Haitian Disaster Relief Communications Include Amateurs, Governmental Agencies
In the days following the recent earthquakes in Haiti, the ARRL has received reports and inquiries about non-amateur stations transmitting on several amateur frequencies when assisting with disaster relief efforts in Haiti. The questions focus on the legality of such operations on the amateur bands.
"There are situations and protocols that do allow stations from other communications services to temporarily use selected amateur frequencies," said ARRL Regulatory Information Manager Dan Henderson, N1ND. "§97.111(a)(5) states in part that '[a]n amateur station may transmit the following types of two-way communications: Transmissions necessary to exchange messages with a station in a service not regulated by the FCC, but authorized by the FCC to communicate with amateur stations.'"
Other authorized, non-amateur users includes the US Department of Homeland Security's Shared Resources High Frequency Radio Program (SHARES).When activated, the SHARES program allows designated governmental stations to communicate with other services on specified frequencies, including some designated amateur frequencies. The FCC has confirmed that there are currently SHARES stations on the air assisting with disaster relief efforts for Haiti. They operate on frequencies allocated to government agencies, as well as several in the Amateur bands. Their purpose is to provide an interoperability system of accessible channels for emergency communications. When on the air providing disaster relief in these circumstances, they will not be using an Amateur Radio call sign. "We are aware of SHARES stations IDing with tactical calls, something like 'Andrews Command Center," Henderson stated. "This is the protocol they use and constitutes a valid ID for their station."
The types of communications handled by stations such as SHARES are for an immediate situation of a time-sensitive nature. Amateurs are doing a good job in not causing problems or interference to ongoing relief efforts, and need to continue to use patience and good judgment. Making sure the message to be transmitted is highest priority is sometimes hard to determine. A message that an immediate medical evacuation is needed would meet the criteria for this type of emergency communication.
"We have had a couple of instances where a message sent, while dealing with relief efforts, have not been related to an immediate situation," Henderson said. "The authorities are aware of the wide-spread suffering and needs all over Haiti. A message that a specific town needs help when the whole nation shares the need is too general for the immediate attention and can divert resources needed for time-sensitive communications. Amateurs should use their best judgment."
Henderson also reminded amateurs of some of the basics about emergency communications: "In any emergency, your best action is to stand by unless specifically requested to assist either by a net control station or the stations exchanging the communications. Too many stations trying to relay information can cause delays. Listening with patience is an important and necessary skill. Remember that sometimes the best assistance you can offer is to not transmit."