Autopatch Guidelines / Calling 911

By Jonathan Imberi

Autopatch operation involves using a repeater as an interface to a local telephone exchange. Hams operating mobile or portable stations are able to use the autopatch to access the telephone system and place a call. Hams use autopatches to report traffic accidents, fires and other emergencies. There's no way to calculate the value of the lives and property saved by the intelligent use of autopatch facilities in emergencies. The public interest has been well served by amateurs with interconnect capabilities. As with any privilege, this one can be abused and the penalty for abuse could be the loss of the privilege for all amateurs. The suggested guidelines here are based on conventions that have been in use for years on a local or regional basis throughout the country. The ideas they represent have widespread support in the amateur community. Amateurs are urged to observe these standards carefully so our traditional freedom from government regulation may be preserved as much as possible. 

1) Although it's not the intent of the FCC Rules to let Amateur Radio operation be used to conduct an individual's or an organization's commercial affairs, autopatching involving business affairs may be conducted on Amateur Radio. (The FCC has stated that it considers nonprofit and noncommercial organizations "businesses.") On the other hand, amateurs are strictly prohibited from accepting any form of payment for operating their ham transmitters, they may not use Amateur Radio to conduct any form of business in which they have a financial interest and they may not use Amateur Radio in a way that economically benefits their employers. 

Amateurs should generally avoid using Amateur Radio for any purpose that may be perceived as abuse of the privilege. The point of allowing hams to involve themselves in "business" communication is to make it more convenient and to remove obstacles from ham operations in support of public service activities. Before this rule was revised in 1993, it was often technically illegal for amateurs to participate in many charitable and community service events because the FCC regarded any organization, commercial or noncommercial, as a business with respect to the rules, and prohibited hams from making any communications to in any way facilitate the business affairs of any party. That meant that operating a talk-in station for a local nonprofit radio club's ham fest constituted a violation! 

So now it's legal to use ham frequencies, including autopatch facilities, to communicate in such a way as to facilitate a business transaction. The distinction is essentially whether the amateur operator or his employer has a financial stake in the communication. This means that a ham may use a patch to call someone about a club event or activity, to make a dentist appointment, to order a pizza or to see if a load of dry cleaning is ready to be picked up. In such situations, the ham isn't in it for the money. However, no one may use the ham bands to dispatch taxicabs or delivery vans. to send paid messages, to place a sales call to a customer, or to cover news stories for the local media (except in emergencies if no other means of communication is available). If the ham is paid for or will profit from the communication, it may not be conducted on an amateur frequency. That's why there are telephones and commercial business radio services available. 

Use care in calling a business telephone via an amateur autopatch. Calls may be legally made to one's office to receive or to leave personal messages, although using Amateur Radio to avoid the cost of public telephones, commercial cellular telephones or two-way business-band radio isn't considered appropriate to the purpose of the amateur service. Calls made in the interests of highway safety, such as for the removal of injured persons from the scene of an accident or for the removal of a disabled vehicle from a hazardous location, are clearly permitted. 

A final word on business communications: Just because the FCC says that a ham can place a call involving business matters on a repeater or autopatch doesn't mean that a repeater licensee or control operator must allow you to do so! If he or she prefers to restrict all such contacts, he or she has the right to terminate your access to the system. A club, for instance, may decide that it would rather not have members order commercial goods over the repeater autopatch and may vote to forbid members from doing so. The radio station's licensee and control operator are responsible for what goes over the air and have the right to refuse anyone access to the station for any reason. 

2) All interconnections must be made in accordance with telephone company rules and fee schedules (tariffs). If you have trouble obtaining information about them from telephone company representatives, the tariffs are available for public inspection at your telephone company office. Although some local telephone companies consider Amateur Radio organizations to be commercial entities and subject to business telephone rates, many repeater organizations, as noncommercial volunteer public service groups, have successfully arranged for telephone lines at repeater sites to be charged at the lower residential rate. 

3) Autopatches should not be made solely to avoid telephone toll charges. Autopatches should never be made when normal telephone service could be just as easily used. The primary purpose of an autopatch is to provide vital, convenient access to authorities during emergencies. Operators should exercise care, judgment and restraint in placing routine calls. 

4) Third parties (non hams) should not be put on the air until the responsible control operator has explained to them the nature of Amateur Radio. Control of the station must never be relinquished to an unlicensed person. Permitting a person you don't know well to conduct a patch in a language you don't understand amounts to relinquishing control because you don't know whether what they are discussing is permitted by FCC rules. 

5) Autopatches must be terminated immediately in the event of any illegality or impropriety. 

6) Station identification must be strictly observed. 

7) Phone patches should be kept as brief as possible, as a courtesy to other amateurs; the amateur bands are intended primarily for communication among radio amateurs, not to permit hams to communicate with non hams who can only be reached by telephone. 

8) If you have any doubt as to the legality or advisability of a patch, don't make it. Compliance with these guidelines will help ensure that amateur autopatch privileges will continue to be available in the future, which helps the Amateur Radio service contribute to the public interest. 

Calling 911 

During an emergency, you may be the first or only person available to report it to the appropriate public safety agency (police, tire or rescue). When this happens, the most crucial information you must provide is the nature of the emergency and its precise location. The primary purpose of autopatching is the capability to place telephone calls to public service agencies if you need to report an emergency. That may not always be as simple as if sounds. There are also technical considerations that have the potential to create confusion. 

More than 30 million Americans are served by Enhanced 911 Service. This service permits Public Service Answering Points (P.S.A.P.s) to automatically identify the number of the telephone from which a 911 call is placed and to pinpoint its location. Many repeaters are set up so hams can dial 911 via their radios. Enhanced 911 Service complicates matters. If you dial 911 via repeater autopatch, the P.S.A.P. attendant receives a computer display or printout of the location of the repeater's telephone equipment. Unless the emergency happens to be at the repeater site, this information is useless and misleading. Instead, you must inform the P.S.A.P. attendant that the emergency is located elsewhere. 

The P.S.A.P. attendant has no interest in hearing that you're a ham radio operator, that you're using a repeater autopatch or what your call sign may be. The main concern is the emergency and exactly where the response personnel must be sent. Before you dial 911 on an autopatch, you must know precisely where assistance is needed. Don't say, "I'm not sure where I am, but I lust passed an exit sign that said Central City" or "I'm somewhere on Route 2 heading south out of Springfield." When you place the call, immediately tell the operator what happened and where. It's a good idea to grab a pencil and paper, and note the details first. Be prepared to say, "I'm a ham radio operator calling from my car and I'd like to report a westbound tractor-trailer truck that just overturned on the center median at mile marker 32 on Interstate 20 just east of Glendale. I'm at the accident site and the driver is conscious, but he's stuck inside the cab and appears to be injured." This is no time to describe Amateur Radio, repeaters or autopatching. The P.S.A.P. attendant probably doesn't even care about your name, much less your call sign or other mumbo jumbo. If he needs to know more, he'll ask you. He may ask if there is a fire, if other vehicles are involved, if traffic is obstructed, whether there's any sign of a chemical spill or how recently the accident happened. Otherwise, complete the call and terminate the patch. 

It's important to know what truly constitutes an emergency. Call 911 when there's immediate danger to human life or property. This includes auto accidents, fires, airplane crashes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, criminal assaults, downed electrical power lines, accidents while hiking, camping, skiing or boating, a person suddenly taken ill, and other such traumatic situations. It doesn't include disabled vehicles (flat tires and the like), littering, animals struck by cars and other such incidents which been reported to P.S.A.P. attendants by hams and other people. 

Your local Amateur Radio club may be able to prepare its members for a valuable community service by arranging a training session to be given by public safety officials familiar with the operation of Enhanced 911 Services. They can explain how it works in your area and what are the right ways to use it. There are particular techniques and details that make P.S.A.P. attendants' jobs easier and improve your ability to effectively summon aid when it's needed. 

One other thing to keep in mind: There are thousands of cars equipped with mobile cellular telephones today. Unlike a decade ago, you're not likely to always be the only person around who's equipped for immediate communication with public safety agencies. You should, however, be a trained, skillful professional communicator when it comes to using your equipment. Because most non hams aren't trained to communicate under emergency conditions, public safety agencies continue to respect Amateur Radio operators as a reliable source of backup communication support in emergencies. To maintain that high standard, it's vital that you receive the proper training and keep your skills sharp through drills, practice and experience. Someday your ham radio may save someone's life. 

Authorized Repeater Bands 

The FCC permits US amateurs to operate repeaters in the following frequency ranges: 

Frequency (MHZ)- - - - - -Wavelength 

29.5-29.7- - - - - - - - - - - 10 meters 

51.0-54.0- - - - - - - - -6 meters 

144.5-145.5- - - - - - - - - -2 meters 

146-148- - - - - - - - - - - - 2 meters 

222.15-225.0- - - - - - -1.25 meters 

420-431- - - - - - - - - - - - 70 cm 

433-435 - - - - - - - - - - - -70 cm 

435-450 - - - - - - - - - - - -70 cm 

902-928- - - - - - - - - - - - -33 cm 

1240-1300- - - - - - - - - - - -23 cm 

The ARRL has published band plans to guide amateurs in the establishment and use of operating modes on all ham bands, based on organized general agreement among all Amateur Radio operators in the interest of cooperation and operating practice. Appropriate frequencies for each type of authorized amateur operation are specifically recommended for each amateur band. For example, there are explicit segments of the above sub bands where the general amateur population accepts repeater operation and other segments where it is strongly discouraged.