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Are We Leaders of Our Field?

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  • Are We Leaders of Our Field?

    Why public safety communications professionals must keep up with FCC rules and regulations

    By Michael Scales

    Public Safety employees (law enforcement, fire, EMS and now communications) have always been held to a higher standard. That statement is more evident today than in the past. As such, communications has not always been considered front line public safety but the unsung voices, faces and a lot of times heroes of public safety. We in the communications center and field are now being recognized as public safety front liners and are in the news because of the efforts of our lawmakers. We are actively in the public eye.

    Recent discussions and training opportunities have exposed disturbing trends that have evolved in public safety communications over the last decade. One of these trends believes government agencies (state, county and local) are immune from federal regulations. Another is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will not penalize a government agency for violations. The first trend may be invalidated by looking at the enforcement register for several different federal agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission. Their logs show not only the private side but the public side as well is notified of their violations are subject to myriad penalties. Complaints are filed daily against state, county and local agencies. These complaints vary from violations of civil rights, traffic violations and, of course, include violations of FCC rules and regulations.

    A few years ago, budget cuts forced the FCC to cut back on the activities of their enforcement division. However, it did not shut down the enforcement division, it only restructured it to answer complaints instead of run active enforcement programs. They no longer had a proactive search for violations and now respond to complaints filed by others.

    It appears that there are administrators in our ranks who have developed an attitude of passive noncompliance as the general feeling is the FCC won’t find out and won’t investigate. We have heard the supervisor/director/administrator sating, “The rules are antiquated, and since there is a very small chance of getting caught – why do we need the extra expense to completely follow these rules?” We can all think about the citizen who would speak similarly of the traffic or criminal code – or maybe even a civil rule that they feel is unjust and outdated. The FCC has a process to review their rules and processes. As such, the rules have lightened up over the years to help the agencies with their dwindling funding and not require annual equipment maintenance or testing. While 47 CFR 90.433 indicates that you should test equipment as often as needed, and document the maintenance, how many agencies have active maintenance programs on their systems? We all know that an annual maintenance program from a vendor is expensive. But so is down time caused by failed communications equipment that may result because equipment is not properly maintained.

    Is your vendor keeping you updated on the status of your license and your equipment? When a notice of renewal or construction is required are they proactive in filing appropriate notices? Does your radio system broadcast their full FCC License call sign? If not, do the public safety telecommunicators? Are they timely in the broadcast? Are we even aware of the requirements of 47 CFR 90.425? This is the requirements for station identification. FCC rules (47 CFR 90) are online and updated regularly. Who is the person or position listed on your radio license as the contact for the FCC? They will be the first ones the FCC tries to contact to mitigate the issues once a complaint is field. Make sure the contact information is current because missing a notice from the FCC could be very expensive.

    Could you imagine the public outcry if your agency was notified of a violation? Think about the last time a government-owned vehicle was involved in an accident; no matter who was at fault I would bet it made the local evening news.

    For those in charge, what would happen if the radio did not work when needed, if a life is lost, property damaged injuries occur as a consequence? What if an employee or child suffers a RF Burn by touching a car or antenna because the equipment is not properly maintained. The media spin will be only the beginning. A visit from the FCC, and possibly from OSHA would be the next expectations. A $150 radio maintenance visit versus the court award; which would you rather have? Did your tower that the wind blew down get inspected regularly? If the radio does not work in your vehicle, what else doesn’t either? Does the antenna on your portable radio point off in a tangent? Is the insulation broken? Does the battery last all shift or does it fail early?

    We all have the bean counters who remind us of the public dollars that are spent on our agencies. We also have the responsibility to ensure the trust of the public that we are operating legally, respectful of the monies and trust given us by the voters, and residents of our jurisdictions. What happens to the driver with an burned out headlight or bad tires? How about the businesses that may have trash in front of their fire exits? Are these violations the same as breaking an FCC Rule? The damages could easily result in the same level of injury or death.

    A conversation with your risk management team would be a great idea. Once the risk is determined and with their support, you may have justifications for your budget requests. Does your field training officer, or communications training officer have knowledge of the FCC rules, the best practice programs and RF Safety training that your agency should be looking at? Does your state academy teach any of the FCC Rules as a part of the basic training? While working with law enforcement components of your agencies, you may want to suggest to the academy boards to review this and add a 4-6 hour block on 47 CFR 90 and the associated rules that govern our part of the public safety program.

    In addition to being safe, we should also be legal. Is our paperwork complete, correct and filed? If we have older licenses, has anyone checked to see if the location information for the agency contact as well as the location(s) of your equipment is proper and up to date? Your license information is important.

    While not mandated by the FCC anymore, 47 CFR 90.443, 445 and 447 are still on the books for the format and use of station logs. Best practice indicates appropriate use could provide evidence of proper maintenance should the need arise.

    We all want to be professional in our jobs. We would love to brag about our agencies and the way they work to keep employees and the public safe. There is a happy meeting here between the risk management and accounting folks, but this will require everyone to be aware of the rules of the game and how to play it safely. We all want to go home to our families tonight, and so does the public. As leaders in the communications field, APCO AFC has the resources to assist you with your FCC requirements. There are several vendors that specialize in RF safety, tower inspections and other specialties you will need to stay on the right side of these issues. Consider what happens if we fail to provide a legal and appropriate service to our residents, voters and visitors. Is your attorney ready for the litigation?