family Radio Service (FRS) plan, pre-assigning particular frequencies to channels. Here’s the wikipedia article on FRS. These are low-power, but very convenient radios, that typically do not need any licenses to operate. Typically, channel 1 (or 2 or 12, etc) for any of these radios is channel 1 (or 2 or 12, etc) for any other radio.

Bonus: they’re well-embraced by the CERT program for emergency communications, too.

While the channels are programmed 1-14 (or 1-22 in the case of GMRS add-on channels), their frequency range is around the 460 Mhz range. This lands them in the “ultra-high-frequency” or UHF range. These radio waves are about 70cm, which makes them convenient for communicating indoors, bouncing through doorways, windows, etc.

Business Band

Other than these super common radios, you’ll often run into more professional looking handheld radios that operate on a distinct set of frequencies designated not for family use, but for business use. This helpful separation gives local businesses the ability to communicate their internal needs, without interfering with the original purpose of family radios. Here’s the wikipedia article on business band. Licensing gets a little trickier with these, but is unfortunately often abused.

Note that business band radios have no universally accepted channel-frequency relationships. That’s why channel 1 for one company’s radios are unlikely to be the same frequency as that same channel for another business. This is exactly the same as car radios: there’s no reason to think that channel 1 in your radio is that same frequency chosen by any of your friends for their channel 1 in their cars.

There is even more variation possible with business band, as they can use the UHF 70cm waves OR the very-high-frequency VHF frequencies, around 150Mhz. These waves are about 2 meters, which makes it more difficult for them to bounce around indoor spaces, but they travel quite easily and reliably over outdoor spaces and long distances. Smart businesses choose wisely based on their expected use.

If you didn’t before, you now certainly recognize the difference between a frequency and a channel. That’s why you’ll be a little amused when you meet a local security person and, wanting to open communication with your team, you ask them if they know what frequency their radio is using, and they answer, “Uhhh … 1… I think.” Obviously (to you), they’re not using 1Mhz. And now, you can take a look at their radio: if it’s a bubble-pack type you can probably figure it out very quickly. If they’re using a more professional looking item, they’re probably operating somewhere in the “business band” and the possibilities are quite a bit bigger. A scanner would do a lot of good for this one.

What Do I Use?

Because I’m a licensed ham radio operator, I have a little more flexibility in power and frequency choice. The test for the first level license is certainly achievable, and I strongly suggest it to you, both for fun and for professional knowledge. On patrol, I prefer a “field programmable” radio: one with numbered buttons on the front that allows me to program it on-the-spot to communicate with a newly chosen frequency. Because my professional work requires flexibility, I choose to carry a “dual band” radio that can work well in UHF and VHF frequency ranges. There are many options available, and I chose the Quansheng TG-UV2, featured in a link on the right in our website as of this writing. If I were buying today, I’d start with the Baofeng UV-5R because it costs less than half the price, and has all the same functionality.

I hope this helps you become a more knowledgeable radio operator, on your patrols, at work, or even in your spare time for fun. Go ahead and send some comments in if you have questions, or want to get into some of the more involved details.

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