W3BE'S BE Informed!
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BE Informed No. 7.11 

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Isn’t Amateur Radio

Supposed to Be for Emergencies?

John B. Johnston W3BE

Q. I do not have a ham call sign. Suppose I am the driver of an automobile or the captain of a small sailing vessel with a licensed ham operator and his equipment on board. My automobile/sailing vessel is not equipped with a FRS, GMRS, CB, or VHF Marine Radio. Suddenly, some sort of accident happens and the amateur radio operator is injured to the point that he/she is unconscious, needs immediate medical attention, and we are out of cell phone range. Our lives and property are in immediate peril. The only means I have to call for rescue is to use my passenger's ham amateur radio and I do so. Which FCC rule authorizes this? 

A. None of them do that. Refer to Section 97.105(b). It says: A station may only be operated in the manner and to the extent permitted by the privileges authorized for the class of operator license held by the control operator. If you are not a person: (a) For whom an amateur operator/primary station license grant appears on the ULS consolidated licensee database, or (b) Who is authorized for alien reciprocal operation by Section 97.107, then there would be no control operator. In which case there is no authority for the station to transmit on amateur service spectrum.

Q. Isn’t amateur radio supposed to be for emergencies?

A. Not regularly. Section 97.3(a)(4) says it is: A radio-communication service for the purpose of self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations carried out by amateurs, that is, duly authorized persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.

Q. But Section 97.1(a) says the rules in Part 97 are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed five principles, the first of which is: (a) Recognition 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. That means to me that amateur radio is first and foremost for emergencies. Marine radios are so much more expensive to buy than ham radios that will do the job just as well.

A. No, the principles for which Part 97 is designed are all equally important. Not one of them even suggests that the rules for our amateur service are designed to make use of our spectrum allocations for communications that are supposed to take place in some other authorized radio services. Section 97.113(a)(5), in fact, says: No amateur station shall transmit communications, on a regular basis, which could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services. This prohibition helps us to protect the legitimacy of our amateur service, and helps its spectrum allocations from being overrun with communications that should rightfully be carried out in other radio services. 

Q. Where are those rules that do authorize hams stations to provide emergency communications?

A. There are four of them. They are all codified in Subpart E, Providing emergency communications. They can provide the insight as to the extent to which the spectrum allocated to our amateur service may be occupied temporarily and deliberately with transmissions that deviate from our amateur service’s fundamental of purpose of self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations carried out by amateurs, that is, duly authorized persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.

   Firstly, there is Section 97.401 Operation during a disaster. It authorizes CW and SSB emission transmissions on one HF channel in or within 50 nautical miles of Alaska for providing emergency communications (“EmComm”).

   Secondly, there is Section 97.403 which facilitates Safety of life and protection of property.

   Thirdly, there is Section 97.405 which provides for a Station in Distress.

   Lastly, the rules for RACES reside in Section 97.407.

Q. So what. My hypothetical predicament seems to be covered nicely by Section 97.403 which provides for Safety of life and protection of property; It says: No 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. It implies that any person – licensed or not - may activate the amateur station transmitting apparatus and that anything goes.

A. No. Section 97.403 does not authorize any additional privileges to anyone. Section 97.7 Control operator required provides no exception for emergencies. Nor do Section 97.301 authorized frequency bands or Section 97.305 authorized emission types. So, unless and until an amateur service license grant for you appears on the ULS or you become eligible for Section 97.107 alien control operator privileges, you cannot be the Section 97.105 control operator of any Section 97.5 amateur station that transmits from any place where the FCC regulates our amateur service.  

   Please show more compassion for the safety of all passengers for whom you provide transportation by installing in your vehicles and crafts the appropriate communications facilities and apparatus for which a need could arise. Should your sailing vessel be required to have a working Part 80 maritime services radio, install one. Total reliance upon your unproven ability to cause a Section 97.5 amateur station to transmit requests for assistance might have a very long shot for success indeed. At the very least, warn your passengers of such disregard for emergency precautions before they place their traveling safety into your care.

Q. If I was the unconscious ham on that sailboat and needed immediate medical attention, I hope someone would use my radio to get me the help I need.  

A. So would most people in the same situation. Some likely would do whatever they could to help you out and then face the consequences - whatever they may be. But vacating our amateur service spectrum allocation so that non-amateur operators can solve their self-inflicted predicaments brought upon themselves by lack of planning, poor judgment, tight-fistedness, et al, is not exactly within the limited scope of our EmComm obligations.  

   Subpart E, obviously, envisions much bigger fish for us to fry. We are to offer an alternative to the commercial communications infrastructure impacted by (an) emergency. This alternative infrastructure is the network of amateur radio operators and their stations that relay messages, build and maintain repeater stations and repeater networks, operate HF message networks to send messages greater distances than are practical with mobile or transportable transmitters, and develop new technologies to improve the reliability of these networks.

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January 1, 2016

Supersedes all prior editions