FCC Actions Favorable to Fire Service
Recent moves by the Federal Communications Commission have had a direct bearing on the fire service. A report and order issued early in October and effective in November concerned the 25 to 42 mc “split” channels. This section of the so-called low-band VHF frequencies was not included in the original narrow-band technical standards promulgated five years ago.
In its action the FCC awarded the fire service 14 additional radio frequency assignments in the low band. Originally the Commission had not contemplated giving the fire service any extra channels resulting from the split. However representations made to it by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Municipal Signal Association and a large number of individual fire departments apparently convinced the FCC the original 39 channels in the 30 me area were not sufficient for its present and future needs. As a result, a total of 53 frequencies are now available in the low part of the band. These will help alleviate present congestion and promote acquisition of radio by departments still lacking this essential tool.
The Commission took note of the fact the fire service has steadily increased its use of low-band frequencies by efficient sharing through mutual aid plans. It mentioned that the majority of statewide fire radio operations are carried on in the low-band area and expressed the opinion that continuation of this practice will be properly carried otit by making available these split channels to the fire service.
Prior to this action the FCC had issued public notice on September 19 commenting on the “Monitoring of Police and Fire Radio Transmissions by Broadcast Stations.” The Commission stated it was disturbed by receipt of complaints that a few broadcast stations monitored public safety transmissions and then divulged the information to the general public. It mentioned the complaints asserted that news bulletins based on intercepted radio messages attracted the general public to the scene of an emergency in such numbers as to interfere with the work of fire fighters, impede the movement of apparatus, and increase the possibility of bodily injury and property damage.
The FCC stated it didn’t wish to discourage broadcast stations or other news media in proper efforts to serve the public interest. It did point out, however, there is a strong public interest in public safety and divulgence of communications pertaining to it may sometimes be contrary to law. It further noted that Section 605 of the Communications Act, with specified exceptions, prohibits any person, not authorized by the sender, from intercepting and divulging or using any radio communications. The prohibition covers the use of the content of such transmissions in news bulletins.
The Commission pointed out that public safety officials desire to cooperate with news media and will authorize monitoring for efficient news gathering and will indicate conditions under which such transmissions may be appropriately divulged. Because broadcast stations have the ability to report news instantaneously, they also bear a responsibility beyond other news media to make sure news bulletins do not compromise public safety. It concluded by plainly stating that unauthorized divulgence of public safety messages is a violation of Section 605 and may subject broadcasters to criminal prosecution.
Both of these actions indicate the FCC is aware of the many problems facing the fire service in its operations. It has given notice that public safety has an important place in its deliberations and will continue to be given careful consideration in the future. Needless to say, the FCC deserves commendation by the fire service for its interest and understanding.
The problem of disseminating information concerning fires by broadcast stations has been of serious concern to many fire chiefs for a number of years. The control of the situation is in the hands of each chief and it is up to the individual to come to an understanding with stations in their own areas. Agreements covering use of fire radio transmissions can be worked out to the satisfaction of all concerned as long as everyone is as reasonable as possible consistent with sound operations. Don’t forget, cooperation is a two-way street!