Foundations of Amateur Radio #200
When a distress call is heard, you must immediately cease all transmissions. You must continue to listen on frequency.You must record full details of the distress message, in writing and if possible recorded by tape recorder.You must also wait for a short time to see if the message is heard by a station better placed to help.If the distress message is not acknowledged within a reasonable time, the amateur is obliged to assist.The regulator goes on to say that after acknowledging or attempting to acknowledge receipt of the distress message, you should immediately forward details of the distress situation to the nearest police station for land based distress situations or the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for air or sea based distress situations.In the United States, the ARRL uses the word may, rather than must, but essentially says the same thing. The FCC, the US regulator, says that an amateur station is not restricted by any rules to attract attention in the case of distress, nor is there any restriction on assisting a station in distress. In the UK, the regulator specifies that instead of waiting for a reasonable time you must wait for three minutes for a Coast Station to reply before responding.Interestingly, getting information on how to respond, what you must and must not do is hard to come by. This in itself is a cause for concern, but let's move on.When you hear a distress call ...
When you get your amateur radio license you become part of a select group of humans who are required to notify authorities if you happen to hear an emergency transmission. Not only that, you're required to offer assistance.
The regulator in Australia, the ACMA, says this about it:
Using the Australian example and requirements, how prepared are you to do this? Could you actually record the information, do you have a pen and paper next to your radio and can at short notice dig up a tape-recorder, or presumably some more modern recording device, capable of recording audio from your station?
Do you have have the contact details for search and rescue at hand and are you actually prepared for such activities?
During the week, an amateur in Australia reported that they heard a distress signal five hours after the event. While they were at work, their station recorded off-air and they listened to the recording after returning home. Using social media, they asked the question, should they report this information to authorities?
The answer is Yes, not only should they, in this case, given that they're in Australia, they must. There was no evidence that any other station heard the distress signal, in fact, the evidence was that the other stations continued to transmit on frequency, either completely deaf, or engaged in more pressing activities like hunting for a contact.
I will note that propagation is a fickle beast and it's possible, though improbable, that the other stations on frequency didn't hear the distress call, even through it was repeated. For that reason alone, you should never assume that someone else will deal with it and as I said, in Australia, you don't get the option, you are required to.
A couple of other things came to light for that amateur this week. Their recording was in a format that was hard to process by normal audio processing software, in this case the recording was made as an I/Q recording, we should look at that some other time, but processing the file was non-trivial and valuable time was lost in uploading a huge file, and for others to download it for confirmation. There was also indecision about reporting the call to authorities and if so, to which ones.
I will say that while we don't know the outcome of the distress signal, we do know that it was reported and that at this point is exactly what is required.
The chances that you'll hear a real distress signal in your life are tiny, but if it happens, are you ready for it? I know I have some work to do.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB