HDSCS Responds to Editorial about Amateur Radio Communications for Hospitals

The March 2009 issue of QST Magazine contains an editorial by Dennis Dura K2DCD, who was at that time the ARRL Emergency Preparedness and Response Manager, titled "EMCOMMENTARY: Doing the right thing." This editorial, without the title, was also included at the end of  The ARRL E-Letter of February 18, 2009.

According to Mr. Dura, medical facilities have a two-fold need for communication in disasters:

  1. They need to "pass information to and from the local governmental and public safety structure." The Dura editorial states that it's OK for ham operators to do this because medical facilities play a critical role in the emergency management structure of the community.

  2. They need to "maintain a capability to talk to operations and facilities of the medical facility itself." The Dura editorial claims that it's not OK for ham operators to do this because it is merely enabling a medical facility to continue conducting its business.

No examples of improper business continuity communications were given. We are greatly concerned by this lack of clarity in a position statement from the headquarters of our national association of Amateur Radio operators. Its apparent blanket disapproval of all Amateur Radio messaging related to operation of medical facilities demonstrates a lack of understanding of hospital communications needs and the applicable Amateur Radio regulations. From years of experience, we know that many operational messages are directly related to patient care. Sending and receiving such messages is a vital public service that is in full compliance with FCC rules.

HDSCS does not provide "business continuity" communications. We don't pass messages related to patient billing, employee overtime payments, ordering of office supplies, and so forth. Our stated mission is backing up the communications that are critical to patient care. We help hospitalized patients by providing care-related message-handling for the persons who are responsible for their lives and safety.

In her presentations to Amateur Radio clubs and hospital organizations, April often shows the following two slides, which give actual examples of internal (unit-to-unit within the hospital) and external (hospital-to/from-outside-world) messages that HDSCS members have sent and received when telephone systems have failed or been overloaded. Note that every message was for the benefit of patients (i.e. the public), not for the continuity of business operations.

Sample external hospital messages

Sample external hospital messages

Because the main beneficiaries were patients at risk, these messages clearly were "legal" on Amateur Radio frequencies per FCC rule 97.403,* even when they involved "operations and facilities" matters such as ordering of patient care supplies and repair of air handling systems.

Everyone agrees that communications between hospitals and the various agencies of government and public safety are vital after an area-wide disaster. But HDSCS believes that it is short-sighted for Amateur Radio leaders to only be concerned about "big ones" such as earthquakes and hurricanes. As this HDSCS Web site clearly shows, we have learned that for every large disaster such as an earthquake or firestorm, there are many "little disasters" such as severed trunk lines, power outages, and equipment failures that disrupt communications within and between hospitals. In the parlance of our county's Emergency Medical Service Agency, such single-hospital communications failures are often declared as "internal disasters."

When telephone systems fail or are overloaded in big disasters or little ones, patient care personnel cannot communicate with outside physicians and suppliers. Sometimes the phones don't work between the patient units and important internal services like Pharmacy and Laboratory. This puts the lives and safety of patients at risk. Amateur Radio operators can be of service if they are organized, trained and prepared, and if there is a robust system to alert them of the need. That is why we believe that more Amateur Radio emergency response groups around the country should move beyond the limited concept of only providing hospital messaging to and from governmental agencies and only in major disasters when all else has failed. Operational messages related to patient care, whether internal or external and whether in big communications outages or small ones, are just as important.

E-mail comments to comments@hdscs.org

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* FCC 97.403 - Safety of life and protection of property: "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."


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This page updated 27 April 2010