Rules for a handheld emergency radio

Updated February 21, 2017

Amateur radio operators or "hams" use a variety of ways to communicate in emergencies and disasters, including handheld radios. After passing exams, hams receive a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license to communicate worldwide using radio frequencies the FCC reserves for them. Citizen's Band (CB) operators do not require an FCC license--they transmit to one other person on an AM frequency in a 150-mile range. Families can use a General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) two-way radio, or "walkie-talkie," for short-range communication. Rules exist for all handheld emergency radios.

Handheld Ham Radios

As a licensed ham radio operator, you have the advantage of a wide range of frequencies to use in emergencies. You are automatically eligible to participate in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), which means you can provide emergency communications to public safety organisations.

Always monitor the frequency you tuned into if you think an emergency is already in progress. Speak into the microphone of your handheld from its side rather than facing it directly. This allows the listeners to hear a clearer transmission.

If you need to interrupt a repeater conversation on your handheld because of an emergency, say "Break" several times. Ham radio clubs and individuals may place a repeater on a high mountain or tall building to extend the range for your handheld or mobile radio.

Say "Break" three times when reporting an emergency or when in an emergency situation. Do not use "Mayday" for your handheld--it's reserved for worldwide bands only and receives the highest priority. Send "SOS" in Morse code in grave emergencies. Copy the emergency message down whenever you hear the "Breaks" or "SOS" by another ham.

Identify yourself with the call sign or name of the amateur station followed by your own call sign or name at the beginning of your transmission. Use Morse code or your voice. Repeat your call sign every 10 minutes during your communication and at the end of your transmission.

While using your radio, the FCC prohibits all obscene language, messages in code (except for Morse code), deceptive messages, playing music or communication intended to commit crimes. You cannot use your radio to broadcast a program or gather news for broadcasting unless no other way exists to immediately save a human life or protect your property. You also cannot use your handheld or any other ham radio to promote your business or sell merchandise.

Handheld CBs

Use Channel 9 for emergencies or traveller assistance only. Say, "Break Channel 9 for a REACT base," then give the CB Distress Data, which means you identify yourself with your call sign, give your exact location, list the number and type of injuries and provide details of the situation. Keep repeating this until you receive help. Try any channel if you do not get a response on Channel 9.

While using your CB, always give priority to emergency communication messages. You cannot say "Mayday" on your CB unless on a ship or aircraft. You cannot have a conversation on your CB with another for more than five minutes at a time. After five minutes, you must take a one-minute break so others can use the channel.

You cannot use your CB to communicate with CB stations in countries outside of the U.S., except for Canada. Other prohibited use of your CB includes illegally amplified antennas that blow others off the air, playing music in your CB, using your CB for illegal activities, using it to advertise and sell items, and using profanity.

You can operate your CB anywhere in the world where the FCC regulates CB radio services. You must keep all FCC violation records on file in case of an inspection by the FCC.

FRS/GMRS Handheld Radios

GMRS and Family Radio Service (FRS) radios provide communication mainly between family members and do not require dialling. You must have an FCC license to use Channels 15 through 22 if you have a FRS or GMRS two-way radio. Children can use the GMRS, but the parents must be licensed first. Anyone age 18 and over can get licensed to use a GMRS unless a member of a foreign government. If you live in Canada, you may operate your GMRS without a license. Depending on the type you have, use your GMRS as an alternative to cell phones for a range of 1 to 5 miles for the very inexpensive, discount-store radios and up to over 50 miles for more expensive radios.

You must share your assigned GMRS channel with other GMRS operators by waiting until they have finished communicating before speaking. If any GMRS operator communicates an emergency message, other GMRS operators must stop transmitting on that channel. All emergency messages must be in plain English or foreign language, but no codes or slang. With the exception of emergency messages, you may not send messages to an unauthorised station or the Amateur Radio Service.

To prevent harmful interference in Canada when using an FRS or GMRS, the FCC notes that "the use of frequencies 462.650, 467.650, 462.700 and 467.700MHz is not permitted near the Canadian border North of Line A and East of Line C."

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About the Author

Chyrene Pendleton has been a business owner and newsletter editor for more than seven years. She is a freelance writer with over 25 years experience and teaches a variety of topics, including alternative health, hair care and metaphysics. Pendleton is a certified television show producer, radio talk-show host and producer, and a computer programmer with a bachelor's degree in computer science.