Can I Use My Ham Radio on Public Safety Frequencies? Updated
This is an update to one of my most popular posts.
We have quite a few licensed radio amateurs that are members of public safety agencies, including fire departments, law enforcement agencies and search and rescue. Since they are authorized users of those public safety channels, they often ask this question:
Can I use my VHF/UHF ham radio on the fire, police or SAR channel?
It is widely known that many amateur radios can be modified to transmit outside the ham bands. The answer to this question used to be that amateur radio equipment cannot be used legally on public safety channels because it is not approved for use under Part 90 of the FCC Rules. (Part 90 covers the Private Land Mobile Radio Services.) The only option was to buy a commercial radio with Part 90 approval and a frequency range that covered the desired amateur band. Some commercial radios tune easily to the adjacent ham band but some do not. The commercial gear is usually two to three times as expensive as the amateur gear, and just as important, does not have the features and controls that ham operators expect. Usually, the commercial radios do not have a VFO and are completely channelized, typically changeable only with the required programming software.
The situation has changed dramatically in the past few years. Several wireless manufacturers in China (Wouxun, Baofeng, Anytone, etc.) have introduced low cost handheld transceivers into the US amateur market that are approved for Part 90 use. These radios offer keypad frequency entry and all of the usual features of a ham radio. It seems that these radios are a viable option for dual use: public safety and amateur radio, with some caveats.
New radios are being introduced frequently, so I won’t try to list them here. However, you might want to do a search on Wouxun, Baofeng and Anytone for the latest models. I will highlight the Anytone NSTIG-8R radio which I have been using. It seems to be a well-designed but still affordable (<$75) handheld radio. See the review by PD0AC.
Some Things to Consider When Buying These Radios
- The manufacturers offer several different radios under the same model number. Also, they are improving the radios every few months with firmware changes and feature updates. This causes confusion in the marketplace, so buy carefully.
- Make sure the vendor selling the radio indicates that the radio is approved for Part 90 use. I have seen some radios show up in the US without an FCC Part 90 label.
- Make sure the radio is specified to tune to the channels that you need.
- The 2.5-kHz tuning step is required for some public safety channels. For example, a 5-kHz frequency step can be used to select frequencies such as 155.1600 MHz and 154.2650 MHz. However, a 2.5 kHz step size is needed to select frequencies such as 155.7525 MHz. There are a number of Public Safety Interoperability Channels that require the 2.5-kHz step (e.g., VCALL10 155.7525 MHz, VCALL11 151.1375 MHz, VFIRE24 154.2725). The best thing to do for public safety use is to get a radio that tunes the 2.5-kHz steps.
- Many of these radios have two frequencies in the display, but only have one receiver, which scans back and forth between the two selected frequencies. This can be confusing when the radio locks onto a signal on one of the frequencies and ignores the other. Read the radio specifications carefully.
There are a number of reasonably good radios out there from various manufacturers. My favorite right now is the Anytone NSTIG-8R but I also like the Wouxun KG-UV6D. The Baofeng UV-5R continues to be popular in the amateur community as the low cost leader. However if you show up at an incident with the Baofeng, your fellow first responders will think it is a toy. Which leads to a really important point: the established commercial radio manufacturers such as Motorola, Vertex, etc. build very rugged radios. They are made for frequent, heavy use by people whose main job is putting out fires, rescuing people in trouble and dealing with criminals. These low cost radios from China are not in the same league. However, they can still serve in a less demanding physical environment while covering the Amateur Radio Service (FCC Part 97) and the Private Land Mobile Radio Services (FCC Part 90).
73, Bob K0NR
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Powerwerx has begun to target the public safety market directly with their line of Tera radios (http://www.tera.co). I know they’ve been attending trade shows like FDIC which is a very large firefighting conference. They’re aiming directly at Motorola, Kenwood and Vertex with their $150 radio, the Tera TR-590.
I assume the Tera TR-590 is made by one of the big Chinese manufacturers for Powerwerx. Does anyone know who makes it?
I’ve used one and I have to say they feel sturdier than the Wouxun radios I’ve used. The dual-receive feature with split volume knob is nice.
I know of volunteer departments that have been buying dozens at a time.
Matt, the TERA TR-590 is designed by TERA, which are the same guys that run Powerwerx, but manufactured in China (I’m not sure which plant – there are so many). They are definitely a cut above the Chinese brands. I bought a paid and liked them so much, I decided to start a little side-business (BetterSafeRadio) selling them for emergency use at a discount. I’m also offering custom programming and have several pre-programmed versions, as well as the TERA TR-505 (GMRS/MURS) and TR-500 (Part 90 also) radios and most TERA accessories, etc. I’m actually carrying the TR-590 now myself over my older VX-2R because it’s just easier to use and does a full 5 Watts on VHF. I also carry the TR-505 sometimes for GMRS/MURS use. I don’t want to spam the link here unless the site owner is okay with it, but you can probably figure it out from the name. 😉
I’ve been on the Fire Department for 27 years. Started with the GE PCS radios. Rugged, but batteries replaced each year at $100.00 each. Ouch. Now the Kenwood TK series. Rugged, reliable, and some batteries go back to 2004. But expensive. I am now using a Baofeng UV-5R+. Really inexpensive, easily programmed (free software), cheap batteries, lots of accessories. For a rural department, it works as well as the others we’ve used. If it isn’t rugged enough, fine. Replace for under $30.00.