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I've been tasked to help update my organization's emergency contingencies and ham radios were brought up. We provide residential services to the mentally handicapped and we are looking at ways to make sure the staffed houses can talk to each other as well as the administration team in case all other forms of communication were down.

I've just started researching the subject and I'm a bit confused as to what qualifies as "commercial" use under the statues. We are providing services to the community, but we're a non-profit, so I'm unsure if that changes things. Also, would we need to have each house have someone licensed or just the centralized point of contact on the administrative side (which would likely be me)?

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    $\begingroup$ I think of the "non-commercial" concept in that the ham is strictly a volunteer and should expect nor demand any compensation for providing communications. I'd be very wary of having employees (or even regular organization volunteers) that happen to be hams using their equipment for the organization even in an emergency. Soliciting volunteer help from an unrelated ham group to provide communications would be less marginal, IMO. $\endgroup$ – Duston Mar 3 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ What country are you in? $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Mar 3 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ I'm in the US, and while I get Duston's point in the situations where we would need to use this method I can't guarantee I could get volunteer hams to the homes in question. $\endgroup$ – Michael Ramirez Mar 3 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ Have you looked into GMRS? That sounds like a better fit for your situation; unlike ham no training is required, yet the licensing is cheaper than full-blown commercial. It would be similar to using an FRS radio with a bit higher power. $\endgroup$ – natevw - AF7TB Mar 3 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ What range are you looking for? Would using an ISM band suffice? $\endgroup$ – Mast Mar 4 at 6:13
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In the United States, Under the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 47, §97.113 "Prohibited transmissions":

(a) No amateur station shall transmit
(2) Communications for hire or for material compensation, direct or indirect, paid or promised, except as otherwise provided in these rules;
(3) Communications in which the station licensee or control operator has a pecuniary interest, including communications on behalf of an employer.
(5) Communications, on a regular basis, which could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services.

(That quote omitted some parts for the sake of shortness; here's the whole thing.) So in the US the standard is not whether or not the business that you work for is a non-profit. If you're being paid to use the radio, then you can't use amateur radio bands in ordinary usage.

However, §97.403 "Safety of life and protection of property" says:

No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

So it seems to me, a non-lawyer whose advice should be taken with a generous helping of salt, that if you're in the US, then you and your fellow employees couldn't use amateur radio for your employer under any circumstances outside of an emergency, except for emergency drills not to exceed one hour per week (see 47 C.F.R § 97.113 (a)(3)(i)). But that being said, it might not be a bad idea for you and other employees to get ham radio licenses and radios, and create an emergency plan for when all other electronic forms of communication are down.

I'll echo @ZeissIcon's advice to say that in an emergency, it's not enough to have a license and a radio. You should also have plenty of practice, and you should regularly test the radios to make sure that they'll work when you need them. So if you do decide to pursue ham radio for emergency communication, get buy-in from your fellow employees, and all of you use the radios to check into your local club's weekly net at a minimum.

The American Radio Relay League has published some helpful guidelines on appropriate usage of amateur radio here.

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  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate the advice! Right now I'm just thinking from a logistical standpoint with 3 shifts per house and no idea what shift might be on when a disaster hits that I'd be looking at a lot of licenses. Should I be looking into Part 90 Land Mobile instead to save myself some headaches? $\endgroup$ – Michael Ramirez Mar 3 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ Part 90 does seem like it would have a lot of advantages: your company could use the radios all the time for ordinary purposes, and employees wouldn't need much training. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Mar 3 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ Since it looks like orgs can't get a GMRS license now I will probably have to go that way. Know this is out of the realm of amateur radio but do you have any suggestions on where to start? $\endgroup$ – Michael Ramirez Mar 3 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ I'd recommend getting in touch with a local two-way radio company. If your facilities are all close enough that two walkie-talkies can always talk directly to each other, then a simplex frequency would probably be enough, which would be relatively inexpensive to license. If not, then you'll want a repeater, which would cost more; you'd probably want to ask about what the emergency power for such a repeater would be. A good two-way radio company can help you navigate the complexities, and should keep the pricing transparent. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Mar 3 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ Do think about getting your own ham license, and getting in touch with your local ARES group, which could prove helpful when all other electronic forms of communication have failed. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Mar 3 at 16:54
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As I understand it, it's legal under FCC rules for anyone, licensed or not, to use any frequency or mode of radio communication as necessary in an emergency. This includes, but is not limited to, police/fire/EMS radios, CB, ham (even tuned outside legal ham bands, if the hardware has the capability), using voice in digital-only or CW-only sub-bands, etc.

That said, a key to emergency preparedness is practice -- and since your practice isn't a real emergency, anyone transmitting during a practice scenario must be properly licensed and using legal equipment and permitted bands.

In the case you describe, I don't see that your goal is different from S&R groups, run/bicycle road race groups, and others who routinely either enlist local hams for their event communications (unquestionably legal, as long as the event isn't a business operation), or go through the process of licensing their own members.

Technician licenses are surprisingly easy and cheap to earn, and the bands that permit Technician licensees to use voice have convenient repeaters available to ensure adequate communication range. As long as the communications aren't being used for the purposes of a for-profit business (no dispatching pizza deliveries or courier services, for instance), there should be no legal problems with licensed operators and certified equipment (which is also not very expensive; a 50 W dual-band mobile/base rig and antenna installation can run under $300 per station).

Where you may run into a snag is the provision in Title 47, §97.113 about "Communications, on a regular basis, which could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services." This could be interpreted to mean that since your organization could obtain a business licensed communication setup (private/shared repeater and licensed-by-group station radios, like a taxi company dispatch system), that you are required to do so for actual business communication.

The ambiguity here is that you're proposing to use these radios only during communication breakdowns (phone and cell service out, for instance). I'd recommend starting by checking with your ARRL local rep (the local ham club can most likely put you in touch).

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In the case you outline, it probably wouldn't be legal. The other answers give the rules in terms of what can be done in an actual emergency. However, to be able to respond to an actual emergency you need to

  1. Have radio equipment on hand at each location
  2. Have employees at each location trained in the usage of that equipment (and licensed for any non-emergency traffic)
  3. Include radio communication as part of larger safety drills on how to respond in an emergency

I don't know about paying employees to get a license, edit some training is allowed on the employers time, however I've heard of one case where an emergency organization donating some equipment and providing meeting space was seen as a form of compensation (I wouldn't have thought it either, but the club corrected it by removing the equipment and meeting elsewhere).

Since you're proposing use by regular employees another license type would be more appropriate.

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  • $\begingroup$ In my answer I cited §97.113, copied from the ARRL document linked to in my answer, but it turns out that the citation wasn't complete. §97.113 (a)(3)(i) says "A station licensee or station control operator may participate on behalf of an employer in an emergency preparedness or disaster readiness test or drill, limited to the duration and scope of such test or drill, and operational testing immediately prior to such test or drill." There's more; look it up at eCFR. I agree with your other conclusions, but employees can be paid for drills up to one hour per week. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Mar 4 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ @rclocher3 that's a great addition, thanks. That makes this sort of use case much more practical. $\endgroup$ – user2699 Mar 5 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ You're welcome, and welcome to ham.stackexchange.com! $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Mar 5 at 14:19

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