BOSTON — Mint chip or chocolate?
Jackie McMillin and her daughter, Annie, are poised between ice cream flavors at the Baskin Robbins in LaGrange, Ill., when a piercing electronic screech intervenes.
"Are you there?" comes the voice of Ms. McMillin's son from her hand-held radio. "Yes, Matt, where are you? Do you want me to order you ice cream?"
Only minutes before, McMillin's husband and son had raced off on their 10-speeds, leaving her and Annie in a trail of dust without a firm meeting plan. But thanks to a technology called family radio service, or FRS, the McMillins could split up, then talk on two-way radios to coordinate ice cream orders or reunite.
FRS offers a less expensive alternative to cell phones because there is no airtime charge. No license is needed. It's like citizens' band, but on the FM frequency.
The Federal Communications Commission created FRS in 1996 to link families on the go, outdoor enthusiasts, and neighborhood-watch groups. It's quickly becoming popular, driven by greater concern over neighborhood safety and busier families. And it's letting soccer moms and dads keep closer surveillance on their kids with the push of a call button.
"There was a need for family radio service that was simple to use," says Rick Borinstein, senior vice president of merchandising for Tandy Corp.'s Radio Shack, which first started selling FRS products in 1996. "Since then," he says, "the growth has been straight up."
Users carry single or multifrequency two-way radios about the size of a deck of cards.
But the technology has some drawbacks. Radio prices, which range from $40 to nearly $300 each, may fall outside many family budgets. And there's no guarantee of privacy since anyone with an FRS handset who tunes into your channel can eavesdrop. Also, the radio-to-radio range usually is limited to about two miles.
"The No. 1 use is for hiking, biking, fishing, or camping. It's become a very popular product because of size," Mr. Borinstein says.
The McMillin family often brings the radios on hiking or canoeing trips. "Matt moves at a different speed than we do," says Mr. McMillin. "He's a bit of a risk taker. But using the radios, he can move at his own speed."
FRS radios are often compared to walkie-talkies, but many users say their performance is far better.
Annie McMillin remembers that her old walkie-talkie had poor sound quality. "Sometimes I'd be right inside the [house] and [her friends] would be in the driveway, and I still couldn't reach them," she recalls.
Jane Cassaras of Mountain Lakes, N.J., has been using FRS for more than a year. When she first moved there, she sent her children on their bikes to the post office. "The kids didn't know their way around," Ms. Cassaras says. They got lost on the way, but used their radios to contact Cassaras, who rerouted them. "Now, if [the kids] do get lost, we can touch base. It added a sense of comfort for me."
Ski resorts are also renting FRS radios to patrons. "We hear, 'I used to take my cell phone, but I paid too much on roaming or cell bills,' " says Cornelius Lee, global brand director of Motorola. Amy Shulman, who lives in Chicago, brought her own radios on a Colorado ski trip last winter. There were six used among 18 of her friends, she says. That made meeting less of a hassle. "One person would make an announcement or ask: Have you seen so and so? We'd plan times and places to meet during breaks," she says. "You just feel totally connected."
* Stephanie Cook is a member of the Monitor staff.