Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Little Radio That Could

Operation Puxing 777 Retrieval (Photo Credit: Tyler Phelan)
Summer is almost officially over, and the BAMRU blog has been quiet, mostly because we've been outside soaking up the sunshine and mountain tops sans snow and ice.  As a new season approaches some of us are more ready than others to start scanning gear catalogues for fleeces, puffies and split boards.  If, like me, you're not quite ready to check out the fall & winter gear, perhaps you'd like a review on a very small but very important piece of gear that can be used all year round.

If you're in search of the perfect radio, one that can survive a 150ft drop or a month in the freezing temps on on:

Most search and rescue teams rely on radio communications in the field, and BAMRU is no exception. For many years, we used "cheap and cheerful" Family Radio Service (FRS) radios, which are, well, very cheap, and don't require a license. But there's a lot of traffic on the FRS bands, the range is short, and they don't interoperate with the radios used by the public service agencies with which we often interact.
Puxing love on Mt. Shasta
(Photo Credit: Abi Fitzgerald)

A few years ago, we decided to switch to HAM radios for intra-team communications, and added a training requirement that every member earn a HAM license. This has worked very well for us: handheld HAM transceivers are reliable, boast reasonable power for our operations, and are built to withstand the rigors of heavy use. The VHF bands are not very busy, and we chose a set of standard frequencies for our team to use. To seed the pool of radios, we acquired some used Motorola "bricks" and associated hardware, and members started purchasing their own radios.

After a year, we had at least six different radios on the team, and came to the realization that we should standardize on a single radio that could be recommended to new members who had no radio experience. It needed to be relatively inexpensive, robust, and easy to program.

Ideally, it would also work in the public service bands (155, 166, 172 MHz). Many HAM transceivers can be modified to work in an extended frequency range, but a) this is not strictly legal, as the radios are not type accepted under part 90 rules and b) they tend to be much less efficient transmitters on those frequencies, due to design limitations. Another requirement was that the radio support the transition to narrow-channel FM mandated by the FCC for public service licenses.

With all these criteria, one radio stood out: the Puxing PX-777+. This is one of a range of Chinese-made transceivers that started appearing around 2006. Cheap and robust, built to commercial standards and widely available. Many versions do NOT meet the requirement of FCC Part 90 approval to transmit on all the frequencies we use, but the version sold by Argent Data comes with the appropriate FCC sticker.

Our experience with these radios over the past two years has been uniformly positive. There are only two problems with the radio: it doesn't have an AA battery pack, and is miserable to field program.

The radio weighs about 8 oz. This is about 1/3 less than the comparably-sized VX-150 despite having 70% more battery capacity. One of our members used his on Denali for a month when working for the NPS, preferring it to the NPS-issue Bendix/King "super brick" which weighs almost 3x as much. He charged it with a small solar panel.

Another member recently dropped her radio during an op; it came to rest on the rocky beach approximately 150 feet below. When she got there, the battery had popped off, but there was no other significant damage. After reuniting the battery with the radio, it worked great.

Below is a brief shot of the Puxing in action on a search
where we needed to coordinate helo pick up.
Contibutors: Blake Gleason, Chris Kantarjiev, Eszter Tompos
Radio details and specs: