A grassroots initiative — dubbed the National SOS Radio Network — recently announced new support for its plan to create a de facto emergency communications network the public could use when traditional wireline and wireless communications networks have been rendered inoperable. It calls for leveraging family radio service, or FRS, radios whose signals would be monitored by amateur radio operators. However, the announcement drew fire from the CEO of ARRL, the organization that governs amateur radio in the U.S., who claimed to not know about the fledgling initiative.

According to National SOS, the additional support is coming from Midland Radio, the Radio Emergency Associated Communications Teams — a Maryland-based organization that provides radio communications during crises in cooperation with local authorities — and the DC Emergency Radio Network, which coordinates an effort in the Washington metro area similar to the one proposed by National SOS and which plans to merge with the fledgling group.

National SOS Founder Eric Knight claims that about 100 million FRS-compatible radios already are in the hands of the public nationwide. His idea is for users of such radios to transmit mayday messages that would be received by ham operators and GMRS users monitoring FRS Channel 1. Claiming that there are about 700,000 licensed hams in the U.S. — who already provide invaluable lifeline communications during crises — and another 70,000 licensed GMRS users, Knight believes the infrastructure already is in place to make the proposal a reality.

The problem is that Knight failed to run the idea by ARRL CEO David Sumner. “ARRL is a big organization — we have 148,000 members — so I can't swear the conversation hasn't occurred somewhere, but it's not anything I'm aware of,” Sumner said.

Given that Knight's value proposition hinges on whether amateur radio gets on board, Sumner found it odd that Knight had failed to discuss the matter with him, even though the initiative first was announced more than a year ago.

Knight readily acknowledged the gaffe but said he previously had been in contact with at least one ARRL division director. “I have been working with his people for about eight months — it just didn't filter up to Dave,” he said. “We have since talked and agreed that it's important for us to get on the same page.”

There are other pressing challenges — and critics. Knight, who is the CEO of Farmington, Mass.-based UP Aerospace — which launches payloads into space for government and private-sector customers — claims that amateur radio operators will be able to receive FRS signals from as far as 17 miles away. But an ARRL spokesman said that depends on terrain and the sensitivity of the receiving equipment — a more typical range is about 4 miles.

Also, to optimize performance, a ham would have to use an outdoor antenna designed for the FRS frequencies. But such antennas don't exist, according to Sumner. “FRS radios were deliberately designed so that you can't hook an outdoor antenna to them [because] they're not intended for longer-distance communications,” he said. “[Hams] using what they have lying around isn't going to provide an optimum result.”

Another challenge that must be overcome, Sumner said, is that a ham typically wouldn't monitor FRS Channel 1 unless he or she was coached to do so. “There would need to be an organized effort to encourage hams to dedicate equipment to that purpose,” he said.

The Personal Radio Association, which represents GMRS licensees, issued a statement last month that renounced National SOS as lacking merit and claimed the Community Emergency Response Team, which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security's Citizen Corps program, already is training the public to use FRS and GMRS radios in disaster-preparedness programs.

“The [National SOS] idea is based entirely on an emotional gut-wrenching reaction to the Hurricane Katrina disaster,” said PRA President Doug Smith.

For his part, Knight acknowledged that a plethora of kinks must be worked out for National SOS to become a reality.

“I know I don't have all the answers — all I'm trying to do is get the idea out there,” Knight said. “With all the [FRS and GMRS] radios that are out there, it seems like a no-brainer.”

Sumner also believes the National SOS initiative represents an idea worth discussing.

“There have been some outstanding examples of FRS radios being used to call for help,” he said. “There was an incident — I think it was on Mount Hood (in Oregon) — a couple of years ago where a pair of FRS radios were able to communicate over probably 40 to 50 miles. … It might be fertile ground for discussion, but up to this point, I haven't heard the discussion.”