Tradecraft: The emergency two-way radio

(TFC) – A long-running debate was settled yesterday when a former Special Forces communication sergeant weighed in on what was needed in an emergency radio. The Fifth Column had our own list of requirements. It needed to be affordable, portable, have a long battery life, decent range, and be easy to learn how to use. After laughing and suggesting a CB, he explained that our list of requirements was incomplete.

He insisted the radio needed to be able to operate on the maximum number of frequencies over various services, have customizable programmable channels, possess the ability to have its antenna replaced, use rechargeable batteries that are also affordable, be reprogrammable in the field without additional equipment like a computer, be able to access repeaters, and be able to broadcast on emergency channels.

With all of this in mind, he offered a single brand and model that fit the bill: the Baofeng UV-5R. It’s a completely customizable handset allowing the user to make use of all of the following systems: 2 Meter, 70 cm, FRS (Family Radio Service), GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service), MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service), Marine VHF, and Public service frequencies. It can even pick up NOAA and FM broadcasts. It meets every other requirement as well.

He did point out that many other radio handsets are capable of the same thing and more, but this is the one that fills the “affordable” requirement we set forth. They’re available for less than $30.

This radio can be set up to utilize any or all of the above services via its programmable channels. There is a drawback. It’s probably illegal for you to do so if you’re under the jurisdiction of the FCC, kind of. Some of the above services require a license, some of them don’t require a license but the radio is too powerful to legally use them, in one case the removable antenna makes it illegal to use with one service. Welcome to the federal government’s control of the airwaves.

Without an amateur radio license, you can still own, program, and monitor. You can’t transmit legally. We won’t go into the likelihood of getting caught operating without a license. So why would a radio you can’t legally use be the perfect radio? Remember why you are obtaining it. Emergencies. This isn’t a walkie talkie for chatting while hiking or for talking to truckers on the interstate. It is for emergencies. In an emergency, you want to be able to obtain assistance through as many ways as possible on one device. In an emergency, do you really care if the FCC has a rule against it? Before every ham radio operator in the world sends us an email, we’d like to point them to their own sacred rulebook:

§ 97.405 Station in distress.

(a) No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station
in distress of any means at its disposal to attract attention, make
known its condition and location, and obtain assistance.

(b) No provision of these rules prevents the use by a station, in the
exceptional circumstances described in paragraph (a) of this section,
of any means of radiocommunications at its disposal to assist a station
in distress.


The spirit of the FCC rules pertaining to emergencies is really very clear: do what you have to. We agree. This handset provides people with the maximum number of methods of obtaining help when programmed the way we will discuss.

Now the next questions arise, where can you buy one and how do you program it?

You can order them from a bunch of sources, like here. It should be noted the UV-5R has many variations. They all work the same way. The link we provided is to the standard model. Other models exist with extended batteries or other cosmetic features.

Programming the radio is an easy task. There are plenty of walkthroughs on YouTube. We are currently developing a template that will allow readers to standardize the channels and frequencies used. If the same channels are used on everyone’s radio, it makes communication during emergency easier. The standard template will be released later this month.