On June 20, 2000 two OMA members were caught in rockfall on the Sandy Glacier Headwall on Mt Hood. They had a VHF with various frequencies programmed into it, including the state SAR (Search and Rescue) frequency. After the fact there was public criticism of their use of such a VHF radio. While it is unusual for somebody to carry one it is very ironic to be critical of those who do. The criticism turns out to be inappropriate, and the true reason for it remains unclear. This entire incident was shrouded in mis-information which was deliberately fed to the press by government officials who would not consent to their names being on record. While most of the mis-information given to the press was part of a concerted effort by the US Forest Service and was politically motivated the radio criticism appears to have come from the Clakamas County Sheriffs office. However, the deputy in charge of this rescue works on a contract between the sheriffs office and the Forest Service. It remains unclear whether the Sheriffs office didn't know who the licensee was or whether there was an ulterior motive. (Neither of which reflects very well on the agency.)
The licensee of the state SAR frequency is the Oregon Department of Emergency Management and they have clarified that such emergency use is entirely appropriate. Carrying a VHF radio would also appear to be fully in accordance with HB 3434. This was enacted (in knee-jerk reaction style) in 1996 or 1997 and attempts to mandate that climbers carry "mountain locator units, cellular phones or other technological devices". A VHF radio has many compelling advantages over both a cell phone and a locator unit. So on one hand we have legislators attempting to mandate the use of communications technology for safety purposes and on the other hand we have the US Forest Service and the Clackamas County Sheriff criticizing a party which does so.
To carry a VHF radio, and to listen to one, is entirely legal. This is the frequency band that common scanners cover. To transmit on a frequency requires that you license that frequency or have the permission of the licensee. We have confirmed with the licensee that permission in an accident such as that of June 2000 is implicit. The Oregon Department of Emergency Management licenses the SAR frequency for emergency use. It turns out that they were also confused by the criticism in the press, and they have stated that the use of the frequency by the climbers involved was entirely appropriate.
When the SAR operation began the climbers were contacted by the sheriffs deputy on the VHF radio. And by the ground crew on standby. And the 939th rescue crew as they approached. Conversations were initiated by these organizations and the climbers replied. At no point were they instructed that they should not transmit anything due to a lack of permission from the licensee. The sheriffs deputy did not hesitate to transmit questions requiring a reply.
A rescue where the stranded party has a radio should be much better for the rescue groups responding. They can get direct information on the location, condition, and other factors. In most rescues they are left guessing until they arrive on the scene.
While climbing parties with such a radio are not common they sometimes exist. These climbers owned one and therefore carried it for emergency use. The University of Oregon equipment "library" includes radios as well as cell phones and avalanche beacons. Members of rescue units have been known to carry such a radio when climbing recreationally.
We sincerely hope that the Oregon press will not mis-report the facts on radio use in the future. This is a great dis-service as it may discourage some people from carrying or using radios and may reflect poorly on people who actually demonstrate foresight and preparation.