Antenna Restrictions: Are They a Catastrophe Waiting to Happen?

by Richard White

 

Most associations have some restriction on antennas listed in their documents and deed restrictions. Many counties and cities have limits and codes that restrict some antennas. The 1996 Telecommunications Act had an impact on these restrictions. Associations had to rethink their document restrictions and allow some antennas such as dish antennas. As you see, that Act is about 15 years old, and I suggest that maybe we need to readdress these restrictions to allow other antennas. The 1996 Act was created because of changes due to technological progress. The transformation of the regulatory environment and market conditions involving these changes was a result of the 1996 Act. The Act allowed the acquisition by companies to benefit technological advances and provide consumers access to these developing services. It was believed that such a function would encourage the promotion of competition in all markets and development of new technological systems

Technological persons know that changes in this area have been developing at the speed of light (no pun intended). Before 1995, we had portable and car phones that were like dinosaurs and were heavy as bricks to carry. Cable television was limited to just a few channels and most homes received television over the air through roof antennas. Every home had a landline telephone as portable phones were unreliable, of limited use, and very expensive. Even the Internet used telephone landlines resulting in narrow bandwidth and very slow speeds. For communications, business people used pagers and beepers. Look at us today! We now have cell phones, digital communications, and television delivered to our homes by fiber optics. Cable television has hundreds of channels and a digital recorder for everyone’s personal viewing on almost any subject at any hour. Cell phones are now replacing landlines in homes. Almost any person can be located at most locations at any time when someone needs to talk or send text messages.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, and other disasters can disrupt communication and power sources. Then what do you do? How do you get the word out that you are safe, or even more importantly, call for assistance when you need help? The Red Cross and Salvation Army are available to help, but they do not have the special communications necessary and must use amateur radio operators to supply that need. Let me list some of the services that will spring into action to provide emergency communications during a catastrophe.

 ·      ARES—Amateur Radio Emergency Service (http://www.arrl.org/ares)

·      NTS—National Traffic System (http://www.arrl.org/nts)

·      SATERN—Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (http://www.satern.org)

·      HWN—Hurricane Watch Net (http://www.hwn.org)

·      SKYWARN—Severe Weather Watch (http://www.skywarn.org)

·      CERT—Community Emergency Response Teams (http://www.citizencorps.gov/cert/)

·      RACES—Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (http://www.usraces.org/)

ARES is more than 75 years old. In 1935 the magazine, QST, published by the National Association for Amateur Radio (American Radio Relay League, ARRL), said that the goal of ARES was: To enlist amateur radio operators who have operational receiving and transmitting equipment suitable for emergency operations and the capability to operate using auxiliary power.

If you review the above partial list of volunteer emergency groups, you will see a common thread: amateur radio operators also called Ham Radio. Additional information can be found at the Web page http://www.arrl.org.

Along with these organizations, there are a number of privately supported amateur radio repeater stations throughout the United States that are available to support emergency communications. Some repeater stations are used by government agencies such as the US Weather Bureau and FEMA. While most repeaters are short-range communications, many are linked through cable and some through Internet connections to allow longer-range communications. Each evening and throughout the day, these repeaters are used and tested by amateur radio operators in communication nets. Repeater stations are found throughout the world and the United States mostly operated and financed by volunteers. Go to the Web page http://aprs.fi/ for a look at stations near your community. Another part of amateur radio is Radiograms that are delivered by these repeater nets and other amateur radio relay nets. Radiogram is a type of message that has been used since the late 1800s by amateur radio operators and is practiced daily and ready to be used in event of local and national emergencies. If such an emergency happens such as a total power outage, more than likely the Radiogram could be the only way to send family information in a timely manner across the United States and the world. Many amateur radio operators have backup power sources to operate. Power outages do not affect them when they pass the Radiograms by using amateur radio equipment. A sample of the Radiogram can be found at: http://www.arrl-al.org/RADIOGRM.pdf.

After Hurricane Andrew hit Miami, my association did not have an amateur radio operator in our community. For several days we were unsupported by any outside help. The first source for outside news was the Blimp that flew over with a message where help could be located. I would not suggest that you rely on a Blimp for emergency help. My first emergency experience with a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) was during and after Hurricane Charley in 2004. My community was without power; the cell phone towers were off the air because they were damaged. Streets were blocked by fallen trees and a few downed power lines. For the first day homeowners were limited to communications by walking to their neighbors homes. Battery power AM and FM radios were almost the only means of receiving news. But, that was city and county news not community or neighborhood information. CERT volunteers came to the rescue.

Several months earlier, amateur radio operators in my community had organized volunteers to serve in the community emergency response team. Most of the volunteers were licensed as amateur radio operators. The team had established authorization with the board of directors before the storm to use one of the rooms in the clubhouse as a communication control center. They had emergency generators to operate the radio equipment and lights. They coordinated with the county emergency center and obtained radios and communication links with county emergency services. They had practiced emergency exercises and were ready to spring into service immediately after the storm. The control center was opened at the crack of dawn and two-man teams in golf carts with hand-held radios drove the streets of the community to report problems to the control center and notify stranded owners of news and information. Here are some of the emergencies that they handled:

·  A homeowner was trying to remove a tree that had fallen on his home. He fell in his front yard with a heart attack. The CERT volunteers driving a golf cart spotted him on the ground and were immediately able to contact control center by portable hand-held radios. The control center called the fire department by radio links to dispatch an ambulance in time to save his life.

·  An owner who was in need of special life-saving medicine that needed refrigeration was reported to the control center. The control center was able to locate a generator and have it delivered to the home to power the refrigerator to safeguard the medicine.

·  The mobile teams mapped out fallen trees and power lines to provide information to the board of directors to schedule teams to clear the streets. The board was able to place dumpsters in selected locations around the community for trash and debris removal.

·  A number of cuts and falls were reported by residents. First aid treatments were administrated by the trained CERT team members, and those with serious wounds were dispatched by the necessary transportation or ambulance.

·  The control center in connection with the county emergency team located a FEMA truck loaded with ice and water and was able to direct it to the community the next day.

·  The CERT volunteers were able to communicate to the community by driving the golf carts into the neighborhoods and telling the location of the dumpster and where the ice and water were located. They were also able to provide a link for community information.

·  When a nearby neighborhood community was hit by a tornado, the CERT team drove to that community to establish communications with the emergency services.

·  The County awarded our community CERT team with a certificate for their outstanding achievements.

None of this could have happened if it had not been for amateur radio operators. But most boards limit the amateur radio operators from placing external antennas because of document restrictions. It is understandable because some radio frequencies require huge antennas placed on towers high above the homes. Some frequencies (UHF and VHF) such as those used by emergency teams use small antennas, about the size of an antenna found on cars. They can be mounted almost invisibly on the side of the homes below the roof line, or they could be mounted on a balcony in a condominium.

Every family and every board should have an emergency plan for those times of disaster. I would suggest maybe it is time to consider establishing a team to develop an emergency operation plan after any emergency. The cost to an association is little if any as most of the time the volunteers provide the equipment and other necessary supplies. It is part of the amateur radio code. It is easy to find information from your local county emergency center, the state CERT origination, or maybe amateur radio operators who live in your community or members of local radio clubs. I further suggest that boards need to review the antenna restriction and determine whether to allow some small antennas that can be used during emergencies and for practice handling emergency communications. Boards could have the power to authorize antennas in some situations where they were part of the emergency response operation called “reasonable accommodations” or reasonable rules. Would it not be a great feeling for directors and members if they knew of the amateur radio operators who could support emergency communications during and after the hurricane, tornado, or earthquake?

In fact, there are both federal and state laws that protect amateur radio operators from antenna restrictions. One such Florida law, FS 91-28 adopted in 1991 says, “Amateur radio antennas; construction in conformance with federal requirements. (1) No county shall enact or enforce any ordinance or regulation which fails to conform to the limited preemption entitled ‘Amateur Radio Preemption, 101 FCC 2d 952 (1985)’ as issued by the Federal Communications Commission. Any ordinance or regulation adopted by a county with respect to amateur radio antennas shall conform to the above cited limited preemption, which states that local regulations which involve placement, screening, or height of antennas based on health, safety, or aesthetic considerations must be crafted to reasonably accommodate amateur communications and to represent the minimum practicable regulation to accomplish the local authority's legitimate purpose.”

It was printed in 1937 in QST Magazine, “At least one amateur station should be in every community equipped with auxiliary station equipment for use in an emergency.” For associations, I will add it is an untapped resource that can save lives and perform communications when all services fail, at little or no cost to the association. If you need assistance to locate someone in your area who will help form a CERT team or other emergency response team, send me an e-mail (camquestion@cfl.rr.com) and I will have a volunteer contact you so that they may assist the board to establish a CERT team.