For Immediate Release June 6, 2016
NEW COLORADO LAW CREATES AUXILIARY EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS UNIT WITHIN THE STATE’S DIVISION OF HOMELAND SECURITY AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
(Denver, Colorado)—The State of Colorado is leading the way in formally implementing the recommendations contained in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) report to the United States Congress regarding utilizing amateur radio operators during disasters and emergencies, GN docket number 12-91.
Colorado’s House Bill 16-1040 was signed into law today (June 6, 2016) by Governor John Hickenlooper creating the Auxiliary Emergency Communications Unit in the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in the Department of Public Safety. The law passed through all legislative committees and both houses of the Colorado General Assembly unanimously. “The unanimous support of the Colorado Legislature on the AuxComm Bill serves as testimony to the level of cooperation that currently exists between the State of Colorado and members of the Colorado Amateur Radio Emergency Service. This Bill will make it possible for Colorado ARES to further enhance the level of emergency communications services during times of need within our State,” said ARRL Colorado Section Manager Jack Ciaccia.
Colorado’s General Assembly found that “Having a uniformly trained and credentialed unit of communication volunteers available for disaster response will materially assist emergency preparedness and disaster response efforts across the state.” Lawmakers also acknowledged that “In recent years amateur radio operators have been called upon by state and local governments to act as communication experts across a broader range of duties and responsibilities that extend beyond traditional amateur radio communication.” The findings went on to note that “While maintaining their traditional roles as amateur radio operators, many of these volunteers assist with the establishment and maintenance of communication facilities, assist with programming public safety radios during emergencies, and act as radio operators on public safety channels. During the past year, amateur radio operators have performed tens of thousands of hours of devoted service to the people of Colorado.”
The new law was conceived by Colorado Section Emergency Coordinator and State Government Liaison Robert Wareham, NØESQ, while sitting with DHSEM staff in a restaurant after completing FEMA’s Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) Auxiliary Emergency Communications course in the early summer of 2012. Over that same summer, and the next year, Colorado experienced multiple major disasters including wildfires that destroyed several hundred homes and a 500-year-flood that inundated much of north central Colorado. Amateur radio operators played key roles in responding to all of those disasters. “The real-life laboratory of successive major disaster helped us quickly realize the need for statewide response capabilities; which ideas worked, and which ones didn’t,” said Wareham. “In essence, we had the perfect storm of major disasters, FCC recommendations to Congress, and FEMA OEC sponsored training to bring it all together into the current auxiliary communications framework,” he added.
Under provisions of the new statute, Colorado ARES will enter in to a section level Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the state’s Office of Emergency Management to recruit, train, credential, coordinate, and supervise members of the Auxiliary Emergency Communications Unit. “Too often valuable amateur radio resources are diluted by having multiple organizations in a single community competing with one another, such as having separate ARES and RACES organizations in a single county. Under the Colorado Model, all Colorado ARES members who meet the training and background check requirements of the AuxComm Unit will be issued credentials that will be recognized statewide,” Wareham explained. The law expressly provides that the AuxComm Unit performs all RACES functions for the state.
Wareham, an attorney, drafted the original bill and presented it to Representative Jonathan Singer (D-Boulder County), whose district had been severely affected by the 2013 floods; and Senator Chris Holbert (R-Douglas County). Singer agreed to be the prime sponsor of the Bill, while Holbert agreed to carry it in the state Senate. “It took longer than we expected, but in the end, the wait was worth it,” noted Wareham. In a tight budget year, the Colorado House made the bill one of its top ten priorities for discretionary funding by that body. In negotiations near the end of the session, Senate leaders agreed to match House funding from its discretionary funds to clear the way for passage of the Bill.
“The way we envision the amateur radio emergency communications community in Colorado is as a triangle with the tip pointed up. On the base level are all amateur radio operators. Hams who show an interest in community service join ARES® and complete some training. The top tier of the triangle are hams who show a commitment to emergency communications by an investment in equipment, uniforms, go kits, and advanced training. Obviously, the farther up the triangle you move, the more commitment and training are required. Colorado AuxComm certification will also require a criminal background check,” Wareham added. “When a disaster strikes that crosses multiple local political jurisdictions the state steps in to support local first responders. In the same way, AuxComm members will be mobilized statewide to provide emergency communications support,” he explained. Auxiliary Communicators will receive state issued identification cards based upon OEM’s Salamander credentialing system—the same system used to credential full-time employees of the office. Local agencies can receive the volunteers knowing they meet specific training standards and have been vetted. Local governments will be encouraged to create their own AuxComm units made up of operators meeting the state credentialing requirements to utilize in local emergencies. The law expressly prohibits any organization from representing that it is an Auxiliary Communications Unit unless its members meet the credentialing requirements established by the state.
While the bill makes it clear that the unit is comprised of unpaid volunteers who are ham radio operators, it, for the first time, authorizes the reimbursement of reasonable and necessary expenses of auxiliary communicators. The bill also broadened the circumstances under which any disaster volunteer, not just auxiliary communicators, would receive Workmen’s Compensation benefits and tort immunity, similar to state or local government employees. The law also includes auxiliary communicators among those volunteers who cannot be terminated from employment for responding in support of a declared emergency. “This statute puts volunteer Amateur Radio operators on an equal footing with volunteer firefighters and other rescue workers with respect to legal benefits and protections. “The efforts of the Section ARRL officials in partnering with legislators on both sides of the aisle in the state house and senate serves as a model of how to work with lawmakers to protect and enhance Amateur Radio in Colorado,” said ARRL Rocky Mountain Division Vice-Director Jeff Ryan. Finally, the statute authorizes OEM to expend funds in support of strengthening the amateur radio infrastructure in the state of Colorado; and the General Assembly appropriated roughly $60,000 to administer the new program in the 2016-2017 budget year.
In 2012, Congress ordered the FCC to study the role of amateur radio operators and whether there were impediments to their expanded use during disasters and other emergencies. The FCC was given six months to investigate, gather comments, and report back to Congress. That report, GN docket number 12-91 recommended that the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) work with state, local, and tribal authorities to develop disaster area access policies and qualifications for trained amateur radio operators who provide emergency communications support. Colorado is believed to be the first state to formally create an AuxComm Unit by statute addressing many of the recommendations sent to Congress.
This is the second year in a row that a bill supporting amateur radio has unanimously passed out of Colorado’s General Assembly. Last year the State of Colorado codified the limited federal preemption of PRB-1 into Colorado law. Prior legislative successes include language limiting the scope of a tower painting bill on agricultural lands, and a provision specifically exempting amateur radio operators from the provisions of the hands-free cell phone bill in 2009. Wareham has now testified six times before legislative committees in support of amateur radio. In one of this year’s hearings one lawmaker actually questioned, “Weren’t you here last year?” The new law takes effect on August 10, 2016. Wareham hopes to have the MoU between Colorado ARES and DHSEM in place by then.