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It Seems to Us: Emergency Preparedness and the FCC Rules


By David Sumner, K1ZZ
ARRL Cheif Executive Officer
March 1, 2010

Meeting January 15-16 in the immediate aftermath of the cataclysmic earthquake in Haiti, the members of the ARRL Board of Directors had emergency communications very much on their minds.

As regular readers of this page will know, over the past year there has been much discussion about the extent to which Amateur Radio can and should be used in providing communications on behalf of licensees' employers. In general, such use is contrary to the "no pecuniary interest" standard that is built into the international definition of the amateur service. Here in the US, the FCC Rules contain the same definition but also recognize a couple of narrowly crafted exceptions for teachers and (although the station is not mentioned by name) W1AW control operators.

In an emergency - that is, in connection with the immediate safety of human life and the immediate protection of property - the FCC Rules provide that an amateur station may be used to provide essential communication needs when normal communication systems are not available. In such a situation an amateur licensee's employment status is not an issue. However, there is no provision in the rules that permits amateurs to transmit communications on behalf of their employers at other times, such as during emergency preparedness and disaster drills. This became an issue during 2009 when FCC staff was asked whether such communications were legal, and the answer - since there could be no other answer that conformed to the rules - was no.

Sensing some confusion in the amateur community, at its meeting in July 2009 the ARRL Board created an ad-hoc committee to develop guidelines for the appropriate uses of Amateur Radio on behalf of businesses and other organizations. As explained on this page in the December 2009 issue, the resulting nine-page document discusses communications by volunteers as well as by employees.

The ad-hoc committee was not asked to develop possible changes to the FCC Rules and did not do so. However, soon after the committee's work was completed and its recommendations were approved by the Board, in late October the FCC itself announced that it would entertain waiver requests from government entities to permit amateur licensees to transmit communications on behalf of their employers during government-sponsored emergency preparedness and disaster drills. The solicitation of waiver requests implied that the Commission was considering the possibility of amending its rules. The December QST editorial closed with an invitation for members to share their thoughts with their own Division Directors.

In many respects the ARRL Board of Directors functions like a legislative body. The 15 voting Directors are elected by the membership in each ARRL Division, so they are mindful of their constituents' views. Directors are accessible via email, postal mail and telephone. They attend club meetings, hamfests and conventions. Some Directors hold regular "cabinet meetings" prior to Board meetings in order to hear the thoughts of the elected Section Managers and other opinion leaders in the Division. Of course, the Directors are also in touch with one another in between in-person meetings.

At the request of the Executive Committee, General Counsel Chris Imlay, W3KD and ARRL staff prepared an options paper setting out the range of alternatives for rules changes - including a no-change option - with regard to pecuniary interest. The paper was circulated to the Board in early January. Thus, when the Board members assembled in mid-January there already had been a considerable exchange of information and ideas on the subject.

Following a presentation of the paper by General Counsel Imlay on the first day of the meeting, the Board members had additional opportunities to discuss the options informally during breaks and overnight. A motion was prepared and presented for consideration that represented a near-consensus view, but it was by no means a fait accompli; healthy debate was conducted in formal session in accordance with Robert's Rules and an amendment to put time limits on the duration of drills was considered before the motion ultimately was adopted in its original form.

By adopting the motion the Board instructed staff to urge the FCC to add an exception to §97.113(a)(3) of the FCC Rules to permit an amateur station licensee or control operator, on behalf of an employer, to "participate in emergency preparedness and disaster drills that include amateur operations for the purpose of emergency response, disaster relief or the testing and maintenance of equipment used for that purpose."

Needless to say, the Board's action cannot conform precisely to all of the input that Directors have received from members. ARRL members hold a wide range of views that are not easily reconciled. Many members would prefer that there be no change while many others regard the present rules as too limiting. Given that the FCC appears to be inclined to consider changes, it behooves the ARRL - as the representative of the broadest constituency of radio amateurs - to formulate an approach that addresses the bulk of the concerns about the present rules with as little impact as possible on the volunteer character of Amateur Radio.

While it is entirely possible within the existing rules for radio amateurs to train themselves as emergency communicators, a change along the lines proposed by the ARRL Board would clarify a perceived "grey area" without exposing Amateur Radio to abuse by businesses and other entities not involved in emergency response or disaster relief. We look forward to a constructive dialogue with the Commission in the weeks and months ahead.



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