There has recently been an upsurge in the availability of cheap, imported two way radios on sites like Amazon and eBay. These radios offer a lot of the same functionality as more expensive radios, but at a fraction of the price. The most popular of these is the Baofeng UV-5R, which currently sells for less than $25 on Amazon. Ham radio has bifurcated into "love 'em" and "hate 'em" camps, but what about the use of this radio in emergency management and response?
The first thing to note is that that you should not use one of these radios as a primary radio, for any one of a number of reasons including that it is not Part 90 certified by the FCC (meaning it can't be used legally to transmit on public safety VHF and UHF frequencies), is not waterproof, and you really don't want to rely on a $25 radio in an emergency. But that doesn't mean it's not useful to have one. Here are some things you can do with a UV5R:
- Monitor local VHF or UHF public safety frequencies. If your agencies are still on analog VHF/UHF, the radio can act as a cheap "scanner" to monitor these frequencies, for instance to be alerted about Fire or EMS dispatches. Since the radio can do "dual watch", i.e. monitor two frequencies at once, this is a good way to simply scan two frequencies - or you can set up a larger scan list. Just remember to program the frequencies as receive-only.
- Monitor local Skywarn, ARES and RACES. The radios can legally be used on amateur (ham) frequencies, and the radio nicely covers the 2m and 70cm bands used by most Skywarn groups. If you are a licensed ham, you can also transmit on these frequencies
- Maybe use it to set off your tornado warning sirens by programming in the frequency and using the DTMF keypad. Unfortunately if this works, it also means anyone else with a Baofeng can do this (see this article), so you would then probably want to change your system!
- Listen to NOAA Weather Radio. Unfortunately you can't use SAME codes to have it alert for weather events, but you can listen to the NOAA Weather Radio frequencies if you need to.
- Use it as a regular FM radio. It turns out the UV-5R includes a great little FM radio, and we all know that FM radio might be our last remaining way of receiving information in a big disaster!