It is Legal to Use Illegal Radio Frequencies in an Emergency

A great value versatile radio that gives you access to many additional frequencies.
A great value versatile radio that gives you access to many additional frequencies.

You almost certainly know that the FCC has very stringent restrictions and requirements about what frequencies you can transmit on, and severe penalties it imposes on people who fail to observe these limitations.  But did you know that the FCC waives all such restrictions in emergencies?

If you find yourself in a true emergency situation – such as we prepare for – then if you’re a licensed ham operator, you can use pretty much any frequencies at all in order to conduct emergency communications.

The FCC Regulations in Subpart E of Part 97 relate to the use of amateur radio equipment provide special dispensation in emergencies :

§ 97.403   Safety of life and protection of property.

No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

§ 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.

In other words, at least as it applies to already licensed ham operators, if there’s an emergency, you can communicate on any frequency, in any form, if you have the capabilities and equipment to do so.

Note there is no similar dispensation for GMRS/MURS/FRS/CB radio users, and it is largely absent from regular ‘radio telephone’ type commercial radio operators also.  This provision to communicate in any manner and means extends only to licensed ham radio operators, in part because they are more likely to have flexible equipment at hand and the knowledge about how to use it in a non-standard manner, and in part because ham operators have traditionally been called on to provide emergency communication services.

So if you are a ham operator, your communications flexibility becomes very much greater WTSHTF.  We suggest you plan for this and use it accordingly.

Going Off-Band to Avoid Congestion

Most of the short-range ham frequencies are fairly uncongested most of the time, because most hams seldom use their radios, and because the short-range nature of VHF/UHF communications mean multiple people can be using the same frequency, as long as there is sufficient distance between them so they don’t interfere with each other (the same concept as how cell phones work).  But this is likely to change in an emergency, particularly when cell phones stop working, and it is reasonable to expect anywhere from a ten-fold to a one-hundred fold increase in radio traffic by ham operators.

Ham frequencies that have longer ranges are and will be even more congested, due to a single user on one frequency potentially blocking out all other users on that frequency across the country, maybe even across the globe.  There will of course be requirements for longer range communications in a Level 2/3 situation as well as short-range tactical communications, and we’ll discuss the best way to handle these needs in a subsequent article.

The massive increase in the number of hams suddenly wanting to use their radios will make for very busy/congested airwaves, and just like a busy freeway ends up carrying fewer cars because the traffic starts to slow down, making the situation worse; the congestion on the radio waves will make things very difficult, with lots of people transmitting over the top of other people, causing for repeated retransmissions, adding still further to the congestion and hassle.

On the other hand, some of the other frequencies currently allocated to other types of services will free up, and may have never been used much to start with, and/or might have been in use by devices with only a very limited range, and in places far enough from you as to allow you to ‘share’ the same frequency without interference.  For example, the mall security at the shopping mall on the other side of the metroplex might have some frequencies allocated to it, but if you’re more than a few miles away from the mall, you could use those frequencies without any problems from the low-powered hand-held sets in use at the mall.

Overall, the entire radio spectrum ‘from DC to daylight’ is more or less fully allocated, but that’s not to say that some parts of the spectrum won’t be more available than others in an emergency.  Here’s an interesting chart which shows, as of August 2011, how the total radio spectrum has been allocated (this is the most recent chart currently available, as of July 2013), and here’s a slightly more detailed table showing the same data plus some additional information about uses, too.

But what does it mean when you see a block of frequencies allocated to, eg, ‘Mobile’?  That’s a very general term that could mean just about any sort of commercial use.

There’s another useful way of getting a feeling for what frequencies are being used for in your area, and that’s to go to a site such as, and click through to your state and your county, and then you’ll see lists of frequency allocations.  There are also scanner guide books that list frequencies and who has been assigned them in even greater detail.

The Official Ham Frequencies

For the purpose of short-range tactical communications (ie basically line of sight) you will want to use VHF or UHF equipment.  HF equipment has longer range and requires larger antennas, and anything with higher than UHF frequencies is too specialized for most general purposes and the equipment needed not so freely available or affordable.

In other words, you want equipment that operates from about 50 MHz up to about 1000 MHz.  Within this range, the most common ham bands are :

  • 6 Meters ie 50.0 – 54.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 2 Meters ie 144.0 – 148.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 1.25 Meters ie 219.0 – 220.0 MHz and 222.0 – 225.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 70 Centimeters ie 420.0 – 450.0 MHz (UHF)
  • 33 Centimeters ie 902.0 – 928.0 MHz (UHF)

The most commonly used frequencies (ie the frequencies with the most readily available and affordable equipment) are the 2 meter and 70 cm bands.

Some inexpensive ham equipment covers not just the official 2 meter band, but a broader range (typically about 140 – 170 MHz), and some of the equipment for the 70cm band goes much wider too (from about 400 – 500 MHz).

Choosing the Best Alternate Frequencies

There are two simple things to consider when choosing the best alternate frequencies.  The first is to choose frequencies which truly are empty and unlikely to be monitored.  The second is to match the frequencies to your equipment capabilities of course.

Depending on where you’re located, a useful block of frequencies to consider using would be the maritime frequencies.  Here’s a list of the VHF maritime frequencies.  If you’re more than ten miles or so from the water or a navigable river, then these frequencies are probably sitting empty.  However, we’d recommend you don’t use the Chanel 16 or 70 emergency channels.

If you’re not close to any railroad, then their frequencies are probably massively unused too.  Here’s a list.

On the other hand, marine radios are not uncommon, and many people like to listen to train frequencies if they think there will be trains in their area.

Generally, the ‘best’ frequencies will be ones very close to ham bands for which you already have suitable antennas for.

If you are going to a non amateur assigned frequency, you should listen very carefully to make sure the channel is truly free and that you’re not interfering with someone else’s legitimate use/need for the frequency that has been assigned to them.

One more possibility is to use non-standard frequencies.  If you’re looking at a part of the radio frequency spectrum that normally has 25 kHz spacing between frequencies, why not use a frequency that is halfway between two standard frequencies, and if you switch to narrow FM, you’d be able to carry on your communications on that intermediate frequency and possibly not even be detected by, be interfered by, or in turn interfere with, people using the regular frequencies.

There’s no way of knowing, in advance, what frequencies other hams mightn’t ‘take over’ and claim as their own as well, so you’ll have to hunt around the dial until you find a relatively unused chunk of spectrum that you can use.

Make Sure You Have Flexible Equipment

So, in theory, in a genuine emergency situation, you are free to use any frequencies and any power levels you wish.  That’s great, but what if your radio gear only works on the exact ham bands and nowhere else?  There’s a very good chance that might be the case.

It is common for amateur radio gear to be capable of receiving over a broad range of frequencies, but to be very tightly restricted to only being able to transmit on official FCC approved amateur frequencies.

However, there are some exceptions to this – for example, the AnyTone AT-5888UV (pictured at the start of this article) is a very nice VHF/UHF mobile radio (and suspiciously very similar to much more expensive Yaesu radios…..) that is capable of transmitting not just in the narrowly defined 2m and 70cm bands, but more broadly over a range from 136 – 174 MHz and from 400 – 490 MHz.  Amazon sells it for under $300.

The lovely little Baofeng UV-5R handheld radios have a similar capacity, transmitting from 136 – 174MHz and 400 – 480 MHz (or possibly even to 520 MHz).  Amazon sell them for under $40 each.

Make Sure You Have Appropriate Antennas

Your antenna is probably ‘tuned’ for a narrow band of frequencies.  It will most efficiently transmit and receive at a particular frequency, which is usually in the middle of its designed frequency band, and will work successively less well the further away from that particular frequency you are working on.

If you are going to be working in non-official frequencies, and if the non-official frequencies are more than a few percent away from the official frequency band the antenna was designed for, you might want to consider modifying the antenna to retune it for best performance at the new frequency band.

Modifying an antenna most simplistically means making it longer if your frequency is getting lower, and making it shorter if your frequency is getting higher.  You would use a SWR meter to help find the sweet spot where the SWR is lowest (see our article about installing and tuning antennas for more information on how to do this).


It is likely that the official ham bands will be very congested WTSHTF.  Fortunately, it is lawful for licensed ham operators to use any other frequencies they can in valid emergency situations.

Accordingly you should buy radio equipment that is capable of transmitting and receiving outside of the ham bands, and you should research the other frequencies to find little used frequencies that you could switch to for emergency communications in a future scenario.

Make sure you have antennas optimized for these frequencies.

13 Replies to “It is Legal to Use Illegal Radio Frequencies in an Emergency”

  1. Phil Briggs

    Emergencies we prepare for? The ones I’m thinking of, there won’t be any alphabet agencies to regulate or enforce anything.

    • David Spero

      Hi, Phil

      You’ve probably read that when the world ends, the only thing that will survive will be cockroaches. Allow me to add a second category of survivor – government officials. 🙂

      More seriously, it is true that the FCC and other three letter agencies may be incapacitated and over-tasked at the onset of an emergency, but it is also likely that all the ‘continuity of government’ arrangements will see them bounce back, and then they’ll be part of the ‘conspiracy’ (I use the term loosely) of officials to take away anything/everything they can from people who have things, and keep such things for themselves – or, if you prefer the more politically correct description, distribute it to the needy.

      Here’s a good article/starting point for research on the US ‘Continuity of Operations Plan’ :

      We talk about the need to stay on the right side of the law a bit here :

      The bottom line is this. You open yourself up to all sorts of vulnerabilities if you break the law, even if you think there no longer is any law. The new version of the law is likely to be a lot harsher than the current version of the law.

      Maybe there is no law for some period of time WTSHTF, but when it returns/resumes, you’ll discover that the statute of limitations does not cover many things and those which are covered are probably still within the period within which you can be prosecuted.

  2. n4aof

    Don’t let anyone try to tell you that 97.403 is a Get Out Of Jail Free Card that lets you use any equipment on any frequency in an “emergency” — It does NOT!

    1) Note that 97.403 never mentions the words disaster or emergency — instead it spells out exactly the conditions that must be met before it applies — and ALL those conditions must be met. The communications must be ESSENTIAL to the IMMEDIATE safety of human life and IMMEDIATE protection of property, AND ONLY WHEN NO “normal communication systems” are available. And even when all those conditions are met, remember that 97.403 applies ONLY to “use by an amateur station” the instant you tune that ham rig outside the ham bands you are no longer an “amateur station” but have suddenly become an unlicensed, unauthorized, pirate radio station violating the rules of whichever radio service the frequency actually belongs to.

    2) Each service has its own rules for emergency communications. NONE of the other services have anything even close to 97.403. In fact the vast majority of services are covered under the general emergency communications rule 2.405 “Operation During Emergency” which says: “The licensee of any station (except amateur, standard broadcast, FM broadcast, noncommercial educational FM broadcast, or television broadcast) may, during a period of emergency in which normal communication facilities are disrupted as a result of hurricane, flood, earthquake, or similar disaster, utilize such station for emergency communication service in communicating in a manner other than that specified in the instrument of authorization: Provided: ”

    “(d) That in no event shall any station engage in emergency transmission on frequencies other than, or with power in excess of, that specified in the instrument of authorization or as otherwise expressly provided by the Commission, or by law”

    The bottom line is that you should forget about anyone telling you that violating the normal rules is ok in an “emergency” — There might be a once in a lifetime situation where you would choose to break the rules to save your own life or someone else’s life – but if you are going to make that decision it better be for a once in a lifetime situation that you are willing to lose all your radio licenses and all your radio gear.

    • David Spero


      Thanks for adding your thoughts on one of the two sections that I discuss. In reality we are more of like mind than in disagreement, but I’ll point out the small differences between us for the benefit of allowing other readers to form their own opinion.

      First, you are totally silent on the second section I cite, which applies to ‘a station in distress’. That seems like a fairly broad situation allowing people to break the rules that would otherwise be in effect, and if your very restrictive interpretation of the first section is correct (and I don’t accept that it is) then this much more liberal second section would then give people the ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card needed.

      Second, who among us does not believe that WTSHTF we will all be facing immediate threats to the lives of perhaps ourselves or of our loved ones or of others around us, and to property every which way?

      So I don’t think the need to meet the requirement for an immediate threat will be a problem.

      Your point about ‘when no other communication systems are available’ – is fair and something I’d assumed. Even the most dedicated ham would surely first reach for a landline or cell phone in an emergency – I sure know I would. My point, perhaps expressed unclearly, is that when nothing else works, use whatever you’ve got in your ‘shack’.

      Third, you suggest that transmitting off a ham frequency means you’re no longer a ham and the provision no longer applies. I’m sorry, I have to disagree. What is the point of the provision if it means – as you suggest – ‘in an emergency, you can transmit on any frequency you like, as long as it is a ham frequency’. Isn’t that something we can do, anyway? If your interpretation is to hold, what does ‘any means of radiocommunication at its disposal’ actually mean? You seem to be suggesting that it means any means of (only ham) radiocommunication, but that’s not what it says. Surely ‘any’ means ‘any’? 🙂

      Fourth, you cite the ‘Operation During Emergency’ provision but you also agree that it does not apply to ham operators. Who cares about other types of radio operators – this article is all about ham operators. So your point is?

      As for me, my bottom line is that in an emergency (okay, yes, in an emergency involving the immediate safety of human life and protection of property) I’ll definitely be using any means of communication at my disposal, and feeling completely justified in doing so.

      Thanks again for providing an additional perspective.

      • n4aof

        Being a “Station in Distress” is an extraordinarily rare occurrence. While “Distress” is not specifically defined in Part 97, the general legal definition of the word as used here would refer to immediate danger to life or property — not “someone might come shoot me” but rather “someone IS shooting at me right NOW”. 99% of “what we prepare for” does not rise to the legal level of an immediate threat. Actually, avoiding that immediate threat is a major reason we do prepare.

        As for what using “any means of communications” would mean without going outside the ham band, it would include using voice on a CW only frequency, using one of the Extra class frequencies while holding only a Tech class license; and since it refers to the station not the operator, it would even include an unlicensed person using a licensed ham station.

        “when normal communication systems are not available” does not just mean you can’t get a dialtone on your landline or don’t have enough bars on your cellphone — if you have a ham radio in your hand and you tune it to the local police frequency to call for help, you could find that you have a hard time convincing a federal judge that you could not have called for help on a ham frequency and reached someone and that no one else in the area had access to any legal means of communication.

        If we are talking a genuine TEOTWAWKI situation all of this discussion about rules is moot because there ain’t gonna be no FCC to come fine us $10,000 per day for illegal operation. BUT while we are still living in the real world, the bottom line remains that a ham license is not the total Get Out Of Jail Free card that some hams like to claim it is.

        I addressed 97.403 rather than 97.405 for a couple of reasons:

        1) It is cited much more often — largely because even those who think that “anything goes in an emergency” generally recognize that actually being the station in distress is far less likely than being somehow involved in an ’emergency’. As such they expect to rely on 97.403, not 97.405.

        2) Remember that I had said “There might be a once in a lifetime situation where you would choose to break the rules to save your own life or someone else’s life” — that is the time when you might try to argue that you are covered by 97.405 and manage to keep a straight face while saying it.

    • Jeff Howell

      N4AOF is correct. Don’t rely on the FCC rules to save you if you find yourself in a situation in which you thing you’re OK transmitting out-of-band in a safety-of-life incident. There are situations in which hams have been prosecuted for doing so, which included surrendering their equipment. Don’t rely on the FCC to save you in these situations. In most incidents, they will find every way possible to find you in the wrong.

  3. Jordan

    I think most people would be too busy eliminating an immediate threat to be using a radio, other than tactical unit communications if you’re lucky enough to not be on your own.

  4. TexasScout

    Most of what I would have said has been covered by N4AOF. Example: You are out on the highway and you see an accident. You have a modified VHF that will transmit on your local sheriff’s offices frequency. So you dial it up and call the dispatcher. Yet right there next to you is a cell phone. You butt is in for a VERY hefty fine and maybe even jail time. How ever, if you go off a cliff, hurt yourself and are unable to walk out and have a radio, if after calling on all frequencies allowed by your license class, you reach no one, AND you have no cell contact, you would be allowed to call. If you are out in the sticks and see a sheriffs deputy that has had an accident and is unable to call in, you would be in less trouble by using HIS radio than using YOURS on their frequency.

    • David Spero

      Not to put words in your mouth, but it seems that while you say you agree with N4AOF, you actually cite examples supporting my claim that the FCC provisions DO allow you to use non-ham frequencies in emergencies. 🙂

      • TexasScout

        In a word, yes.

        As long as you meet the criteria set forth in the rules, you may use “un-certificated” equipment on business and public safety frequencies.

        But, still expect to catch a world of sh*t for it.

  5. n4aof

    One factor that adds to the confusion is that there is a small but significant gray area between what the regulations state and what the FCC tends to prosecute. For one thing, the FCC rarely takes any action except in response to a complaint, and that complaint has to come from someone with legal standing to complain. Occasionally the FCC will find violations through their routine monitoring or as a result of the violation being publicized, but far far far more often they only find violations that they are looking for in response to a complaint.

    In the case of illegal “emergency” communications, generally the complaint has to come from whoever is supposed to be on the frequency that was used. If you use a police frequency to call the cops, they may or may not complain to the FCC. If they do complain, the FCC will almost always take action. If they don’t complain, then action by the FCC is a lot less likely. Usually those cases where the FCC takes action are either instances that did not rise to the legal level of an “emergency” or where other means of communication were available. Hams have most certainly been fined for illegal use of modified ham radios to contact the police to report a crime, when no one’s life has been in immediate danger. Similarly, hams have been fined when other (legal) means of communications were available but not used.

    The FCC lawyers make it a point to NOT give opinions on hypothetical questions. Others who occasionally represent the FCC in talking with the public are sometimes willing to offer their personal opinions, which they will tell you do not reflect any official policy, and even then they are typically very careful what they will and won’t say. A typical comment about 97.403 & 97.405 is along the lines of: We would be unlikely to take action against any reasonable action in an actual emergency. THAT is a lot broader than the actual limits of the rules, but you will notice that nothing in it says that they won’t prosecute. I do not recall ever seeing a case where the FCC took action against a violator who was the “station in distress” in an actual emergency – I wouldn’t want to count on it never happening, but the situation of being a “station in distress” in an actual emergency is so fantastically rare that there simply aren’t a lot of opportunities for test cases.

    If the case did go to court, from a legal standpoint, you would probably have a better chance using a “lesser evil” defense under common law rather than relying on 97.403 as a magic Get Out Of Jail Free card.

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