There is a more recent article on this topic. Please see: Can I Use My Ham Radio on Public Safety Frequencies? Updated
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 two years. Several wireless manufacturers in China (Wouxun, Baofeng, 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.

Here is a short list of the most common radios on the market:

Model Features Price
Wouxun KG-UV2D, KG-UV3D Several different models with slight variation in features, check carefully before ordering
136-174/420-470 MHz
5 kHz is smallest frequency step
$120
Wouxun KG-UV6D Several different models with slight variation in features, check carefully before ordering
136-174 / 420-520 MHz
2.5 kHz frequency step
$175
Baofeng UV-5R, UV-5RC The UV-5RC is an updated case style
136-174 / 400-480MHz
2.5 kHz frequency step
$65

 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. Your particular set of frequencies may or may not need it.  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 safest thing to do for public safety use is to get a radio that tunes the 2.5-kHz steps.
  • Although these radios have two frequencies in the display, they 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.

Recommendation

I own 3 different models of Wouxun radios and two Baofeng UV-5R radios. I think they are all great radios for what they do. For serious public safety use, I would recommend getting the Wouxun KG-UV6D with the 2.5-kHz frequency step. The controls of the Wouxun are superior, including a knob for channel/VFO selection and RPT key for changing repeater shift. The Wouxun software works much better than Baofeng’s (which is really a mess). Also, if you show up at an incident with the Baofeng, your fellow first responders will think it is a toy.  If you are absolutely sure you don’t need the 2.5-KHz frequency step, then you might consider one of the other Wouxun models.

I have purchased several radios from importcommunications.com and have been very satisfied with the service. You may want to shop around for the best price.

73, Bob K0NR