Is CAL FIRE Trying to Dismantle the Ham Radio System Amid Blackouts and Wildfires?
EDITOR'S NOTE: After two readers reached out to PJ Media asking us to investigate this story further, we've determined that the details may be more complicated than at first glance. According to a press release from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio, fears about the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) seeking to dismantle the Ham radio system may have been overblown. "By all credible and reliable accounts, the State of California has not turned its back on Amateur Radio as an emergency communication resource nor have established repeater owners been asked to remove their equipment from state-owned sites unless they pay sizeable fees," the organization said.
If that's the case, why did a CAL FIRE official send a letter to a repeater owner/group informing them that amateur radio equipment would have to be removed from state-owned sites if they didn't pay up? The official has not responded to a request for comment from the ARRL, so it's not clear what happened.
“The State of California has not made any determination we can find ‘that Ham Radio [is] no longer a benefit,’” Pacific Division Director Jim Tiemstra wrote at the Sacramento Valley Section website. [Emphasis added] “What happened is that CAL FIRE has transferred responsibility for its communications sites to its property management department. That department has the task of evaluating each site, its condition, use, and tenants. If a repeater not known to be associated with the emergency management function of a local jurisdiction is found in a CAL FIRE vault, the default action is to move it out or subject it to commercial rental rates.”
“Our contact in the California Office of Emergency Services suggests that, if any affected repeater is in any way involved with local emergency or government support activity, they should ask that agency to engage with CAL FIRE concerning the repeater. If the agency makes the case, there is a good chance that the repeater will be unaffected,” Tiemstra added.
Cal Fire needs to get this straightened out immediately so that amateur radio operators can get back to the important job of providing vital communication links to their communities without having to fear they could be hammered by fines levied by zealous bureaucrats.
As if things aren't bad enough in California with wildfires and power outages, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has decided that Ham radio equipment in remote areas must be removed unless radio operators cough up a big fee to lease the land from the government. In an email to Ham operators, Lorina Pisi wrote:
I do understand and appreciate all of the service you have provided in the past. However, with constantly changing technological advances, there is no longer the same benefit to State as previously provided. Therefore, the Department no longer financially supports HAM operators radios or tenancy. If you desire to enter into a formal agreement to operate and maintain said equipment, you must complete and submit attached collocation application along with fee as outlined on page one of application. There is cost associated with getting an agreement in place. In addition to the technical analysis fee ($2500/application), there is DGS Lease admin cost associated (typically between $3000-$5000) with preparation of lease. Also, there will be an annual rent charge based upon equipment type/space.
Ham operators have been assisting fire and emergency services for free for years. Their contributions are well-documented. The equipment costs the state nothing, as it is operated by the owners. There is no benefit to removing it and, in fact, removing the only source of communication available when the power is out and the cell towers are down is downright criminal. Ham radio is a time-tested, low-cost, reliable means of communication when emergencies strike. OffGrid Survival reports, "What is infuriating here is people are going to die because of this decision. It costs the State of California nothing to allow these repeaters on public land; in fact, Ham Radio Operators pay for the equipment and maintain the equipment at their own cost. Ham Radio operators also make nothing from running these radio repeaters; they do so as a service to the public to help ensure the public’s safety during natural disasters and emergencies."
Instead of continuing to use a system that has worked for decades, the California government has instituted a cell communication plan that has already failed.
In 2012 the federal government launched FirstNet, a public safety nationwide broadband network that many in the government think will make Ham radio operators obsolete. In reality, its nothing more than a $47 Billion Federal Cell Phone Network that itself is already obsolete. In fact, it needs LOTS of infrastructure to function, and it creates multiple, single points of failure.
According to The Atlantic, "FirstNet is in such disarray that 15 years after the problem it is supposed to solve was identified, it is years from completion—and it may never get completed at all. According to the GAO, estimates of its cost range from $12 billion to $47 billion, even as advances in digital technology seem to have eliminated the need to spend any of it."
OffGrid Survival may have identified the actual issue:
The real story here is Ham Radio is a threat to the government. We make them look stupid! They spend billions on infrastructure that breaks down, while we can literally take a hundred bucks in equipment, some random wires, and in minutes set up a radio system that can communicate with anyone in the world. Hell, I’ve used my kid’s slinky, some Television Coax Cable, and a solar battery system to build a mobile rig that I’ve used to talk to people around the world — You can check out the Radio Rig Here. They don’t want the public to realize that we can take care of ourselves, and do a much better and cheaper job doing so!
They should also consider that the government hates watching anyone succeed at anything without the state getting its cut. Most likely, the fire district knows that Ham operators aren't going to watch their whole system dismantled and expects them to pay to keep it.
The list of emergencies where Ham operators have saved the day is extensive and can be read in this letter from operators to Pisi at the fire district.
Megan Fox is the author of “Believe Evidence; The Death of Due Process from Salome to #MeToo.” Follow on Twitter @MeganFoxWriter