Sunday, November 08, 2009

Mayday, mayday, mayday: Emergency operations

Quite a lot of people get into amateur radio for the purpose of emergency communications.  There are two meanings to that phrase, too, and it's important to keep them straight.  The first, "emergency communications", is the provision of communication assistance during an "emergency"; that is, responding to a station in distress and, based on the ensuing communication, providing assistance directly or dispatching others to provide assistance.  The second is more strictly a "communications emergency", which is when an emergency situation cause (or is likely to cause) a failure or breakdown of ordinary communications systems.  Amateur radio operators have specific powers and duties in both of these situations.  Providing emergency communication is one of the declared purposes of the amateur radio service, so hams should have some understanding of these powers and responsibilities.

Amateurs are, generally speaking, not permitted to communicate with stations in other services using their amateur radio station.  This includes the licensed-by-rule Family Radio, General Mobile Radio, Citizen's Band, or Multi-Use Radio services.  Even though all of these services are available to anyone (other than a representative of a foreign country) who possesses the appropriate equipment, hams are not exempted from the requirements in these services to use type-accepted equipment and hams who wish to operate in these services must ordinarily meet these same equipment limitations and requirements as any non-ham would.  Nor may a ham use his or her equipment to communicate with public safety entities.  There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule, almost entirely for emergency situations. 

There are three major exceptions for "emergency" situations:  First, an amateur may use any means of radiocommunication at his or her disposal in order to provide essential communications needs during an emergency which immediately threatens human life or property, when other forms of communication are unavailable or disrupted.  Second, an amateur station which is actually in distress ("distress" also being a term of art which in this case means "in immediate threat of loss of life or serious permanent injury") may use any means at its disposal to attract attention and obtain assistance.  Third, an amateur station who is aware of a station in distress may respond to that station in distress or make any other communications necessary to obtain assistance for that station in distress, even if that would involve transmitting to stations outside the amateur service or using frequencies not authorized to the amateur.

These exceptions are to be construed very narrowly, in practice.  The communications must be "essential", the threat to life or property must be "immediate", and other forms of communication must be "unavailable".  Don't use this one lightly; if you have a choice between running next door to use their phone to call 911 or transmitting on the local fire department's general frequency, please go next door and call 911.  This is intended as an absolute last resort "when all else fails", not an option to used when other options are merely inconvenient.  Similarly, if you are monitoring, say, the marine HF bands and you hear a Mayday call, do not immediately respond; you might interfere with other ships or the Coast Guard responding.  Only if you do not hear a response, or if the calling station repeats the call (instead of responding to a response to their Mayday call) should you "unlock" your gear and respond to the calling station, or relay the call.

In addition, the FCC may declare a "communications emergency" when a disaster causes the loss of normal communications in an area.  During such a declaration, amateurs must refrain from using any frequencies designated in the disaster declaration unless they are actively involved in providing assistance.  Such declarations are common during major disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, which tend to disrupt normal communications.   The FCC may also authorize amateurs involved in providing assistance to use frequencies other than those which are normally available to amateurs, or to communicate with stations not in the amateur service, during a communications emergency; amateurs are required to comply with the directions of the FCC and its Field Engineers in such situations.

Outside of an FCC declaration of an emergency, no frequencies are reserved for emergency communication; there is no amateur equivalent of CB channel 9 or marine channel 16.  In general, the best frequencies to use for declaring an emergency in the amateur bands would be the various national calling frequencies, because there's a better chance that someone will be listening on one of these.  However, emergency traffic always takes priority over non-emergency traffic, on all frequencies and at all times.

It should go without saying that if you hear a station calling with an emergency (for which the most proper method to call "Mayday" three times, followed by identification) any non-emergency communications on the same frequency must immediately suspend until the emergency is resolved.  At the very least, do not interfere with emergency communications, and to the extent that you are able, you should assist the station in distress.  (But avoid creating confusion; listen closely and think before you transmit.)  You should always assume that a declaration of emergency is real; if it's not, the station calling the emergency is the one on the hook for making a false distress call.  In the United States, making a false distress call is a federal felony; offenders will almost certainly lose their FCC licenses, and will face stiff fines (in one recent instance, $45,000) and even the possibility of prison time, so don't do that.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1C03, T8A01, T8A02, T8A03, T8A04, T8A06, T8A08, T8A09, T8A10, T8A11, T8A12, T8B08, T8B11, and T8C01.