Emergency Communication - Baofeng UV-5RA Review
Communication is often one of the most overlooked aspects of prepping. We have become so accustomed to our cell-phones, internet, and TV’s just working that it is easy to forget that there are many emergency scenarios when these forms of communication likely will not work. While searching for a solution for an emergency communication device I came across the Baofeng UV-5RA portable ham radio, and at under $40 I decided to give one a try.
The Baofeng UV-5RA radio came in a pretty small box with the inside separated in two layers; included in the box were: radio, antenna, battery pack, belt clip, ear piece with microphone, battery charger, and instructions. After making sure all the pieces were there, I went to the instructions to ensure that I would assemble the radio correctly. Screw on the antenna, mount the belt clip, and charge the battery before use; seemed straight forward and it was. However, the manual said the battery would take 4 hours to charge and mine took only an hour; I think the battery on mine was shipped partially charged as subsequent charges took several hours.
Putting the unit together was very simple, programming the unit…..not so much. I had a home scanner, portable scanner, FRS/GMRS radios, and grew up around CB radios; however, programming this type of radio was completely foreign to me. The factory manual was basically of no help as far as programming went. After looking at a couple helpful websites like Miklor.com and watching many YouTube videos I was able to get a pretty good understanding of how to program the UV-5RA. However, I eventually ordered a programming cable and downloaded the free CHIRP software program which greatly simplified the process of entering in frequencies and settings. Even though the programming cable came with its own programming software, I choose just to install the drivers for the programming cable from the included CD.
The Baofeng radios are capable of doing many things that are not legal, and some that are only legal with the proper licensing (see transmitting section below). The UV-5RA is capable of transmitting and receiving on VHF (very high frequencies) such as MURS, and emergency service channels that fall in the 136-174 MHZ range; and since the NOAA weather channels fall within this range you can also listen to them. The Baofeng UV-5RA can also transmit and receive on UHF (ultra high frequencies) from 400-480 MHZ, which includes the FRS and GMRS channels found on common walkie talkies sold at sporting goods stores. Note: the sticker on the back lists the limit as 400-520 MHZ, but the included antenna indicates 400-480MHZ. Regardless, this range also includes much of the amateur ham radio frequencies in use as well as some frequencies reserved for emergency services. The UV-5RA radio also receives FM radio stations, has a scan feature, can store 128 programmed channels, and has a built in flashlight.
The Baofeng UV-5R series has impressive capabilities; however there are some tasks of which it is not made for. This radio does not receive common aircraft channels which fall slightly below its lower VHF frequency range of 136 MHz. While this unit is capable of picking up NOAA weather channels it is not capable of receiving NOAA weather alerts, meaning that it can not be set in a standby mode and then turn on when a NOAA weather alert is issued. As mentioned earlier these Baofengs can receive FM radio stations; but they are not capable of picking up AM radio frequencies. Finally, while these units do have a scan feature it is not as fast or as feature rich as a dedicated scanner; for example you cannot set priority channels while scanning.
Despite being capable of transmitting on numerous different bands of radio frequencies, the Baofeng UV-5RA is not legal to use on any except ham frequencies that require a ham license to transmit on. The primary reason that you cannot use this device on most frequencies is that it is not an FCC certified device for non ham frequencies which alone disqualifies it; however, its detachable antenna, and lowest power setting of 1 watt also further disqualify it from use on some channels such as the FRS channels found on portable walkie talkies. The bottom line is if you don’t have a ham license you can’t legally transmit with these radios. However; if you find yourself in a life or death situation you can make your own decisions.
I have read that in some jurisdictions having a programmed police scanner in your car may be illegal; presumably because criminals could use them to monitor police frequencies. I am not a lawyer and don’t pretend to be so always check your local laws as they apply to you before taking any internet advice. That said these Baofengs can receive many police and emergency response channels and that could be useful in a variety of disaster situations. Also, its ability to receive FM radio and therefore news of what has or is happening could also prove invaluable in certain scenarios. Finally, the ability to tune into the NOAA weather radio frequencies and check for any weather warnings or advisories might also prove quite beneficial when making decisions in an emergency situation.
The UV-5RA ships with an straight rigid stock antenna that sticks out above the radio about 4.5”; I decided to try a Nagoya NA-701 model replacement to see if it would improve the reception of the unit; the NA-710 is a flexible model and sticks out about 8” above the radio when installed. Screwing on the replacement antenna left a little space around the base so I add a small washer I had laying around from a sink repair kit to keep water out. I tested the stock and Nagoya antennas by scanning for FM radio stations in a very remote location. The stock antenna was able to receive one station while the Nagoya picked up two. As a base I took my Ambient Weather WR-111b portable radio along for the test and it was able to pick up two stations also with its 20” extended antenna. So from this very informal test I would say there was some gain with the Nagoya NA-701 antenna.
After a bumpy start, resulting from my complete lack of knowledge about this type of radio and marginal factory instructions; I have become extremely impressed with this radio and carry it in my Get Home Bag. This radio has unbelievable capabilities; just keep in mind under normal circumstances without a ham license you will not be able to legally use the transmit features of this radio. However, in a SHTF situation these radios can communicate with a wide array of devices across a vast range of frequencies. Furthermore, the Baofeng UV-5RA’s ability to act as a police/emergency services scanner, FM radio, NOAA radio, and backup flashlight combined with their sub $40 price are enough reason to have one on hand just in case. Update: The Baofeng UV-5RA is currently selling for around $30, so even with an upgraded antenna and programming cable the entire set up should be right around $50; however these are nice extras and you can get started with just the base radio.