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Colorado Creates Auxiliary Emergency Communications Unit

06/08/2016

A new Colorado law has created an Auxiliary Emergency Communications (AuxComm) Unit within the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM). The action implements recommendations contained in a 2012 FCC report to Congress regarding Amateur Radio’s role in disasters and emergencies. Colorado Gov John Hickenlooper signed the measure into law on June 6, after it sailed through both houses of the Colorado General Assembly.

“This bill will make it possible for Colorado ARES to further enhance the level of emergency communications services during times of need,” ARRL Colorado Section Manager Jack Ciaccia, WM0G, said.

 

Colorado’s General Assembly determined that “a uniformly trained and credentialed unit of communication volunteers available for disaster response” would “materially assist emergency preparedness and disaster response efforts across the state.”

“While maintaining their traditional roles as Amateur Radio operators, many of these volunteers assist with the establishment and maintenance of communication facilities, assist with programming public safety radios during emergencies, and act as radio operators on public safety channels,” the bill says in its findings.

The new law was conceived by Colorado Section Emergency Coordinator and State Government Liaison Robert Wareham, N0ESQ, an attorney, while he met with DHSEM staff after completing FEMA’s Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) Auxiliary Emergency Communications course in 2012. That year and the next, Amateur Radio operators played key roles in responding to multiple major disasters in Colorado, including wildfires that destroyed several hundred homes and a 500-year-flood that inundated much of north-central Colorado.

 

“The real-life laboratory of successive major disaster helped us quickly realize the need for statewide response capabilities; which ideas worked, and which ones didn’t,” said Wareham. “In essence, we had the perfect storm of major disasters, FCC recommendations to Congress, and FEMA OEC sponsored training to bring it all together into the current auxiliary communications framework.”

 

The new statute provides that Colorado ARES will enter into a Section-level Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the state’s Office of Emergency Management to recruit, train, credential, coordinate, and supervise members of the Auxiliary Emergency Communications Unit.

 

“Too often, valuable Amateur Radio resources are diluted by having multiple organizations in a single community competing with one another, such as having separate ARES and RACES organizations in a single county,” Wareham said. “Under the Colorado model, all Colorado ARES members who meet the training and background check requirements of the AuxComm Unit will be issued credentials that will be recognized statewide.” The AuxComm Unit will perform all RACES functions for the state.

 

Wareham drafted the original bill and presented it to Rep Jonathan Singer, whose district had been severely affected by the 2013 floods. Singer agreed to be the prime sponsor of the bill, while Sen Chris Holbert sponsored the Senate version. Both later were recognized with ARRL Special Services awards.

While the new law makes it clear that the unit is comprised of unpaid ham radio volunteers, it for the first time authorizes reimbursement of reasonable and necessary expenses of auxiliary communicators and it broadened the circumstances under which any disaster volunteer could receive Workmen’s Compensation benefits and tort immunity.

“This statute puts volunteer Amateur Radio operators on an equal footing with volunteer firefighters and other rescue workers with respect to legal benefits and protections,” ARRL Rocky Mountain Division Vice Director Jeff Ryan, K0RM, said.

In 2012, Congress ordered the FCC to study the role of Amateur Radio operators and whether impediments existed to expanding their role in disasters and emergencies. The FCC recommended that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) work with state, local, and tribal authorities to develop disaster-area access policies and qualifications for trained Amateur Radio operators providing emergency communication support. Colorado appears to be the first state to formally create an AuxComm Unit, addressing many of the recommendations sent to Congress.    



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