FCC Proposes to Allow Railroad Police Officers to Access Channels

The FCC released a notice of proposed rulemaking today that proposes to amend its part 90 rules to permit railroad police officers to access public safety interoperability and mutual aid channels.   [Read filing here:

In 2014, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) filed a petition for rulemaking asking the FCC to modify the part 90 rules to allow railroad police access to frequencies that are reserved for public safety interoperability (TRDaily, May 19, 2014).

In response to the petition, a number of entities, including the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, supported the rule change, the FCC noted in the NPRM released today in PS docket 15-199.

The Commission said it agreed with the benefits of permitting railroad police officers to use public safety interoperability and mutual aid channels to communicate with other first responders.

“We believe that allowing railroad police officers to use these channels will promote interoperability and facilitate improved emergency response in railroad-related emergencies and eliminate unnecessary regulatory barriers to use of these channels,” the FCC said. “In accidents involving railroads or security incidents involving the U.S. rail network, public safety personnel and railroad police officers frequently need to communicate with one another. Train derailments, for example, which can result in significant passenger injuries and loss of life, can require large, multi-jurisdictional responses, including railroad police, state and local police officers, firefighters, and officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security.”

“Specifically, we propose to permit railroad police officers that are empowered to carry out law enforcement functions to use public safety interoperability and mutual aid channels in the VHF (150-174 MHz and 220-222 MHz), UHF (450-470 MHz), 700 MHz narrowband (764–776/794–806 MHz) and 800 MHz National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC) bands (806-809/851-854 MHz),” the NPRM said. “In addition, we propose to publish a list in our rules of the designated nationwide VHF, UHF, 700 MHz and 800 MHz public safety interoperability channels. We believe that these measures will enhance the ability of railroad police to carry out their law enforcement responsibilities by facilitating interoperability with Federal, State, Local and Tribal public safety entities.”

The FCC proposed using a broad definition of railroad police officers included in the FRA’s rules, rather than the narrower definition that was suggested by NPSTC in accordance with a resolution adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The FCC noted that some parties submitting comments on the NPSTC petition suggested that the narrower definition “is too restrictive, to the extent it does not include part-time railroad police officers or Amtrak police.”

“The FRA rule appears to be sufficiently broad to include part-time and Amtrak police within the definition of railroad police officer,” the FCC said. “Moreover, given that FRA uses this definition for its regulatory purposes, we believe using it in our rules would promote regulatory clarity and consistency. We seek comment on this proposal. In that connection, we propose to make explicit in our rules that the class of eligible users would include part-time and Amtrak railroad police officers meeting the FRA definition of railroad police officer. To streamline the licensing process, we also seek comment on allowing railroads or railroad police departments to obtain licenses for use by their individual railroad police officer-employees.”

“With respect to how we should authorize mobile and portable units for use by railroad police when those mobile and portable units are not associated with a base station license, we propose to employ a ‘blanket licensing’ approach, in which railroad police officers would be authorized to operate on interoperability and mutual aid channels if their employer holds a Private Land Mobile Radio (PLMR) license of any category, e.g., Industrial/Business (I/B).”

“Fast, efficient, and effective communications between law enforcement agencies and emergency response personnel is a critical part of ensuring public safety,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a separate statement. “With this rulemaking the Commission takes steps to improve these communications by seeking comment on the use of public safety spectrum channels by railroad police. This is critical because railroad authorities are responsible for protecting the public both at train stations and along railways throughout the country. Moreover, as first responders they require common communications to respond effectively to fires, derailments, and other emergencies.”

Comments on the NPRM are due 45 days after “Federal Register” publication and replies are due 15 days after that.

“NPSTC is pleased that the FCC has issued the NPRM requested by NPSTC to allow rail road police to operate on the interoperability channels,” said Ralph Haller, NPSTC’s chair. “The Commission has proposed some alternatives to the NPSTC plan that will require careful consideration. As one example, requiring rail road police to operate under the licenses of governmental police agencies, rather than operate under a blanket rail road police license, might accomplish the goal, but could require negotiating agreements with multiple local, regional, and state agencies.  Our goal was to make the process as simple as possible and assure that rail road police could communicate with local officials anytime that conditions required it.  We will review the entire NPRM with that goal in mind, consider the Commission’s alternatives, and provide further comments to the FCC.  Overall, we are excited to see this matter out for discussion.”

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the IACP’s Communications & Technology Committee and a NPSTC Governing Board member, also said he was pleased that the FCC is moving forward on the railroad police spectrum issue.  “There is a clearly identified need for the nation’s Railroad Police to have access to public safety interoperability channels so that they can communicate with local and state police agencies around the nation,” he said. “The IACP is pleased that it has played an important role in supporting this proposal.” – Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com