The Wireless Emergency Crisis

Wayne Rash

You already know that things will go to Hell during a real emergency that involves your company. You know your cell phones won't work, your landline phones might or might not work. You might not have electrical power. You also know that your employees could be in danger for their lives and physical safety.

Last week, I made a series of suggestions for things to consider when dealing with an emergency. One of those things was that you should find out if any of your employees are licensed amateur radio operators, and if none are, to encourage employees that are so inclined to get their licenses. However, Allen Pitts of the American Radio Relay League quickly added a comment reminding readers that ham radio can only be used for emergencies involving risks to life and property. You can't use it as a business continuity solution.

In other words, if you need a radio system for communication between offices or other functions relating to the conduct of your business, and you can't depend on wireless devices (which you can't in an emergency), then you need to spring for a business radio system. The advantage to this is that you can talk all you want to, you get the frequency to yourself, and you can encrypt your communications.

But Allen brought up another, perhaps more serious problem. Not only do businesses want to use ham radio because it is so reliable, so do emergency workers. He tells me that there are many situations in which police, fire and even National Guard organizations are trying to use ham radio to conduct operations because it is the only really reliable and interoperable method of working between agencies.

'Amateur radio became a victim of its own success because it is so reliable,' Pitts said. Pitts, who is the Media and Public Relations Manager for the ARRL, said that the need for reliable, interoperable, communications between emergency service agencies has become a critical problem. During an emergency, he pointed out, departments from different communities, and from different parts of the same communities, can't talk to each other.

When it's an actual emergency, of course, ham radio is there to help. But what about non-emergency situations? These agencies still need to communicate, and finding a way has been difficult.

One of the things that was supposed to happen during the great transition to digital television is that some of the frequencies once used by analog television were supposed to be made available for a nationwide interoperable emergency network. Unfortunately, the FCC couldn't get bids for that service, so that need went unfilled. Emergency workers and first responders were effectively kept from communicating with each other, mostly because of bureaucracy and a lack of leadership on the part of the FCC. Apparently the desire to sell the frequencies instead of simply assigning them overtook good sense.

Fortunately, that's changed. On the same day I talked with Allen Pitts, the FCC announced that it has given conditional approval to 21 cities, counties and states to build interoperable networks for first responders. There are two reasons you should care about this. First, it means that the first responders in your community may eventually be able to communicate with each other, assuming your community's government cares enough about your safety to take action on this. Second, it means that it will be easier to call for help without the fire department and the National Guard taking up the ham radio frequencies your people might need to save their lives.

If you community isn't on the FCC's list of approved localities, maybe it's time to ask your local and state government why they're not there. And maybe it's time to take action yourself. After all, elected officials tend to pay attention to the companies in their areas because they want you on their side during the next election.

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