Now we come to the real heart of personal safety radio: using simplex communications.
Two-meter communications are usually via repeaters, and repeaters offer amazing gains in coverage. For our personal safety radio purposes, the wide-area coverage of repeaters has an unexpected advantage –it draws most of the everyday users, leaving the simplex channels relatively unused. (These days, you can scan all the simplex channels continuously for hours, and rarely get a signal).
Simplex channels are therefore ideal for communications over a few miles within a local area. Our focus is on local areas: a valley, or a single-exit community, or a mountain top, as examples. If one channel is commonly agreed to be the one to use in such an area, it becomes a real-time, spoken-voice bulletin board. Any time there is a message of interest to everyone in the area (such as a power outage or evacuation notice) it can be broadcast to everyone in that area whose HT is not turned off. Yes, broadcast – there is no need to contact individuals, because everyone receives the message at the same time. And even better, any of those individuals can immediately respond, again in plain voice, and report additional information, health status, position, and so on. At times of urgency, the area network will come alive; and because of the local nature of 2-meter radio, practically no one else outside the area will be causing any congestion or interference. With all the neighbors connected this way, and able to respond, there would be no need for emergency first-responders to go door-to-door with danger warnings — they could aim only for the ones without working radios.
Of course, the designated area channel is not the only one that can be used. The PS-Radio function simply requires that your HT be on and listening all the time to that channel. However, the scanning feature of your HT means that you can choose to listen to any other channels at the same time, including the repeater channels. You can use your HT any time for any purpose. If the other channels you are scanning are too busy, just stop scanning and set the HT to your area channel alone – it will be quiet most of the time. Your local simplex channel will probably never bother you, except when you need to be bothered.
Of course, your area will not be the only one that can have an area channel; this is the blessing of short-distance transmissions. Other areas of similar size can also have their own area channel, since there are over twenty available. Furthermore, the twenty limit does not really give rise to a limitation, since with a sensible distribution of channels, the nearest one using your channel will probably be out of range anyway.
Also, your local area need not define the limit of your communications, even if the repeaters are unavailable. Suppose you need to get a message out from Atlas Peak to Calistoga during a major power outage. Someone in your area will likely be near its edge, close enough to contact someone in the next area and pass on (relay) your message. And relaying need not stop there: the message can be passed on from an operator in one area to one in another until it reaches its destination, all in a matter of minutes, without relying on anything but the chain of HT’s. If that message had to be carried by car (even if the roads were open), it would likely take the best part of an hour.
So now the bigger picture is emerging. By getting a HT and a license, you have a broadcasting ability not dependent on any external power or infrastructure. You now can send and receive messages over your whole local area, receive warnings the same way any time, and be in touch with far-flung locations by relays through others with similar capabilities. Yet your same radio lets you use the wide-area repeater system any time you like, as a bonus.
Not bad for an investment of around $60 and a few hours of reading for the license.