2018.10.14 : What goes down first in most major “Oh Shit” events ( Earthquakes, Forrest Fires, Floods, Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Volcanoes, War, Nuclear Winter, Zombie Apocalypse )? The answer is electricity and communications. The 2015 90,000 acre “Chelan Complex Fire” is a perfect example of how quickly things can go to shit. Within 12 hours of the lightning strike fire starting, the entire Lake Chelan valley was cutoff from the world. All roads in and out were closed. The power grid was down, as was internet connections. Cell phone service continued to operate for a few days until the backup generators ran out of fuel. Ham operators could still reach out however. A 2 Meter repeater on Mission Ridge mountain provides two-way radio communication between Lake Chelan and Seattle area, 200 miles away.
This blog post details how to purchase and setup an inexpensive two-way radio for an “Oh Shit Kit”. VHF 2 Meter radio communications ( 144 MHz to 148 MHz ) with Repeaters mounted on mountain tops coverage can be similar or better than cell phones. The major difference in a major event is a Repeater is independent of all outside infrastructure – assuming the local Ham club that runs it keeps it powered either via solar and generator. Without requiring a Ham license, an inexpensive $25 BaoFeng radio may be easily configured to listen only on local 2 Meter radio traffic in your area – hopefully providing useful information to the community. For local line of sight communications between family members, a pair of BaeFengs may be programmed to operate as either a low power FRS radio license free, or for $70 a 10-year GMRS license may be purchased ( no test ) from the FCC here after completing FCC form 159 and form 605. The short answer difference between operating FRS versus GMRS is 2W transmit limit versus 5W transmit limit at 462 MHz 70cm UHF band.
Regarding the BaoFeng UV-5R, is it a great radio? No, not really. In fact, the menu is a bit horrible plus you won’t get much respect for it within the Ham radio community. What is great about the UV-5R is that it works with “Chirp” ( Free Open Source Software ) to easily program a very capable 5W VHF/UHF 2-way radio for less than $30 into a multi-purpose Prepper’s radio.
In Summary, one low cost BaoFeng radio may be used for:
- Listening to VHF NOAA Weather Alerts and local police and fire rescue chatter.
- Listening to local VHF 2 Meter Repeater chatter between Ham radio operators.
- FRS Two-Way basic UHF 2W low power line of sight communication between non-licensed users.
- GMRS Two-Way UHF 5W power line of sight between a GMRS license holder + family member. Cost is $70 for a 10 year FCC no-test license.
- Two-way long distance VHF 2 Meter to mountain top repeater for Ham radio operator with a “Technician License”. Obtaining this license requires passing a 35 question bubble test from a list of 400 possible questions. No Morse code is required. Tests are administered locally about once a month from local Ham clubs.
Step-1) Obtain some low cost nice equipment for just a little coin. The single BaoFeng UV-5R should be less than $30. Purchasing a pair isn’t a bad idea at this price.
Don’t stop there however, a bunch of low cost accessories are available that you probably want as well. As delivered, you need 120V AC to charge the 7.2V Lithium-Ion batteries. Unfortunately these aren’t USB charge-able – out of the box. For just $6 though, you can purchase a USB-A to Barrel Jack adapter which replaces the 120V AC wall-wart. It might not charge as fast, but who doesn’t have a stack of USB batteries lying around?
Also available are this $7 12V car charger and this $7 12V battery eliminator. Why both? Well assuming this is all for an “Oh-Shit-Kit” it might be sitting in a scram bag for 10+ years. The battery eliminator provides for a fully functioning radio even if the LiPo battery is completely worthless over that time period. You just need a car, or 12 Volt, 3 Amp power source.
Step-2) Programming the frequencies. Unlike FRS “Blister Pack” radios, the BaoFeng don’t work out of the box. They have to be programmed with all sorts of parameters – with frequency being the only simple one of the bunch. Don’t expect to purchase the radios and be able to take them out of the box when you need then and use them immediately. Don’t expect to program them by themselves. The setup is complicated – requires a computer, a special cable and some special software. But hey, it’ll be a fun learning experience.
This is two-part. Part-1 is finding your frequencies. Part-2 explains using the open-source “Chirp” software along with a special $20 FTDI Cable for programming hand-helds from a computer. Note: There are “knock-off” and “real” FTDI cables. The difference is the chip inside the cables and the device drivers needed to communicate with the chips. The 2-pack of UV-5R’s I purchased came with a presumably “knock-off” cable. I opted to spend the $20 on the real thing as sketchy non-FTDI device drivers make me anxious. At the end of the day, your computer just needs to be able to see a regular “COM” port when the cable is plugged in. The “knock-off” it turns out worked out of the box with Windows-10, but not Windows-7. It did come with a CD, which I didn’t try. Personal recommendation is to just spend the extra coin for the FTDI cable. Long term, you’ll be much better off as the FTDI device driver is ubiquitous – especially for Linux desktop users.
Part-1) The Frequencies.
The list of FRS / GMRS frequencies within the United States are here, from this Wikipedia page:
To find your local police and fire VHF frequencies, just Google it “Local Public Safety Scanner Frequencies” .
To find your local 2 Meter repeaters, this website is quite useful. Dial in your state, then zoom in and decide which repeaters you can actually see from your location. Mountain tops within close range are obviously best. There were 4 from my location. If you have passed the exam and obtained your Technician License – you may configure the BaoFeng to transmit on the repeater frequencies and check if they all work. Simply key the mic briefly and listen for a “chirp” tone response from the repeater. Without a license, make sure and set the Duplex mode under Chirp to “OFF” – which prevents the radio from transmitting on the repeater frequency.
Part-2 ) Using Chirp
Chirp for Windows was download from here. I downloaded the ZIP rather than the installer as wanted to make sure Internet wasn’t required to install. Installation was a no-brainer, simply unzip the file contents into a new folder and run chirpw.exe. Selected “Download from Radio” and follow instructions, making sure to turn the radio on at full volume with the FTDI cable plugged in. A good beginners guide is here. A nice PDF explanation of various fields is here. Ran and installed this on an old Windows-7 12″ Laptop, as it it my long term “keep alive” computer that can run from a car battery, unlike my Windows-10 Desktop.
The default factory frequencies will be crap. Using chirp and the internet ( don’t wait until the SHTF to do this ) import useful frequencies for your location. Obvious 1st are the 22 UHF FRS and GMRS channels. After that, the 6 VHF unlicensed MURS channels. These 28 channels will provide for short distance communications. The NOAA Weather Alert should be downloaded, but I recommend “Skip” the majority of the channels that don’t come in in your area. Only 1 of the 10 NOAA Weather channels was useful in my location. I chose to import FRS/GMRS to CH# 1-22, then the MURS to CH#25-29, Local 2m repeaters to 30+, NOAA to 40+, Public Safety to 50+. This was completely arbitrary, but is an example of how flexible Chirp is.
Loading Repeater Settings. [ Radio ], [ Import from Data Source ], [ Repeater Book ], [ Repeater Proximity ]. Enter Zip Code and 2 Meter.
Chirp Field – Duplex : For 2 Meter repeaters, the listed frequency is for Receiving. The offset for Transmitting to the repeater must be specified as “+”, “-” or “OFF”. “OFF” is used to prevent Transmit, if you don’t have a Ham license, change the default to “OFF”. Otherwise, the Chirp internet database for each station should fill in the appropriate “+” or “-” offset direction and the actual MHz offset ( typically 1.0 or 0.6 MHz ).
Chirp Field – Tone Mode and Tone : The CTCSS ( Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System ) inserts a low frequency inaudible tone on all transmissions that controls the squelch on receivers. For 2m repeaters, the Tone Mode is typically “Tone” and the tone frequency varies from repeater to repeater ( examples, 110.9, 103.5, 179.9, 123.0 Hz ). If set incorrectly, you won’t hear others and they won’t hear you. You will still be transmitting of course, but the squelch system won’t detect you and turn on the receiver’s speaker.
Chirp Field – Mode : “FM” or “NFM” – This sets the transmitter deviation and receiver IF bandwidth. “FM” is 5 kHz, “NFM” is 2.5 kHz. 2m repeaters seem to be “FM”, FRS/GMRS seem to be “NFM”.
About IRLP : IRLP is a Voice-over-IP service that links together some 2m repeater stations using the Internet. For example, a IRLP enabled 2m network may connect multiple repeaters connecting areas like Washington State, Oregon State and British Columbia Canada together.
[ Scanning Channels ]
To automatically scan all loaded channels, press the [*-Scan] button. Press [ EXIT ] to stop a scan. The Chirp “Skip” field is used to remove a channel from the scan list, but still leave it accessible via [ v / ^ ] buttons.
[ Channel Display ]
A REALLY annoying feature of the UV-5R is that it has a 2-two line display, but doesn’t display both Name and Frequency for the Channel you are on. The UV-5R is always listening to both a Band-A and Band-B selected channel. Line-1 is fixed for Band-A, Line-2 for Band-B. By default, both are displayed as Frequencies. To toggle between the two. [ Menu ], [ 22 ], [ Menu ], [ v ] ( until desired Name or Freq ), [ Menu ], [ Exit ]. Recommendation, Utilize the Dual-Band capability of the UV-5R to display Frequency for Band-A and Name for Band-B. Toggle between A/B ( Blue [A/B] button ) and change freq so the CH# matches. Now you see both channel name and frequency for that channel. Also, disable the annoying computer voice with Menu,14,Menu,Off,Menu,Exit. The whole A/B thing is a bit confusing. In reality, it is kind of like the “Previous” button on a TV-Remote, allowing you to rapidly toggle between two channels.
[ FM Radio ]
Press the Red [ CALL ] button on the left to toggle in and out of FM Radio mode. When in FM mode, direct frequencies can be dialed in, for example 97.300. Transmitting isn’t allowed, but the UV-5R makes for a handy little FM radio receiver for news broadcasts in your local area.
That is it for now. Within a few hours of receiving my BaoFeng UV-5R I am able to communicate with an old FRS ‘blister pack’ radio I had and this morning listened to a daily 7am IRLP connected 2m repeater networks spanning between Oregon State, Washington State and British Columbia, Canada. Conversation wasn’t all that interesting, mostly the weather, and football games – but the point was – it worked. Chirp + BaoFeng UV-5R is a handy addition for any “prepper” kit for when Power and the Internet goes out.
TODO: 146.520 MHz FM is a simplex calling frequency, similar to Marine VHF CH16. A frequency to briefly establish communication then move off to other simplex frequency for QSO. The National Call Channel. It’s a simplex, or direct radio-to-radio channel. No repeaters or tones involved.
Cheat Sheet from W7APK
Another good guide.
SHTF Survival guide.
KBARA Amateur Repeater Association.
Find your local Ham test location and get your license.
Chirp setup on a Mac tutorial.
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