ARRL Hudson Division Director Mike Lisenco, N2YBB, testified Thursday (January 25) before a session of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation regarding Amateur Radio’s readiness to respond in an emergency. The session, “This is not a Drill: An Examination of Emergency Alert Systems,” was called in the wake of an incoming missile warning erroneously released in Hawaii earlier this month. Lisenco said Amateur Radio played a role not only in responding to the warning but in disseminating word that the missile alert had been issued by mistake.
Lisenco said the Hawaii Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) activated on UHF and via a VHF inter-island repeater network, and amateur stations monitored the alert and cancellation activity, which came less than 1 day after RACES had completed an Amateur Radio communication exercise at the State Emergency Operations Center (EOC). In his written testimony, Lisenco recounted that the situation after the missile warning in Hawaii was chaotic.
“The phone lines into the State EOC were soon overwhelmed and congested, and the website was overwhelmed with public inquiries,” he said. Lisenco said that in such situations, Amateur Radio volunteers typically are present at state or county EOCs and at the State Warning Point, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. He pointed out that the cancellation of the false warning circulated on various information outlets 13 minutes after the missile warning went out.
“That was picked up and relayed through the Amateur Radio networks,” he told the Committee in written testimony. “The cellphone alert system could not be used for the cancellation notice until prior FEMA approval was obtained. Once that was obtained, the cancellation alert went out to the cellphone network after 38 minutes from the initial alert.”
“Many people had received the warning first on their cell phones through the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, but a cancellation on that same system was substantially delayed,” Lisenco said. “The result was that Amateur Radio networks disseminated validated cancellation information long before the cellular networks were able to do so.”
Lisenco took the opportunity to address how private land-use regulations can preclude Amateur Radio disaster response capabilities.
“There is no substitute for the ready availability of a residential Amateur Radio station in daily operation from a licensee’s residence,” he said. “The licensee cannot be expected to have the ability to communicate into or from a disaster site unless he or she has a station with an effective outdoor antenna capable of operation on multiple frequency bands at once, which is ready to be pressed into service from the licensee’s residence at a moment’s notice.”
Lisenco reminded the panel members that the Amateur Radio Parity Act of 2017 is now pending before the Committee. “[Senate Bill 1534] is a balanced, completely bipartisan bill that would fully protect both the entitlement of Amateur Radio volunteers to…provide emergency, disaster relief and public service communications, while…protecting the aesthetic concerns and the jurisdiction of homeowners’ associations,” Lisenco said in his written remarks, noting that the bill is unopposed. “We are in desperate need of this legislation, and without it, the volunteer emergency communications services provided by Amateur Radio will be precluded. We urge the Committee in the strongest terms to please approve and send this legislation forward without delay,” Lisenco said.
Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, a co-sponsor with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, of the Amateur Radio Parity Act, attended the hearing. Responding to a question from Wicker at the hearing, Lisenco pointed out that an early US Coast Guard warning cancellation notice was relayed to Amateur Radio networks and disseminated quickly, while the State Warning Point waited to obtain FEMA authorization to rescind the warning via cellular phones. As a result, Amateur Radio networks were able to disseminate validated cancellation information long before the cellular networks were able to do so. Wicker issued a statement noting Lisenco’s testimony and posted a video clip of his exchange with Lisenco.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, convened the hearing, called to “examine policy concerns surrounding the use and effectiveness of Emergency Alert Systems including Wireless Emergency Alerts, as well as recent system failures, including but not limited to the mistaken missile alert in Hawaii.”
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