Last week’s cellphone ordinance has raised the rancor of a small group of local ham radio operators.
The group says that, as written, the Coconino County cellphone restrictions ban radio communications for school bus, taxi, truckers and other drivers who depend on the technology. And it stops amateur radio operators from being able to easily assist in a volunteer capacity with local events.
The measure provides exemptions for amateur radio operators working during an emergency situation under the direction of “authorized first responders.” It also allows for drivers who have pulled over and placed their cars in “park.”
“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of amateur radio operators in Coconino County,” said ham radio user Joshua Camon. “This will directly impact them, as well as the tens of thousands of truck drivers that pass through the area daily.”
The group has been reaching out to Matt Ryan, chair of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. They’d like to get a clarification or an amendment that would create an exemption allowing radio operations to continue.
Reached for comment on Tuesday, Coconino County officials confirmed that the ordinance does ban amateur radio operations, forcing users to pull over in nonemergency situations.
“The board approved an ordinance that carefully weighed the need to enhance public safety while meeting the needs of the communicating public,” said Coconino County Spokesperson Nathan Gonzalez. “It’s also important to note that the public was allowed to provide input on the ordinance as it was shaped and researched over several years, including a number of public hearings.”
Those meetings saw scant public input and the comments made on the proposed ordinance were largely positive.
Joe Hobart coordinates emergency communications for the Coconino Amateur Radio Club. He said that he and others in his group are likely all in favor of a ban against text messaging and other data entry, but they don’t see amateur radio operations as being dangerous. In their estimation, the communications across amateur radio are brief and often one-way. It’s not as engaging of a conversation, Hobart said.
“I don’t have a cellphone, so I’m not really bothered by this, but I do need to make sure our ham radio operators are not in danger of being apprehended by some overzealous law enforcement officer,” Hobart said.
He said he planned to take his case to the Flagstaff City Council last night. That body is currently considering its own ordinance after the county’s move last week.
Aside from supporting radio communications in emergencies, the radio group assists with local long-distance running and cycling events, communicating safety information in places without cell phone service and doing so from behind the wheel. And earlier this year, when the Northland Preparatory Academy launched science experiments on a balloon high into the atmosphere, it was the ham radio operators who chased down the craft.
“We do this free. We’re not allowed to charge for our services,” Hobart said. “We’re providing a huge safety value for the event.”
He added that the U.S. Forest Service is often reluctant to provide permits for events when safety communications are not well planned.
Another local amateur radio operator, Ken Held, said that many club members also participate in the Woods Watch program and as weather spotters for the National Weather Service.
Hobart added that he believes the county could have overstepped its authority in regulating radio communications, which is under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission.
This issue has come up in many other states and cities that restrict the use of cellphones in cars. A handful of states already provide exemptions for amateur radio operators in their cellphone bans. But some ham radio operators in New York State have been cited for using their radios under a state law that is not clear on the matter.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version.