Can I Use My Ham Radio on Public Safety Frequencies? Updated

This is an update to one of my most popular posts.

anytone radioWe 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 few years. Several wireless manufacturers in China (Wouxun, Baofeng, Anytone, 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, with some caveats.

New radios are being introduced frequently, so I won’t try to list them here. However, you might want to do a search on Wouxun, Baofeng and Anytone for the latest models. I will highlight the Anytone NSTIG-8R radio which I have been using. It seems to be a well-designed but still affordable (<$75) handheld radio. See the review by PD0AC.

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. 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 best thing to do for public safety use is to get a radio that tunes the 2.5-kHz steps.
  • Many of these radios have two frequencies in the display, but 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. Read the radio specifications carefully.

Recommendation

There are a number of reasonably good radios out there from various manufacturers. My favorite right now is the Anytone NSTIG-8R but I also like the Wouxun KG-UV6D. The Baofeng UV-5R continues to be popular in the amateur community as the low cost leader. However if you show up at an incident with the Baofeng, your fellow first responders will think it is a toy. Which leads to a really important point: the established commercial radio manufacturers such as Motorola, Vertex, etc. build very rugged radios. They are made for frequent, heavy use by people whose main job is putting out fires, rescuing people in trouble and dealing with criminals. These low cost radios from China are not in the same league. However, they can still serve in a less demanding physical environment while covering the Amateur Radio Service (FCC Part 97) and the Private Land Mobile Radio Services (FCC Part 90).

73, Bob K0NR

14 thoughts on “Can I Use My Ham Radio on Public Safety Frequencies? Updated

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  3. last checked,
    not sure how to put this
    amateurs can use/convert commercial/other equipment for amateur use.
    not the reverse “would use due caution !”

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  5. You still haven’t answered the question relative to the article or kept it within the scope of the question: can you use an amateur radio on public safety frequencies and do so legally?

    Short answer, no, at least not in the sense of most amateur frequency use: net events, practice drills, casual communications.

    Long answer: 47 CFR 97.403.

    https://transition.fcc.gov/pshs/techtopics/techtopics13.html

    47 CFR 97.403:
    No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radio communication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

    • Armando,
      The short story is not “no”. Any radio that is certified for FCC Part 90 use can be used by licensed/authorized users in the Private Land Mobile Radio Services. Radios sold into the amateur radio market that have Part 90 certification meet this criteria. If your amateur radio is not Part 90 certified, then it is not legal for Part 90 usage (except the disclaimer about emergency situations).

      73, Bob K0NR

  6. What everyone forgets in this argument is that by FCC regulations “anyone and any radio can be used in the protection of life or property!” This statement is very clear since those operating in the public saftey bands are doing just that they are exempt.

  7. Regardless you still have to have a signed MOU (Memorandum of Usage) signed by the Chief or Sheriff of the channels you are wanting to TX on. Beware that they can pull the operation of that MOU and not let you know. Case in point, a workmate had a signed MOU and the Chief rescinded it and the workmate was arrested (and released shortly but still took a ride in the back of the car to lockup). By the way the company I work for works on, installs, and maintains the radios and infrastructure for one State and quite a few municipalities around the Nation.

  8. Not all communications on public safety bands involves emergency traffic. I dont believe that the law is in place so that people can use radios at have been modified.

  9. Good point about emergency situations. FCC Part 97 says this about emergency operation:

    § 97.403 Safety of life and protection of property.
    No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

    Read this rule carefully and don’t overlook the phrase “when normal communication systems are not available.” Also, think about the practical implications of firing up on the local sheriff frequency and declaring an emergency.

    73, Bob K0NR

    • You might also want to remember that 97.403 is part of the rules for the Amateur Radio Service. Nothing in Part 97 has any impact outside the Amateur Radio Service. Once you tune to that Public Safety frequency you NOT in the Amateur Radio Service – you are an unlicensed (pirate) station operating in violation of Part 90 where the emergency rule is 90.407 which does not permit unlicensed use even in an emergency. Also read rule 2.405 which covers services other than ham radio and broadcasting – especially 2.405(d): in no event shall any station engage in emergency transmission on frequencies other than, or with power in excess of, that specified in the instrument of authorization…

      • Please read THIS part “regardless of all other FCC regulations, when no alternative is available.” Meaning if you’re on the side of a mountain and no other means of emergency communication is working, then by all means you ARE allowed to transmit on a Part 90 frequency such as a Forest Service Repeater, or Law Enforcement Repeater for the purpose of “immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property,”.

        This does not sandbox an operator into Part 97 frequencies or equipment. This is a “nothings off limits” if life and property are on the line. Could you imagine being prosecuted for using a part 97 radio on a part 90 frequency because you were joking and someone in your party was having a heart attack and was facing DEATH unless you could contact EMS, or LE and get a helicopter etc….?

        E. Emergency Communications[edit]
        Subpart E contains four sections, numbered 97.401–407.

        Subpart E supports the service of amateur radio operators in times of disaster by establishing basic standard operating procedures to use in case an emergency should occur. Primarily, it authorizes any use of radio technology for the “immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property,” regardless of all other FCC regulations, when no alternative is available. It also establishes the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), a civil defense communications service intended for activation in times of war or threat to national security.

  10. I am shortly testing for my technician license, but I can speak for 20+ years in the volunteer fire service. (But only for my area). If you are given a radio call sign/ID assigned by your chief/agency, you can use pretty much any radio (within reason) that will access the frequency and repeater (where applicable). Likewise, I would guess that if a ham operator would have called a dispatcher from a remote location with a confirmed life or death emergency, no one would “complain”. So long as they identified themselves and weren’t out playing Ricky Rescue. Again, this is based on my personal, rural experience. Not law or universally applicable.