It is Legal to Use Illegal Radio Frequencies in an Emergency
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 RadioReference.com, 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.