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The MOU: A key step in building an alliance with ham radio operators

Your  guide in preparing a memorandum of understanding between your newsroom and ham radio emergency services in your area

When building an alliance with ham radio operations to collaborate in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it’s a good practice to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or a Memorandum of Agreement (MAA). They are both written documents that outline the terms and conditions of the relationship between the ham radio volunteers and your newsroom. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are distinctions between them in terms of formality, legal standing, and the nature of the relationship.

Nature of agreement

Generally, MOUs are more informal documents often used to outline the mutual intentions and understanding of parties involved in a non-binding relationship. MOUs are commonly used when parties are exploring a potential collaboration without a legally binding agreement. 

MAAs tend to be more formal and are often used for legally binding agreements. They are typically employed when parties have reached a specific agreement on terms and conditions and are ready to enter into a concrete commitment,  fulfilling certain obligations and responsibilities outlined in the document, which often includes more detailed and specific terms.

Formality and details

MOUs are generally less formal and may be shorter in length. They focus on establishing a common understanding, key goals, and potential areas of collaboration. While they may contain important details, they are often more flexible and leave room for negotiation and modifications. As could happen in the aftermath of a natural disaster, depending on how ham radio volunteers have been impacted. For example, you might agree with them to connect at specific times every day of the week, but if a hurricane has flooded their houses, you need to understand that that commitment might not be fulfilled. Always consider and keep in mind the unique circumstances that ham radio operators may face.   

MAAs, on the other hand, tend to be more formal, detailed, and specific and often include comprehensive terms, conditions, and legal language that explicitly outline the rights and responsibilities of each party.

Intent and stage of relationship

MOUs are commonly used in the early stages of a relationship when parties explore collaboration, share information, and establish a framework for further discussions. 

MAAs are often employed when the parties have progressed beyond initial discussions and need to enter into a more binding relationship. This could involve a partnership, joint venture, or any other arrangement requiring a more formal commitment.

Old-wave radios used around 1940. Photo: María Arce.
Old-wave radios used around 1940. Photo: María Arce

In summary, the choice between an MOU and an MAA depends on the nature of the relationship, the level of formality required, and the legal implications desired by your newsroom and the local ham radio emergency service or team. 

Entities like the American Red Cross, the Boys and Girls Scouts, and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency have signed MOUs with local ham radio operators, which gives you an idea of the way forward. Since this is the more common of the two used for ham radio partnerships, I will be guiding you in how to draft an MOU. 

Drafting a MOU

 It’s essential to consider various factors to ensure that the MOU document effectively captures the intentions and expectations of your newsroom and the ham radio team that will support you. 

The purpose

This section begins the MOU by identifying the parties who are entering into the agreement. It is designed, for example, to identify which disaster and impacted area this MOU applies to (fires? hurricanes? flooding? earthquakes? all of them?), the agreement content, and briefly states the general commitments of the parties involved. 

The background

This section briefly states the background of and the rationale for pursuing a

MOU. It Identifies the need for collaboration between a newsroom and a ham radio emergency service based on previous experiences where lack of communication became an issue for the reporters in the field. It doesn’t have to be too long or extensive. 

It can briefly say, “As a result of … [insert disaster name/event/year/location], the parties have identified the need for collaboration to secure communications and expedite information distribution in times of …  [fill the blank].” 

Clear objectives

Clearly define the purpose and objectives of the collaboration. Ensure that the MOU outlines the specific goals and outcomes that your newsroom aims to achieve. Would you like the ham radio operators to assist you with safety check-ins from your staff deployed over the region/area? Would you like them to help you start a Person finder service, as it happened in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane María in 2017? Are you planning to partner with ham radio operators to learn about the damages caused in different communities? Would you like to receive infrastructure status or reports? Or will you focus on knowing which neighborhoods are isolated and need help to spread the word and support them in getting the assistance they need? 

As long as you don’t use the airwaves to interview people, you can listen to as many reports as possible and reproduce them in your news publication. For example, you can learn from ham radio operators that a community needs a truck to open a road, that a clinic needs blood, or that a church has opened and is providing food to the survivors. All these options can be detailed in an MOU. 

Roles and responsibilities

Delineate the roles and responsibilities of your newsroom and the ham radio volunteers. Specify the contributions, obligations, and expectations to avoid ambiguity, and remember that what can be aired in compliance with the Federal Communication Commission has limitations.

Compliance with policies and regulations

Ensure that the MOU complies with your organizational policies, industry regulations, and legal requirements established by the FCC, which regulates the ham radio, the GMRS, and the radio spectrum in general. 

Communication protocols

Establish clear communication protocols, including points of contact and reporting structures, if any. Describe how information will be shared and progress communicated between the ham radio emergency services and your newsroom staff. 

Timeline and duration

Define the duration of the agreement and include any specific timelines for activities such as drills, exercises, equipment setting, reporters’ training, etc. Be explicit about the start and end dates or any renewal options.

Confidentiality and privacy

Although you can address confidentiality concerns by including clauses that outline how sensitive information will be handled, shared, and protected, remember that all information relayed on air is public and can be heard by anyone with ham radio, GMRS, or any other radio licenses that the FCC grants. 

So, there’s no such thing as “exclusives” or “scoops.” Nevertheless, the times, dates, and types of information to be relayed at specific moments of the day can be protected and known only by your newsroom. 

Dispute resolution mechanism

Ham radio operators have decades of experience providing assistance and support after natural disasters,like the historic flood of March 1936 in New England, when it’s estimated that around 1,000 radio amateurs were involved in supporting and expedient evacuation instructions and supply of relief and rescue assistance. 

Radio amateurs, especially those interested in emergency operations, are always ready to help. Newsrooms have to learn what can and cannot be said on the air, abide by the FCC rules, and there won’t be any disputes. There’s plenty of flexibility when the immediate safety of human life or the protection of property are at stake. But, if a dispute arises, end the collaboration with no legal repercussions to any party. 

Amendments and modifications

If an issue arises during your first collaboration, remember that MOUs can be modified and amended. Clarify the process for making changes to the MOU, outline whether mutual consent might be required, and explain how the changes will be documented.

Termination clause

Include a clear termination clause specifying the conditions under which either party can terminate the MOU at any time, with no reason. But always define reasonable notice periods and procedures for winding down the collaboration. It’s a courtesy law. 

Want a template? A draft of a MOU will be included for any newsroom to use as a part of my toolkit.

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