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Amateur Radio Services and Public Safety Communications
The FCC established amateur radio as a voluntary, non-commercial, radio communications service. It allows licensed operators to improve their communications and technical skills, while providing the nation with a pool of trained radio operators and technicians who can provide essential communications during emergencies.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is amateur radio?
- Amateur radio involves amateur radio operators communicating locally and worldwide using store-bought or homemade radios, computers, satellites, and even the internet. Many amateur radio operators or “hams” serve as emergency communicators during the initial stages of emergencies and disasters. Amateur radio operators must be licensed and pass an examination for the FCC license to operate on radio frequencies known as the “Amateur Bands”. These amateur bands are reserved by the FCC for use by hams at intervals above the AM broadcast band into extremely high microwave frequencies.
- Why do I need a license?
- Licensees are given transmitting privileges on a wide variety of amateur bands. Methods of transmission are specified by FCC rules; therefore, it is necessary to be generally familiar with operating limitations in order to transmit lawfully. Note: No amateur radio station shall transmit communications for hire or for material compensation or communications in which the station licensee or control operator has a pecuniary interest, including communications on behalf of an employer.
- Are there different classes of licenses?
- Yes, and there is a single written test for each license class. The license classes are:
- Technician Class – this is the entry level license. It gives privileges on all amateur frequencies above 50 Mhz and is the most popular.
- General Class – this is the mid-level license. It enables privileges on most amateur frequencies below 50 Mhz and includes global HF (shortwave) communications.
- Extra Class – this is the highest level license. It grants privileges on all amateur frequencies. The technician and general class written tests are required.
- Do I have to learn Morse code?
- While many hams like to use Morse code, it is no longer required.
- What are some of the other ways amateur radio operators communicate?
- There are a variety of ways that amateur radio operators communicate; using voice is just one. Morse code is still widely used. Even faster transmissions are being developed using methods which can send almost any form of digital data. Hams also use television to send pictures over the air.
- Where are the amateur radio bands located?
- The FCC has allocated 26 bands to amateur radio services. These bands are spaced from 1.8 Megahertz to 275 Gigahertz of the radio communications spectrum. While many hams simply enjoy talking to friends, others pursue a wide variety of specialized interests, such as:
- Amateur television;
- Amateur radio emergency communications;
- Communicating via amateur satellites;
- High speed multimedia and TCP/IP;
- Packet radio;
- Portable, fixed, mobile and handheld operation;
- Severe weather spotting (National Weather Service – Skywarn);
- Tracking tactical information using the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS), which may integrate with the GPS;
- Using the Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) to connect radio repeaters via the Internet.
- What is the ARRL?
- Founded in 1914, the 150,000-member Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the largest association of amateur radio enthusiasts in the United States.
Amateur Service During Government Disaster Drills
- During emergencies, amateur radio operators may transmit messages to other amateur stations, subject to the privileges authorized for the class of license the amateur station control operator holds. For these transmissions, no special FCC permissions are required. Some amateur radio operators coordinate their communications through groups referred to as “networks” or “nets.”
- Messages may be transmitted on behalf of unlicensed individuals, at the discretion of the amateur station licensee. These messages are referred to as third party communications. The FCCs rules permit an amateur station to transmit messages for a third party to any other amateur station within the jurisdiction of the United States. Amateur stations in the United States may transmit third party communications to amateur stations outside the United States under certain circumstances.
Amateur Radio Service Support to Public Safety Communications
In times of emergency when normal public safety communications are not available, there are alternative systems that may be used for this purpose. Current FCC rules state that amateur stations and operators are allowed to assist and support public safety communications in times of emergency. This article addresses the voluntary services provided by amateur operators, amateur service organizations and the relationships between amateur service organizations and public safety jurisdictions. Information about amateur services is also briefly described in the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau’s Amateur Radio Services web page.2
Amateur radio (also known as ‘ham radio’) services are regulated under Part 97 of the FCC rules.3 Amateur radio operators are licensed users who operate radio communications as a hobby or a voluntary service running within amateur radio frequencies allocated by the FCC4. To acquire an amateur radio license, individuals are required to pass a licensing exam that proves the individual possesses the operational and technical qualifications required to properly perform the duties of an amateur service licensee [47 CFR 97.503]. Currently, individuals may qualify for three classes of operator license: Technician, General and Amateur Extra.
When normal communications systems are not available, amateur stations may make transmissions necessary to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property [47 CFR 97.403]. This provision of emergency communications is regulated by Part 97, Subpart E of the FCC’s rules. One advantage for amateur radio operators in public emergency communications is the wide range of available frequencies [47CFR 97.407].5
One service within the amateur radio services that uses amateur stations during periods of emergencies is known as the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or RACES.6 To transmit in RACES, an amateur station must be certified and registered by a civil defense organization or an FCC-licensed RACES station. RACES is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and acts as a communications group of the government. Registered members of RACES are authorized to respond when a civil defense organization requests amateur radio assistance. Typically these activities occur during periods of local, regional or national civil emergencies such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods or wildfires. RACES stations may only communicate with specified stations [47CFR 97.407(c), (d)].
It is important to recognize that the amateur radio stations participating in RACES are certified by their local civil defense organizations for this specific purpose. The operators are a valuable resource that provides emergency communication capabilities to their community. Civil defense organizations establish their own training and certification standards. Some localities â€” for example, Arlington County, Virginia7 – have more stringent training and certification standards than others. The key component of the RACES program is the direct and recognized affiliation between the amateur radio operators and local authorities since RACES may provide a critical alternative communications link for local officials. For example, RACES operators serve the county by passing critical emergency information from county officials with the County Emergency Response Team (CERT) to RACES operators at other locations.
Although RACES stations operate in conjunction with a federal, state, tribal or local jurisdiction, there are other options for amateur radio operators in emergency communications to include the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). Together with the National Traffic System (NTS), these services are broad programs of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) which is a national association of radio amateur operators. ARES members are licensed amateur radio operators who volunteer to provide emergency communications services to public safety and public service organizations. Most individual ARES units are organized within a city, county or state and usually operate autonomously. The ARRL describes the ARES programs as follows: 8
“The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes. Every licensed amateur, regardless of membership in ARRL or any other local or national organization, is eligible for membership in ARES. The only qualification, other than possession of an Amateur Radio license, is a sincere desire to serve. Because ARES is an amateur service, only amateurs are eligible for membership. The possession of emergency-powered equipment is desirable, but is not a requirement for membership.”
Frequently, individuals interested in providing emergency communications are registered in both ARES and RACES. Dual registration allows continuity of operations if normal amateur operations might otherwise be prohibited.
RACES and ARES are collaborative services although they exist as separate volunteer entities. The ARRL encourages dual enrollment and cooperative efforts between both groups whenever possible. Both organizations remain a vital resource for the public safety community in times of crisis.
4 See the ARRL band plan at http://www.arrl.org/FandES/field/regulations/bands.html.
5 See FCC Part 97, Subpart E, Section 97.407 and http://www.usraces.org/.
6 See the Arlington County RACES web site http://www.w4ava.org.