Citizen Band Radio for Emergency Communications

Citizen Band Radio for Emergency Communications

Communicating effectively over a relatively large distance is of paramount importance during an emergency.  Unfortunately, many of the communication technologies we rely upon everyday may be unavailable or unreliable in the wake of a disaster.  Cellular service can be down, Internet access may be intermittent or completely unavailable, and the landlines can be jammed with traffic.  Two-way transceivers, on various frequency plans and radio services, are available to the average citizen for emergency communications.  Some, such as amateur radio, require a test be passed and a license maintained.  Others, like General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), require a license, but no testing is required.  There are some services, such as Citizen Band (CB) and Family Radio Service (FRS), that require no licensing to operate.  This article will focus on the Citizen Band (CB) radio service in the United States.  Many other societies, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have similar radio services.

Citizen Band is a short-distance (expect between 5 and 20 miles for higher power base units – which is still great for “in-town” communication), two-way, voice-only communications service for US citizens.  Unlike amateur radio, business activities may also be conducted on CB frequencies.  Amplitude modulation (AM) and single-sideband modulation (SSB) voice modes are permitted.  The CB service has an authorized 40 channels between 26.965 MHz and 27.405 MHz.  The maximum power output level is 4-watts for AM or 12-watts output  for single-sideband (SSB).  Since 1969, channel 9 (27.065 MHz) is the official channel for emergency and roadside assistance communication.

 

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Benefits for Emergency Communications Preparation:

  • Operating on the citizen band requires no licensing.  This is especially beneficial if a family has some members who are licensed, and some who are not, to operate on amateur bands when emergency communications is needed.
  • Citizen Band radio equipment is inexpensive and widely available – often at large discount chains or electronics stores.
  • The user interface is simple and intuitive on a CB radio.  For the most part, you selecting a frequency (channel), adjust the squelch level until static disappears, and then use the push-to-talk microphone to speak – easy enough to operate for those who have limited experience with transceivers.
  • CB radios come in various form factors to suit the application.  Some of these are:
    • Handheld units—These are walkie-talkies that are powered by batteries and may be carried on one’s person or on a bicycle. They are usually the units withe the lowest range and smallest antennas (shortest distance).
    • Mobile units—These transceivers are attached to a and powered by a car, truck, motorcycle, sailboat, recreational vehicle (RV), etc. These generally have more range than the handheld units and larger antennas.
    • Basestations—These are normally larger units, with additional features, that draw power from the home.  They also may be powered by a portable generator.  Many also have a frequency scanner. These are usually higher quality units, and can take advantage of more sophisticated antennas, sometimes allowing a reach of up to 30 miles or more.
  • Detachable or external antennas, ranging in size from very short handheld type “rubber duckies” to very large fixed installation antennas that are many meters long, may be utilized.  Some radio services, such as FRS, do not allow such antennas.
  • A family or other group can have a predefined channel or channels to check in on for emergency communications when an emergency occurs.
  • Many citizen band radios, particularly mobile units, also receive NOAA weather frequencies.
  • Some law enforcement agencies, particularly in rural areas, actively monitor citizen band for people in need of assistance.
  • Working with citizen band radios is a good way to become familiar with radio technology and operating procedures.  Many who are licensed amateur radio operators and/or are licensed radiotelephone operators “graduated” from citizen band.

Limitations of the Service

 

CB Radio Base Station for Emergency Communications

 

  • The power output level is lower than other services, such as the amateur radio bands and GMRS.  Aftermarket linear amplifiers, and related technologies designed to increase the output power, are illegal and, if caught being used, can result in serious fines – even when used for emergency communications.
  • There are only 40-channels, so the frequencies may be “crowded” in some locations.
  • Transmitting via AM (amplitude modulate) tends to be more noisy when compared to other modes.
  • Only voice transmissions are allowed.  Digital and other modes are not legal.
  • Due to the nature of the radio propagation characteristics on the CB channels, interference from operators many hundreds of miles away may occur.  The phenomenon is often referred to as “skip”.  While some enjoy talking to other operators from around the country (also know as “shooting skip”), this can be a liability during an emergency event.  The FCC rules also explicitly prohibit intentionally attempting to communicate with any CB station more than 155.3 miles (250 kilometers) away.

The more technical aspects of citizen band radio, such as installation and measuring standing wave ratio (SWR), are outside the scope of this article, but the information is available from the texts referenced below.

Sources

  1. Long, M., Crystal, B., & Keating, J. (1987). The World of CB Radio (3rd ed.). Summertown, TN, USA: Book Pub.
  2. Citizens Band (CB) Service. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2014, from http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/citizens-band-cb-service
  3. Ford, S. (2005). Emergency Communication Handbook (pp. 16-2). Newington, CT: American Radio Relay League.
  4. Enrico, S. (2014). How to Start a Hobby in CB Radio.
  5. Silver, H. (2011). Communicating in Emergencies. In Two-Way Radios and Scanners For Dummies. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley.
  6. Rules & Regulations for Title 47. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2014, from http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/rules-regulations-title-47
  7. What is Amplitude Modulation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2014, from http://www.radio-electronics.com/info/rf-technology-design/am-amplitude-modulation/what-is-am-tutorial.php
  8. 47 CFR 95.413 – (CB Rule 13) What communications are prohibited? (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2014, from http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/47/95.413

Zachariah Amela

Zachariah is a writer with Disaster.com and is an Information Technology professional. He has worked with and contributed to disaster relief organizations and has a strong interest in emergency management, wireless communications, Civil Defense, and family preparedness. He lives in the Pacific Northwest and is married with children. When not working or writing, he enjoys time with the family, hiking, trap/skeet shooting, and reading.

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Discussion
  1. We used to live in the middle of no where (literally we were 2 hours from a town with more than 1,000 people). Cell service was poor at best, and my husband and I felt so much better having the CB's available if we had car problems. Most people in the area had them for that reason and the police monitored the frequencies so it would have been our only way to get help. I have also used them for coordinating with my parents on camping trips.
    Citizen Band radio or CB radios as they are more commonly known are a great tool for communicating during an emergency. In my area, CB radios are used predominantly by crime watch groups and security companies. We've yet to experience any noticeable natural disaster apart from a nearby forest fire a few years ago. Because of this, I've yet to witness their first hand application but I'm certain that they are incredibly useful in such situations.
    My boyfriend insist that we have one. I understand that it is a good idea, but many of them are pretty pricey. However he wants us to have one so we are going to get one soon. Our property is miles from everything and everyone so having one would be smart just in case.
    I have wanted one for years. My family has cautioned me AGAINST getting one however due to my anxiety. I will have to save for my own! They think for me ignorance is bliss but I try to explain it is the opposite.
    I can't imagine that they would be very useful for the average person where I live. We don't have a lot of disasters to test that with though. I'm also not in a rural or under-served area.
    The CB had its heyday in the 1980s and I don't think it will have a comeback because the trend now is digital. The phone is getting better and better in terms of function and it is the best to be utilized in place of the CB radio for communication. Aside from the text and voice call, there are so many uses of the phone for communication - social media posting or private message, tweets, free calls, free texts, internet messenger, skype. The list is long. So for the fanciers of CB, that thing goes to the museum like the turntable and vinyl records.
    the topic is CB for emergency communications. Go ahead and use a cell phone for all those things during normal circumstances, but don't make the mistake of depending on it completely during a disaster. What are you going to do if cell service is knocked out, or if the circuits are overwhelmed by calls? You can mock CBs as old-fashioned if you want, but they will still work for emergency communications when cell phones fail. Although I prefer the options that ham radio allows, CBs do have the advantage of not requiring a license to operate and can still get the job done.
    Alexandoy
    The CB had its heyday in the 1980s and I don't think it will have a comeback because the trend now is digital. The phone is getting better and better in terms of function and it is the best to be utilized in place of the CB radio for communication. Aside from the text and voice call, there are so many uses of the phone for communication - social media posting or private message, tweets, free calls, free texts, internet messenger, skype. The list is long. So for the fanciers of CB, that thing goes to the museum like the turntable and vinyl records.


    I totally disagree with this statement ! While having a CB radio might not be necessary in every case, and for every day use the cell phone does replace about everything that you might use a CB for; there are still emergency situations where a CB can be a lifeline for you.

    When we had the tornadoes here in Alabama, most of the cell towers were also knocked over or destroyed enough not to function, and the ones that were working didn't help much because all of the traffic from people trying to use their cell phone.

    Since electricity was also knocked out, a base station that relied on electricity would not have worked either; but a mobile CB would have gotten through to emergency workers. Many people who were injured were unable to call for help because cell phones were not working.

    Another important issue with cell phone use is that you also have to be in an area that has good reception. This is also an issue with using a CB; but much less of a problem if you are within the range of the CB's capabilities.

    Suppose you are out camping, and the Jeep breaks down. You are out of cell phone reception area. You can't call for help. Actually, this can even happen if you break down along the highway in the middle of the night and need help. (I have had that happen to me, and the cell phone had no reception). With a CB, there is an emergency channel that you can use to call for help, as well as most law enforcement offices monitor the regular CB channels.

    If you also have a base station at home, and you are within range, you can even call there if you need help.

    Although cells phones meet most of our day to day needs for communication; there is certainly a good reason to also have a CB radio in your vehicle and/or your home as well, even of just for emergency purposes.
    Alexandoy
    The CB had its heyday in the 1980s and I don't think it will have a comeback because the trend now is digital. The phone is getting better and better in terms of function and it is the best to be utilized in place of the CB radio for communication. Aside from the text and voice call, there are so many uses of the phone for communication - social media posting or private message, tweets, free calls, free texts, internet messenger, skype. The list is long. So for the fanciers of CB, that thing goes to the museum like the turntable and vinyl records.


    In the cases of emergency, the CB radio is the best thing to have because in most cases.... cell phones no longer function. A CB radio works off of radio waves which are always present. A Cellphone works off of cell towers and satellites which can be destroyed during a disaster making the cell useless.
    fcphdJim
    the topic is CB for emergency communications. Go ahead and use a cell phone for all those things during normal circumstances, but don't make the mistake of depending on it completely during a disaster. What are you going to do if cell service is knocked out, or if the circuits are overwhelmed by calls? You can mock CBs as old-fashioned if you want, but they will still work for emergency communications when cell phones fail. Although I prefer the options that ham radio allows, CBs do have the advantage of not requiring a license to operate and can still get the job done.


    See, this is why I was thinking it would be good to have but my family thinks I just want it to try to listen in on things.
    KimberlyD


    In the cases of emergency, the CB radio is the best thing to have because in most cases.... cell phones no longer function. A CB radio works off of radio waves which are always present. A Cellphone works off of cell towers and satellites which can be destroyed during a disaster making the cell useless.


    Yes, I understand that when power is down - a blackout of the entire grid - would render cell sites inutile. However, I don't see any CBers now and the kids have seem to have all shifted to the smart phone. And as what @tcphd.Jim said that don't make the mistake of depending completely on the phone, that's what is happening now. In fact, I don't know how to use the CB radio myself.
    Alexandoy


    Yes, I understand that when power is down - a blackout of the entire grid - would render cell sites inutile. However, I don't see any CBers now and the kids have seem to have all shifted to the smart phone. And as what @tcphd.Jim said that don't make the mistake of depending completely on the phone, that's what is happening now. In fact, I don't know how to use the CB radio myself.


    Using a basic CB is pretty easy to learn, for just about anyone. If you ever played with a little walkie-talkie when you were a kid, you can learn to use a CB radio.

    For emergency purposes, it IS better to have a more sophisticated one, that has the upper and lower side-band channels on it; but even a handheld would work for a local emergency connect, and they can be kept charged up and ready to use. If you also have a solar power outlet for charging , then you would be able to keep the battery charged up and use it for as long as needed.

    Another (not as good; but better than nothing) idea, is to get one of the solar/battery/hand-crank radios that pick up the emergency channels and some of the ham radio channels. That way you could at least HEAR the emergency broadcasts that were put out, even if you could not communicate with anyone.

    Another great thing about a CB radio, is that you can hear what many other people are saying, whereas, with a cell phone, you only hear the person that you are calling. So, if you are traveling down the highway, and there is a traffic jam up ahead; listening to your CB will tell you if it is an accident, what the problem is, and maybe even , how long the delay will be.

    And if you have several cars of people traveling together, you can all communicate back and forth with each other and hear/respond to what everyone is saying.

    It is not that a cell phone or a CB has one that is better than the other. It is that they both have different functions in the field of communications.
    I was around during the 80s, and had friends who used them. I think a CB radio could be quite useful during an emergency situation, particularly here in my neck of the woods, where i don't even have a cell phone, since they rarely work here, and certainly couldn't be relied on in a catastrophe. Is there one particular brand and type that would be best (keeping a tight budget in mind), and the same for a solar charger? I don't have the hand/wrist strength to hand crank anything, so solar or battery-powered would probably be my best options.
    I think they are useful, especially for people in less populous areas. They're not used too much in my town because of the population and cell towers but hunters in the area uses them frequently. Having something is better than having nothing.
    Alexandoy


    Yes, I understand that when power is down - a blackout of the entire grid - would render cell sites inutile. However, I don't see any CBers now and the kids have seem to have all shifted to the smart phone. And as what @tcphd.Jim said that don't make the mistake of depending completely on the phone, that's what is happening now. In fact, I don't know how to use the CB radio myself.


    Actually CB radios are located in every police station, military installation, and truckers rely on them. Government offices also have CB radios as well as fire stations and hospitals. CB radios are more common then you would believe and are required by the larger portion of disaster relief organizations.
    That's comforting to hear , since there is an unmanned volunteer fire station here in my neighborhood, as well as at least a few of the volunteers, so perhaps we've already got a few CB radios throughout the area. I'm still going to look into them and see if I can figure out a decent one to buy at some point in the future.
    Diane Lane
    That's comforting to hear , since there is an unmanned volunteer fire station here in my neighborhood, as well as at least a few of the volunteers, so perhaps we've already got a few CB radios throughout the area. I'm still going to look into them and see if I can figure out a decent one to buy at some point in the future.


    Diane, even a basic handheld CB would be a great help, and since you live in a large metropolitan area, I am sure that there are a great many people (and emergency workers) who have CB radios.

    As pointed out, most all of the law enforcement departments monitor the CB channels, and usually have a radio in the patrol car, where they could answer and talk to you immediately if you had an emergency.

    The starting price for a handheld would be around $50; and for $100, you can get a much better one. Look on Amazon (Disaster.com has an Amazon shopping link; so if you use that, it also benefits the forum, and doesn't cost you anything to do that).

    Amazon always has some great buys on just about every thing. They have an emergency unit from Midland that has radio/flashlight/usb phone charger, as well as interactive CB communications. It can be powered by electricity, batteries, or by hand crank when necessary.

    While it is admittedly one of the cheaper ones at $51; it still would be a valuable asset in an emergency, and is portable.
    True that Tumbleweed. One thing I'd add is since it is such a well-established form of technology, there is a glut of perfectly fine transceivers on the used market. If it is enough savings to bother is up to the individual, of course, but it exists.

    Also, in addition to law enforcement, etc., most ARES groups also have CBs setup and monitored. I know the one I've been involved in has a few. Ditto the group my father-in-law is involved with in another part of the state.
    If I remember correctly, even the White House has a CB radio they keep on hand in case of emergencies. I know there is one at NORAD, I seen it in a picture once. It is off to the side and not used, but it is still functional and kept there for communication purposes in case of a national disaster. As a matter of fact, I remember seeing a CB radio in a military truck once... though that was a while ago. CB radio has been around for a very long time and it is a well established means of communication.
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