80/20 Rule for Emergency Radios

Just wondering how others apply the 80/20 rule to emergency radios (both hardware and skills), keeping in mind that what constitutes 20% preparation for 80% of scenarios can and will vary from person to person.

I would breakdown the levels of preparation as follows:

  1. Owning a good quality one-way radio:  AM/FM/NOAA and, maybe shortwave
  2. Owning an inexpensive VHF/UHF/FM/NOAA Ham radio for purposes of receiving and monitoring emergency broadcasts but only transmitting in the case of a bona-fide emergency, meaning no ham license.
  3. All of the above + a Ham technician license.  Financially inexpensive but definitely a time commitment to study for and pass the licensing test.  Perhaps additional time invested in honing the skillset via involvement in CERT, ARES, etc.
  4. Ham general license or above + necessary equipment to use that level of licensing — sky is the limit in terms of expense, acquiring equipment, and practicing and honing the skillset.

Depending on a variety of factors, the 20% threshold could be as low as #1 for some and as high as #3 for others.  For me, personally #2 probably meets or exceeds the 20% threshold and #3 (which I’m currently working towards) definitely exceeds the 20% threshold, perhaps bringing me closer to 95/25.  Honestly, the bar for moving from #2 to #3 is pretty low for all except the most technically challenged so, I think, definitely worth pursuing.  #4 is a much bigger commitment, mainly on the financial side so clearly in the realm of advanced prepping, perhaps the inverse of 80/20.

Just my initial thoughts. 


  • Comments (24)

    • 5

      Hi CJ.

      I’d just add to No 1:

      • Have alt. power even if it is a funky windup SW or battery weather radio (bigtime EAS alerts from state and fed can come over both cell and NOAA radios).
      • Print out a list of frequencies, FEMA, nat guard, NOAH etc. There are all sorts, here are a few… and some more. If you don’t know the freq. you’re not gonna find anything, so practice finding some and program your listener ahead of time if you can
      • 2

        Thanks for weighing in, Pops!  I would argue that both of these things–alt power and a list of frequencies–should be standard preps at any of these levels.  And, for higher levels, knowing how to reprogram your radio is a must.  No guarantee that CHIRP or similar will be available when the grid goes down.

    • 3

      There could be a level “1.5” especially for families or couples: Purchase a pair of FRS radios. For those who aren’t familiar with these radios, they are like modern walkie-talkies: decent range, super easy to use and don’t require a license to operate. An FRS radio won’t replace the ham radio in your level 2, but a pair will still let a group split up yet stay in touch over short distances.


      • 3

        Great suggestion, Watermelon!  There are some nice, inexpensive GMRS radios that include comprehensive VHF/UHF reception–NOAA/HAM/MURS/FRS/GMRS/FM radio that would allow one to listen into pretty much any useful emergency communications taking place on VHF/UHF frequencies AND, if using the .5 watt setting, allow one to legally transmit on FRS channels.  With minimal additional financial commitment and no testing, one could also obtain a GMRS license which would allow legal TX on of up to 5 watts on the GMRS channels as well as access to any local repeaters that might be available.  All of which is well within the 80/20 rule.

    • 5

      Hi, Colorado. Great post. In my version of the 80/20 rule, I don’t plan to get an Amateur Extra license because I can’t foresee its added value.

      I want to add a comment on the financial side of things. If a person gets involved in ham communities, sometimes free equipment comes your way. My HF rig and the antenna and all the labor to install the antenna was at no cost because the widow of a “silent key” just wanted the equipment to go to a good home, and the person who knew her and who donated the antenna and labor knew me (just barely).

      Because I’m involved in the local emergency response group (the group is just getting off the ground, really), I’m going to be given additional equipment at no charge. It’s apparently going to include interoperability with public service folks. 

      Another reason to get one’s General license to be able to use HF is to use an inexpensive interface between the radio and a computer to get into digital HF. Using that device (less than $150) and Winlink software, I will be able to send email over HF radio waves, no internet needed. There is still some infrastructure that’s needed in the wider world far away, as well as a battery or other power source to run the computer and radio. I’m not planning for a total grid down, internet down forever scenario, but rather more localized and temporary outages.

      Another reason to get into amateur radio and into ideally more than one local group is because you brush shoulders with people of other political opinions. It prevents me from staying in a political opinion bubble. Knowing how others are thinking is part of being prepared. They can’t demonize me, and I can’t demonize them as readily because we have a bit of a relationship. If I was ever in their neck of the woods and in trouble, I wouldn’t hesitate to drop their names or to ask for help from them. A bit of a tangent, but in my mind it’s related.

      Thanks again for the topic.

      • 2

        Thanks for sharing this wonderful tip on free equipment, Seasons4!  

        I still think that, per my categories above, general license or higher is beyond the scope of the 80/20 rule.  However, you’ve clearly shown that in some instances, it doesn’t have to be a huge leap beyond your 20% preps.  I’m guessing that, for someone whose really motivated to get involved in Ham at the general level and willing to put in some time and effort shopping around, there are some affordable options for used equipment as well.

    • 1

      I am at level #3 myself, and being in it now I would say that you can do just fine with being at level #1 or even #0. Sure radios are nice to be able to communicate and receive weather forecasts or current events, but for the beginner prepper who is trying to figure out what to focus on starting out, do the things that will keep you alive like healthy food, clean water, reliable fire, and secure and warm shelter.

      Once you get those basics down start out with radio level #1 and see how you feel. For $25 get a cheap Baofeng ham radio and easily bump up to #2 and listen in on some things. The technician’s exam is not too hard or expensive so it’s easy to bump it up to level #3 in the future if you want. 

      • 2

        Thanks, Robert!  It sounds like you concur that level #3 is beyond the scope of the 80/20 rule.  Your analysis is a great reminder that, unlike some areas of prepping, emergency radio coms are something that can be done incrementally as time and budget allow.  And, perhaps, should not be the very first area of focus for someone getting started on 80/20 preps.

      • 1

        You are welcome Mr. Jones! What level are you at and where do you think you will end up?

      • 2

        Hi, Robert!  I’m currently at level #1, owning a portable, battery-powered AM/FM/NOAA radio.  I am slowly chiping away at the ARRL technician license manual and within the next month or so hope to pass the technician test and purchase a handheld VHF/UHF radio.  As far as equipment and licensing, I don’t anticipate going any further, but who knows?  As far as skillset, I might eventually get involved with my local ARES group.  For now, I’m mostly interested in accessing my state’s extensive amateur repeater network, which hosts some pretty robust emergency services activity.  As we move into wildfire season, I figured it would be helpful to access this network, particularly while camping in places off the cell phone grid.

      • 1

        Good luck with your technician’s exam. ARES is fun, I was a little overwhelmed by all the jargon and radio knowledge being thrown about, but they are a great group of people and would love to help you out if you just ask. 

        Ask your ARES group for lists of repeaters, nets to listen to, and other frequencies to tune into during an emergency. 

    • 3

      Good luck with your test! I found myself a year and a half ago looking into ham radio, and now find myself at your level 4! It has been a very enjoyable hobby and the education just studying for the different licenses has been very rewarding. I agree 100% with at least visiting and going to local ham clubs. This is how I managed to get into hf radio with a minimum investment and some sweat equity (work for a radio as payment). The education pays off with the knowledge of building antennas that perform as well or better than some high dollar offerings from the big name stores. I know several people who have their technician license and are completely happy with it, and I also know some who have their Extra license and communicate via satellite repeaters timing their pass in orbit and adjusting for doppler shift…. it can be a rabbit hole (or money pit) but it can also be a rewarding hobby with the added benefit of short and long range communication. I guess the 80/20 part would also depend on how much a priority comms and information gathering ability is to the individual prepper. 73, and hope to catch you on the air some day.

      • 1

        “. . . and the education just studying for the different licenses has been very rewarding.”

        I would agree.  Not having a particularly strong background in math or science, I’ve found studying the exam to be both intellectually stimulating but, also, very practical in lots of ways beyond amateur radio.  A lot of the basic electrical concepts, for example, are immediately helpful in tinkering with the electrical system in my pop up trailer as well as, someday (pursuing another prepping goal), building a microgrid for backup power.

    • 4

      For those who are considering stepping up to a ham radio license, I came across a recent presentation about the importance of ham radio during natural disasters. The presenter was Craig Fugate, former FEMA director and former Emergency Management Director for the state of FL. He was speaking to the Coastal Plains Amateur Radio Club in SE GA. (The blog with the full presentation and commentary is here: https://www.prc-77.com/2022/04/sage-advice.html)

      A couple of points really stood out to me:
      1) One of the first consequences of any disaster is that all commercial communications systems will be overloaded, particularly cell circuits. The cell sites may be up and functioning, but the demand will overwhelm them.
      2) All communications systems, regardless of how well they are hardened, have multiple points of failure. It’s not uncommon for EVERYTHING to fail. In fact, it happens with alarming regularity.
      3) Any communications infrastructure reliant on IP (internet protocol) – cell phones, VOIP, internet, etc. – is particularly vulnerable. Even commercial satellite phones at some point tie back to an IP-based ground system, and the connections will fail.
      4) Most local shelters are likely to have all of the communications capabilities they need. (That’s good news, at least!)
      5) Repeaters (the devices which give handheld radios their extended range) will fail and handheld-to-handheld communications will run into coverage issues very quickly. Being able to use the HF bands is far more important during emergencies. (And just for clarity: handheld radios do not transmit on HF bands. You would need a base station radio for that.)
      6) In a disaster, antennas are more vulnerable than radios. Have spares.
      7) Have backup power because generators fail with alarming frequency.

      The blogger summarized it this way: “Craig’s strong focus was on the use of HF for both local and long-haul communications…don’t rely on anything that has a high risk of failure (like repeaters). His perspective is interesting – he’s seen too many commercial and government communications systems fail during real world disasters, particularly IP-based systems. We can distill Craig’s guidance down to one simple statement: [emergency management] at all levels needs point-to-point communications systems that don’t rely on any infrastructure.”

      So this level 3 & 4 stuff, but clearly valuable.

      – WS

      • 3

        I’ve seen people recommend to get a satellite phone over ham radio but that is a good point that many of those can be reliant on ground based systems that may be offline during a disaster. 

      • 1

        Wow!  Really good stuff here.  Thanks for sharing. WS!

    • 4

      I just noticed the fee for a GMRS license was recently reduced by half to $35.

      GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) is basically a limited set of UHF frequencies and rules for use. On a GMRS radio these are “channelized” down to 20 channels, so instead of remembering to tune to 467.71250MHz, you just select channel 14. Because of this simplicity even the least tech-savy can operate one, after channel and tone are set it is simply “push to talk”.

      There is a similar “service” called Family Radio Service, yep, FRS. It operates on the same “channels” and can talk to GMRS operators and requires no license. The difference is FRS is limited to 2 watts power (1/2W on channels 8-14) while GMRS is allowed 5W on Ch. 1-7; 1/2W on Ch. 8-14; but then 50 W on channels 15-22.

      Even my handheld ham only has 5w.

      Although anyone can hear your conversation, on GMRS and FRS radios there is a “privacy tone” electronic feature that allows you to choose only to hear the person who has set their radio to the same channel and tone as you instead of every other yahoo chattering inanely into the aether. I’m pretty sure CBs still don’t have this feature, as well CBs are only allowed 4 watts power.

      Remember, with all this talk about Moar Power, that radio is usually line-of-sight no matter how powerful. Obstructions like buildings and trees and even (at a few miles) the curvature of the earth will degrade your signal but a little more umph is always better—more transmit power means more left after degradation and more amplification of weak signals.

      There is no test for the GMRS license and best of all, everyone related to the license holder is allowed to operate a radio on these channels. And the license is good for 10 years.

      One more advantage to GMRS is that repeaters are allowed. So just like ham groups set up special radios to automatically re-transmit signals to extend their reach, special GMRS repeaters can be used that retransmit on the same channel. Likely they are not as commonly available as ham units.

      Lots of handheld walkie-talkie type GMRS radios out there for <$100/pair. Midland has a 40W stationary unit for the venerable Bug Out Wheel Barrow for $275.

      First step is register with the FCC here (register as an individual for the GMRS lic, biz entities will be rejected later for this lic.)

      Then go to the license page with your new FCC Registration Number (not to be confused with your FEMA ReTraining Camp ID, Airline Watch List docket #, or Total Information Awareness target code)

      The GMRS license is at the very bottom of the drop-down list.

      Answer/fill-in/pay. The actual registration comes via email.

      (I went ahead and got the license since I was there, LOL. Guess I gotta buy a radio now!)

      • 2

        $35 for a 10 year license, can transmit up to 50W, and no testing required? That sure is a no brainer for many wanting to get some form of communication up but don’t have the time or desire to get a ham license.

        For $35, you could easily gift a family member or friend a licence and get them to join you as well so you can talk when needed.

      • 1

        Thanks, Pops!  That’s great news about the price reduction on the GMRS license. 

        Given that some of the better yet still fairly inexpensive GMRS handheld and mobile radios include comprehensive VHF/UHF reception–NOAA/HAM/MURS/FRS/GMRS/FM–that basically allows one to listen into pretty much any useful emergency communications taking place on VHF/UHF frequencies, there’s really no reason why this can’t be an option for someone’s 80/20 preps.  And, certainly, it fits with the spirit of option #2 that I described in my original post.

        GMRS repeaters, while not as widespread as ham repeaters, do exist in some areas.  The 130 mile long urban corridor where I live, for example, has solid GMRS repeater coverage which even includes an internet-linked repeater or two, tying our network into repeater networks in a couple of adjacent states.  While obviously, there are limits to this system, in particular, and GMRS, in general, it may well be a good starting point for many preppers, particularly those who live in areas with good repeater coverage.  And, of course, as pointed out elsewhere in The Prepared, there are quite a lot of benefits to having GMRS available for just simplex communications.

    • 4

      And one more…

      This guy’s video shows how, for $35, you can use a laptop to tune in any radio frequency. It is just a little USB dongle that is the receiver, an antenna and some software. He gets everything from police to airport traffic, commercial broadcasts, ham and GMRS, basically anything radio.

      • 1

        That would be a great little item to throw in a faraday bag along with a small laptop to listen out for anybody transmitting after a disaster. Gotta pick me up one of those!

      • 2

        And yet another great tool!  Do I correctly understand that this does not require the laptop to be connected to the internet?

      • 1

        As I understand, it is an actual radio. The “receiver” is in a USB dongle and attached antenna, the software does the tuning.

      • 1

        That was my question as well, but I don’t think it requires any internet connection, which is nice.

        And just for the fun of it, I’ll share some links to some internet based radio stations if you did have a connection and didn’t want to use a tuner: