Hand Held Radio Options

For most families, during a disaster, hand held radios will be the most indispensable communications devices they own. They will probably be the ONLY communications devices they own, also, since phones and email will probably die or be overloaded.

The good news is that there are a number of hand held radio options. These are best identified by the description given to the part of the frequency spectrum they use, as assigned by the FCC. There are four main designations that we will look at:

FRS (Family Radio Service)

A license-less series of channels that can be used only with specific hardware. If you buy radios in Walmart they will probably be FRS. They commonly advertise that they have a range of 20-40 miles. Yeah, right. In space, maybe, but not among the hills of Tennessee.
FRS uses the UHF band - as such, it's basically limited in range to Line of Sight. So practically speaking, the dependable range is often only a few hundred yards.
The upside to FRS is that no paperwork is needed, the radios are usually cheap and should interoperate with other FRS radios.
We used a half dozen Motorola FRS radios for about a year. None died during that time, but that's not to say we were completely happy, either. They worked pretty well, but felt just a little cheap. We ultimately replaced with with inexpensive ham radios (more on that later) and have been very happy with the change.
CONCLUSION: Not a bad option, certainly the easiest, but radio selection is pretty limited and performance is low.
More Info: FCC - Wikipedia

MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service)

another set of frequencies that doesn't require a license, but it also requires you use specific hardware. It does offer higher performance than FRS.
CONCLUSION: If you want to avoid a license this is proably your best bet, performance wise. As I understand it, any FCC Part 90 radio can be used on MURS frequencies as long as power output is less than 2 watts. The UV-82c is probably your best bet in this regard, at about $50.
More Info: FCC - Wikipedia

GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service)

is often kind of confused with FRS. Many FRS radios are listed as FRS/GMRS, but technically the GMRS channels can ONLY be used if you have a GMRS license. GMRS has higher performance than FRS, mainly because of the higher power output that is allowed.
A GMRS license costs $90, is good for an entire family, and lasts five years.
CONCLUSION: Probably the best option of the three so far; you can use commercial UHF radios and transmit at up to 5 watts of power. You also will have legal overlap with most FRS radios. You are limited to the channels laid out by the FCC, but there's 23 of them.
More Info: FCC - Wikipedia

ARS (Amateur Radio Service - also known unofficially as Ham Radio)

This is the most robust, capable, full featured radio service readily available to the common man. Unlike FRS, MURS, and GMRS, which all have specified channels, ARS allows licensed operators to use broad sections of the frequency spectrum in several bands, using a variety of modes. With the right equipment you can send speech, morse code, images, video, and data thousands of miles. The downside is that a license is required, and some abilities are only granted to certain classes of licenses. In recent years the FCC simplified things and reduced the number of licenses to just three: Technician, General, and Extra. Each have their own test, and are progresively harder to obtain - but the Technician test is pretty easy to pass and is all most people will need.

CONCLUSION: If you just want a radio for emergency use, but are willing to spend a few hours studying, then I would encourage you to pursue Amateur Radio. Another reason behind this is the fact that you can now get quite decent ham radios for between $20 and $50. It used to be that ham radios started in the $100-200 range and went up from there. Those still exist, any may be worth it. But the new generation of cheap imported radios offer great performance and are a huge upgrade over FRS, MURS, and GMRS - what's more, many of these cheaper radios are so "open" that they can interoperate with FRS, GMRS, and MURS, and Public Service frequencies. Technically, this isn't legal except in life-or-death circumstance - but it's nice to have that option.
More Info: FCC - ARRL - Wikipedia