USING GMRS RADIOS IN AN INSTITUTIONAL SETTING
Institutions such as schools and small location companies often have need for a reasonably priced communications system, beyond what may be provided by cell phone usage. This article is very generalized and should be considered simply as an observation by one who has some radio knowledge and has worked in such institutions.
COSTS VS EFFECTIVENESS
While it is possible for such organizations to purchase a dedicated radio system, it will prove to be relatively expensive, with costs rising along with the effectiveness. Such systems generally require a specific radio licence and frequency to be granted directly by Industry Canada, or at least a contract with a communications company that acts on behalf of the organization. Such arrangements will yield a better system, likely with better coverage and usually with little chance of interference by neighbouring radio users. But your organization might feel that the costs are beyond your means, or that the cost and trouble are not worth the enhanced effectiveness.
THE QUESTION OF PRIVACY
All radio users should realize that there is in most cases little or no privacy afforded by the use of the “airwaves” that are all around us. There are radio receivers available that can pick up practically anything. In fact, in today’s world, the only sure way to use radio and not have your communications overheard is to use highly sophisticated encrypted signals. Something like this is well beyond the reach of schools and other such institutions. There are less robust modes and systems that are able to be overheard but still require relatively sophisticated equipment that is unlikely to be in the hands of the average citizen, but the possibility is still there. A school generally must disregard the privacy issue and simply be concerned first about the physical coverage of the radio system around the campus, and as well the plan for the use of the radio system.
THE CHEAP AND EXPEDIENT ROUTE: GMRS
Purchase and use of a set of GMRS radios is a common route taken. These radios are available in Canada without a licence from Industry Canada. The radios, properly called handheld transceivers, generally have a price of around $50 each for a quality unit.
GMRS stands for General Mobile Radio Service which is a service operating in both Canada and the United States, and in this country administered by Industry Canada. The radios commonly available in department stores, and what I am referring to here, are actually combination GMRS and FRS (Family Radio Service) radios. In Canada GMRS radios are allowed a maximum power of 5 Watts on the actual GMRS channels. The FRS channels are allowed only 500 milliwatts (1/2 watt) or 1/10 as much. It should be noted that power isn’t everything, but does matter when walls must be penetrated, or distance maximized. Five watts may be adequate for use in and around a medium sized building, but a large building may be too much for that power level. Keep in mind that these radios are in simplex mode, i.e. they transmit directly from one to another. Larger, more sophisticated systems often have a repeater at a higher elevation so that each radio transmits to it, and the signal goes from there down to the other radios, thereby reducing the effects of buildings and terrain.
GMRS radios commonly contain 22 channels:
Channels 1 to 7 are shared between the two services and the user can choose either high power or low power. Generally the only reason to use low power is to minimize others listening in to the affairs of the organization.
Channels 8 to 14 are FRS only and therefore can only transmit on low power.
Channels 15 to 22 are GMRS only. On some radios these are high power only, or can be used on low power if desired.
This somewhat bizarre arrangement is an historical artifact, as GMRS and FRS were amalgamated in radios after each was separately created.
MORE ABOUT PRIVACY
GMRS radios are often advertised as having privacy settings. What this refers to are tones that can be applied to all transmissions. There are a range of different sub-audible tones sometimes referred to as CTCSS or PL (“Private Line”). This is how they work. The radios can be set to a certain channel (1 to 22) but they can also have a tone added. Let’s say there are 38 different tones that could be used. The user or the planner for the radio system might decree that for every channel used, there will also be Tone 21 added. Commonly the display will now show the channel number in large characters and a smaller 21 underneath or beside. When a user transmits on for example channel 1, the transmission will be accompanied by Tone 21, which being sub audible, will not be heard. If the other radios in the area are set for Tone 21 that radio will allow the transmission to be heard. If set for another Tone, it will not. So this means that if the hardware store nearby is on Channel 1 and Tone 27, the radios set for that channel but Tone 21 will not hear the transmissions coming from the hardware store. Tones are simply a way to avoid having to listen to other peoples’ transmissions. There still remain difficulties if both are in fact transmitting at the same time, because if the hardware store on Channel 1 is stronger at your location than your own system’s radio at the back end of your building, you will not hear your own radio.
A further caution regarding tones is that any radio can be set to ignore tones and therefore anyone with a GMRS radio or a scanner can listen to your transmissions regardless of whether or not you use tones. Usually there is not much use in setting tones, and in general I would recommend against it unless someone is tasked with carefully ensuring that all radios in your system are set up correctly. In other words it is just another thing that can go wrong!
SETTING UP A CHANNEL PLAN (USAGE PLAN)
Those who are setting up a GMRS communications plan based on using several channels must take into account the channel plan described above and perhaps avoid channels 7 to 14, certainly for use as key channels such as for emergencies.
A school could set up a variety of channels for various uses but would set up one as a continuously monitored emergency channel.
Best practice regarding emergency operations might have Channel 1 as the emergency channel, due to its default nature, i.e. it is easy to remember under duress. The downside of using Channel 1 is that other users in the area tend to use that channel by default, i.e. when anyone buys a GMRS radio, the first channel they use is that one. This means that there could be more chance of interference on Channel 1, or for others to be listening in. In most cases this downside will not be sufficient to avoid using Channel 1 as the emergency channel in the plan. Probably the second best channel to use if there is a concern about Channel 1 is Channel 22 as it is the one at the other end of the channel selection range. Certainly the low power channels (8 to 14) must be avoided as emergency channels. On the chosen emergency channel, all radios must be set to the high power option unless there is a particular reason to use low power.
Another provision for the emergency channel is that it could do double duty as the working or normal channel for the leader of the building, e.g. the manager or the principal in the case of a school. He or she would be able to be reached for whatever reason, mundane or emergency.
Other channels could be assigned to special purposes or to particular task groups of personnel. For example the second in command or the chief administrative assistant or the building custodian might be on the next channel to that first one. It may be best to not have a large number of these secondary or working channels, as there must be a way to quickly have all users switch to the emergency channel. This of course could be signaled by other means such as a bell or buzzer or voice announcement on the public address system.
BEEPS AND OTHER SOUNDS
It is possible in many GMRS to program in various sounds supposedly to make life easier. There can be various calling sounds, so that the other members of the group know who is calling them without being able to clearly hear the voice. Commonly there is also a Roger Beep sound that can accompany every transmission. This is all a matter of opinion but keep in mind that professional radio systems do not usually employ such things.
No, this is not an exhortation against using bad language, though any radio professional or amateur radio operator will say that it has no place in radio communications. My comments are about procedural words and code words. Procedural words take two forms. In marine radio, aeronautical radio, amateur radio and the military standard words such as Roger, Over, Out, etc are used. In public safety communications it is more common to employ the ten-code. Examples of universally used ten codes are 10-6, 10-9, 10-10, etc. but of course it is 10-4 that is the most widely used. Your organization may wish to at least attempt to standardize on one of these two sets of terminology, and in which case you could look up what the norms are, or you could email myself and I can help you out. On the other hand you can just use plain language, but in doing so it really is not a good idea if everyone on the net or system has their own ideas of what to say and how to say it, as in an emergency the wrong idea can be communicated, or a transmission might be missed entirely.
Another aspect is to consider just what you will say on the radios. For example will you name members of your community? Will you in clear language mention locations? Will you specify in clear language what you are planning to do? Just keep in mind that if someone is seriously threatening your facility they could easily have radios that match yours! I am not advising on what you ought to do, but rather leaving that threat assessment and response to you to consider.
KEEPING THE RADIOS READY TO USE
It will be important to formulate a charging policy. Be clear to all users that they must keep charged the radio that is in his or her possession. This can be done via a daily return of radios to a central spot, or leaving this task up to individuals.
If you have any queries, please contact me: marscan1 AT gmail.com
Marscan is a licenced amateur radio operator and EMO emergency radio operator. He was formerly a communications officer in Canada’s armed forces. He is the proprietor of the Nova Scotia radio website commonly referred to as Marscan: www.marscan.com