As described on the FCC website the Family Radio Service (FRS) is a short-distance voice and data communications service for facilitating family and group activities. The most common use for FRS channels is short-distance, two-way voice communications using small low-power hand-held radios with small fixed antennas that are similar to walkie-talkies.
FRS is used by Encinitas CERT because it requires no license, minimal training, and inexpensive equipment. It forms the lowest and most broadly available level of CERT operational communications, as described in the Communications Plan.
Practical experience is that it is reliable and effective for distances of a quarter to half a mile at street level, operating among buildings, trees, and the small hills typical of Encinitas. This can be extremely effective in coordinating local group operations, search and rescue, etc.
The claims on the radio packaging usually speak of dozens of miles, and this can be achieved if there is an unobstructed line of sight between transmitter and receiver. Being on a hilltop or a second story window with a clear view in the direction of another radio’s location can significantly boost the range, so that inter-division communication is possible.
CERT members are encouraged to buy their own FRS radios and learn to use them. They are typically sold as FRS/GMRS combination radios (see below) in “two-packs” at retailers such as Costco, Wal-Mart, Amazon and many others. A pair costs about $60, including rechargeable batteries and chargers.
Encinitas CERT owns a number of FRS radios that can be distributed to members when needed. These are Cobra model CXT545, and the manual can be downloaded here (pdf).
FRS radios run on batteries, most typically the AA size, and usually can use either rechargeables or alkalines. Batteries of either kind lose their charge with time and use. When needed by CERT operations, AC power for charging may not be available. As for flashlights, you should keep a supply of suitable alkaline batteries on hand.
About GMRS and FRS/GMRS combination radios
The General Mobile Radio Service is another class of FCC radio service. It uses frequencies that are either shared with, or close to, those used by FRS. GMRS radios may operate at higher power than FRS and GMRS-only radios may have detachable antennas.
GMRS operation requires a license from the FCC. As of June 2016, this costs $65 for a five-year term. No exam, just a fee. Unfortunately, the FCC license terms are that GMRS operating privileges extend only to the licensee’s immediate family. It is not possible to obtain a GMRS license that covers all Encinitas CERT members, or one’s employees, etc. Since we cannot count on all CERT members to have GMRS licenses, we can’t reasonably use it for the most widespread level of CERT communications.
As described on the FCC web page linked above, FRS (unlicensed) operation is restricted to 1/2 watt transmit power. It is common for FRS/GMRS radios to restrict power to 1/2 watt on channels 8-14, which are exclusive to FRS. Because channels 1-7 may also be used by GMRS, these radios can typically transmit at 1 or 2 watts on these channels. Some radios, including the CERT-owned Cobra CXT545 model, have a user-selectable low-power mode that allows FRS (1/2 watt) operation on channels 1-7. Other models may not have such a control mode, and therefore may not be used on channels 1-7 unless the operator is covered by a GMRS license.
Since the Encinitas CERT communications plan uses channel 7 for communication between division leaders and the CERT command post, if purchasing your own FRS radios, it is recommended that it have a low-power mode for channels 1-7. Otherwise, either buy a GMRS license or don’t transmit on channels 1-7.
Not having GMRS available is not as limiting as it might seem. Since the FRS/GMRS radios have a fixed antenna, the main practical advantage of using GMRS is transmit power. Received power is proportional to the square root of the distance from the transmitter, so a 1-watt transmitter will only be received equivalently at a distance of about 1.4 times that of a half-watt transmitter. Nice to have, but not game-changing.
CERT members interested in better communication capability than FRS offers are encouraged to become amateur radio operators. A typical amateur handheld has 5 watts transmit power, and mobile (car-mounted) models are typically 50 watts. Equally or more important, they can easily be fitted with much more effective antennas than FRS radios. Further, amateur radio operations can use the existing repeater infrastructure for even greater range. For more information on amateur radio, see the other discussions under Members > Communications on this website.