By Scott Freitag
By the time this column goes to print, a resolution from both sides of Congress could be on its way to becoming federal law.
The bill, H.R. 4203: Emergency Responder Radio Communications Protection Act of 2014, amends the federal criminal code to prohibit knowingly interfering with the working or use of any radio frequency used by emergency response providers or obstructing, hindering, or delaying the transmission of any communication over any such frequency.
Reps. Steve Israel, D-New York, and Peter King, R-New York, introduced the resolution in March 2014, and it was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.
Radio jamming is the deliberate transmission of radio signals that disrupt communications. The resolution criminalizes attempts to hijack emergency radio frequencies for malicious purposes.
According to a press release from Israel’s office, under current federal law, those found guilty of intentional radio jamming are subject to a maximum civil penalty of up to $16,000 for each violation or each day of a continuing violation, and as high as $112,500 for any single act. There is no jail time connected to a civil offense. Currently, the only time a criminal penalty can be invoked is if a perpetrator interferes with radio frequencies used for military or civil defense purposes.
The new legislation would make the intentional jamming of radio frequencies used by first responders a felony offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, plus the existing civil penalties.
The resolution goes up against incidents that are deliberate attempts to disrupt 9-1-1 communications and, as sometimes happens, EMS response gets sent where none is needed.
Israel and King developed the legislation following the arrest and conviction of a man obstructing Melville Fire Department (N.Y.) radio frequencies over a period of 10 months. When disrupting fire department calls for service on the main frequency, personnel had to switch to another frequency in order to communicate with each other, as well as with dispatchers. According to local news reports, the unauthorized transmissions were coming from a radio programmed with a code assigned to fire department rescue officers in the Suffolk County Fire Service. The man was charged with obstruction of governmental administration and fined $25,000 for hacking the radios and creating interference with chanting and heavy breathing.
The barrage of phony emergency requests received by Litchfield County Dispatch (Conn.) is another example. Unauthorized broadcasts interfered with and interrupted calls for service for both ambulance and fire departments during the period from Dec. 25, 2013, to Jan. 6, 2014. The calls dispatched ambulances to fake calls and canceled firefighters en route to actual emergencies.
The 35-year-old man apprehended in connection with the fake emergency radio calls faces several charges, including first-degree reporting of a false incident (Class D felony), first-degree reckless endangerment (Class A misdemeanor), and third-degree computer crime (Class D felony).
Years earlier, also in Connecticut, the amateur radio group Capitol Region Malicious Interference Tracking helped lead authorities to an individual allegedly using a modified ham radio to transmit on police and fire frequencies used by state public safety agencies. He was charged with criminal mischief, interfering with police, and breach of peace.
These are not isolated incidents, and it’s not all that difficult to do for those so maliciously inclined. Police and fire radios picked up secondhand or online can be programmed on the public safety channels from public listings of police and fire department radio frequencies. Public service radio encryption is expensive.
This is a federal initiative. As King said, “It is imperative that emergency communication remains seamless. Those who seek to intentionally obstruct and put the lives of the community at risk need to be criminally punished. This legislation will do just that.”