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FCC Issues Notice of Proposed Rule Making on Government Disaster Drills and Amateur Radio

03/25/2010

On March 24, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) proposing to amend the Commission’s Amateur Radio Service rules “with respect to Amateur Radio operations during government-sponsored emergency preparedness and disaster readiness drills and tests.” While current rules provide for Amateur Radio use during emergencies, the rules prohibit communications where the station licensee or control operator has a pecuniary interest, including communications on behalf of an employer. In October 2009, the FCC released a Public Notice clarifying the Commission’s rules relating to the use of Amateur Radio by licensed amateurs participating in drills and exercises on behalf of their employers. To date, the FCC has granted several dozen waivers under this new policy.

The FCC notes that while there are some exceptions to this prohibition, “there is none that would permit amateur station control operators who are employees of public safety agencies and other entities, such as hospitals, to participate in drills and tests in preparation for such emergency situations and transmit messages on behalf of their employers during such drills and tests.” Based on that, the Commission proposes to amend the rules to provide that, under certain limited conditions, Amateur Radio operators may transmit messages during emergency and disaster preparedness drills, regardless of whether the operators are employees of entities participating in the drill.

Background

Per Part 97.1(a), one of the fundamental principles underlying the Amateur Radio Service is the “[r]ecognition and enhancement of the value of the Amateur Service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.” The rules, in Section 97.403, also state that “[n]o provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radio communication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.”

In the NPRM, the FCC recognized that Amateur Radio operators provide essential communications links and facilitate relief actions in disaster situations: “While land mobile radio services are the primary means of conducting emergency communications, Amateur Radio plays a unique and critical role when these primary facilities are damaged, overloaded, or destroyed.” The FCC gave Amateur Radio operations during 2006’s Hurricane Katrina as an example, saying that Amateur Radio operators “volunteered to support many agencies [and]...provided urgently needed wireless communications in many locations where there was no other means of communicating and also provided other technical aid to the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.”

The FCC acknowledged that since Amateur Radio is often an essential element of emergency preparedness and response, many state and local governments and public safety agencies incorporate Amateur Radio operators and the communication capabilities of the Amateur Service into their emergency planning. In this regard, some entities, such as hospitals, emergency operations centers and police, fire, and emergency medical service stations have encouraged the participation of their employees who are Amateur Radio operators in emergency and disaster drills and tests.

The FCC said that its rules “expressly permit operation of amateur stations for public service communications during emergencies, as well as on a voluntary basis during drills and exercises in preparation for such emergencies.” But since the Amateur Radio Service is primarily designated for “amateurs, that is, duly authorized persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest,” and rules expressly prohibit amateur stations from transmitting communications “in which the station licensee or control operator has a pecuniary interest, including communications on behalf of an employer,” the FCC has mandated that public safety entities seeking to have employees operate amateur stations during government-sponsored emergency preparedness and disaster drills presently must request a waiver.

Discussion

The FCC is seeking comments on whether to amend the rules to permit Amateur Radio operators to participate in government-sponsored emergency and disaster preparedness drills and tests, regardless of whether the operators are employees of the entities participating in the drill or test. The Commission’s rules already recognize the importance of Amateur Radio in emergencies, and permit participation in such drills and tests by volunteers (defined by the FCC as “non-employees of participating entities”).

The FCC recognizes that based on experience, it knows that amateur operations “can and have played an essential role in protecting the safety of life and property during emergency situations and disasters. And as evidenced by recent waiver requests, state and local government public safety agencies and other entities often conduct disaster and emergency preparedness drills to be best-prepared for such eventualities.”

The proposed rule would preclude the need for a waiver in such instances by allowing employees of public safety agencies and other entities to operate amateur stations for testing and drilling of emergency communications preparedness. The FCC “tentatively conclude[s] that employee status should not preclude or prevent participation in government-sponsored emergency and disaster tests and drills. Further, we tentatively conclude that extending authority to operate amateur stations during such drills will enhance emergency preparedness and thus serve the public interest.”

In reaching these “tentative conclusions,” the Commission asserts that it agrees with the core principle of the Amateur Radio Service as a “voluntary, non-commercial communication service carried out by duly authorized persons interested in radio technique with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.” Per the NPRM, the FCC believes that the public interest will be served by “a narrow exception to the prohibition on transmitting amateur communications in which the station control operator has a pecuniary interest or employment relationship, and that such an exception is consistent with the intent of the Amateur Radio Service rules.” As such, the FCC proposes that amateur operations in connection with emergency drills “be limited to the duration and scope of the drill, test or exercise being conducted, and operational testing immediately prior to the drill, test or exercise.”

The FCC also proposes that the emergency tests and drills must be sponsored by federal, state, or local governments or agencies “in order to limit the narrow exception to ensure that drills further public safety.” The Commission does understand, however, that there may be circumstances where conducting emergency drills for disaster planning purposes, even if not government-sponsored, would serve the public interest. Accordingly, the FCC seeks comment on whether it should permit employee operation of amateur stations during non-government-sponsored emergency drills “if the purpose of the drill is to assess communications capabilities, including Amateur Radio, in order to improve emergency preparedness and response.”

According to the FCC, a large number of agencies and organizations at the state and local levels coordinate with their local volunteer Amateur Radio operators to conduct drills and exercises in concert with other modes of communication: “This joint activity is essential to allow for a practiced response on the part of the first responder community. Because some of those drills and exercises include transmission of amateur communications by employees of participating entities, we believe the proposed rule changes would be in the public interest, consistent with ongoing national emergency preparedness and response priorities. We therefore seek comment on the tentative conclusions contained herein.”

Proposed Rules 

Part 97 of Chapter 1 of Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations is amended as follows:

1. Section 97.113 is amended by revising paragraph (a)(3), adding new paragraphs (a)(3)(i) and (a)(3)(ii), redesignating paragraphs (c) and (d) as new paragraphs (a)(3)(iii) and (a)(3)(iv) respectively, and redesignating paragraphs (e) and (f) as (c) and (d) respectively, to read as follows:

§ 97.113 Prohibited transmissions.

(a) ***
(3) Communications in which the station licensee or control operator has a pecuniary interest, including communications on behalf of an employer, with the following exceptions:
(i) A control station operator may participate on behalf of an employer in a government-sponsored emergency preparedness or disaster readiness test or drill, limited to the duration and scope of such test or drill, and operational testing immediately prior to such test or drill.
(ii) An amateur operator may notify other amateur operators of the availability for sale or trade of apparatus normally used in an amateur station, provided that such activity is not conducted on a regular basis.

How to File Comments

Information on how to file comments via e-mail or by other means can be found on pages 4-6 in the NPRM. The deadline for comments is 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. The deadline for reply comments is 45 days after publication in the Federal Register.



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