After two years, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District commissioners last week approved an agreement for the local Mile High Radio Club to operate WNKI — the local emergency radio station.

MHRC directors must still approve the agreement before it is signed, said MHRC President Bill Tell. A special MHRC meeting is planned for Dec. 11 to finish the long process of negotiations. “I don’t see any problems,” he assured the IFPD commission and IFPD President Jerry Buchanan reminded him any changes to the agreement must come back to the commission.

“This was a win for everyone across this mountain, the community as a whole should be pleased. I also thank the IFPD board and Chief [Patrick] Reitz for finally placing their vote of approval on the agreement,” Tell said after the meeting. “This will be a true team effort pulling from many agencies.” And in his message to MHRC, he stressed the same points, “The agreement is well written and will be a true benefit to our mountain range.”

While the IFPD commission vote was unanimous (Commissioner Nancy Layton was not at the meeting), Fire Chief Reitz expressed some reluctance before the vote; although he assured the commission he would support its decision.

“I still have concerns over issues of insurance and how we reach settlement if we reach impasse,” Reitz told the commission. “I’m still concerned the agreement is not there yet.” Later, he clarified his comment: “Based on the district’s legal counsel’s review, there are two concerns — mutual indemnification and the process by which impasse is addressed, using the courts instead of arbitration.”

During discussion of the proposed agreement, Commissioner Rhonda Andrewson reminded Reitz and her colleagues that they have had the draft agreement to review since March. Although Buchanan expressed concerns similar to Reitz on the use of the courts rather than mediators to resolve differences, he acknowledged that a joint committee would monitor the agreement and “ … we both can pull out with a 90-day notice … so I’m prepared to move ahead with the agreement.”

The initial agreement is for 12 months, but can be renewed, according to its terms. Idyllwild Fire Department and MHRC will form a committee to oversee the station operation, which must meet Federal Communication Commission guidelines.

This issue raised a question from Pine Cove resident Jeff Smith, who shared the FCC guidelines with the commission. He felt that FCC prohibited general emergency preparedness broadcasts unrelated to specific emergencies, although the agreement encourages WNKI to broadcast these messages during non-emergency times. He recommended deletion of the section that specifically addressed this use.

In a July 2013 rule making, the FCC stated, “We find that allowing routine [travel information systems] broadcast during non-emergency periods of terrorist threat levels, public health alerts, emergency preparedness messages, conservation messages and the like, is not in the public interest, as such routine broadcasts also would dilute situational awareness pertinent to the traveling motorist. The primary purpose of the TIS is to assist motorists in the process of traveling and to provide emergency and imminent threat information in covered areas. Therefore, we will continue to disallow messages that do not have a travel nexus, are not emergency-related, or do not relate directly to an imminent threat because such messages would dilute the convenience and efficacy of TIS.”

“It the duty of the licensee holder to follow the FCC direction,” stated Buchanan. “And if something is in violation, the rest of the agreement stands.”

Commissioner Larry Donahoo urged the joint committee to meet regularly and suggested a report after the first 90 days to be sure all are satisfied with progress.

The agreement specifies that during emergencies, MHRC “shall use best efforts that WNKI will broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week …”

MHRC has prepared a plan to expand the area covered by WNKI’s signal. Funding for this effort and other proposals to install modern and state-of-the-art equipment will be financed with grants, donations and arrangement with other public agencies.

One issue that will be addressed after the agreement is signed is the status of “all funds [IFPD] held on account of WNKI, along with all outstanding obligations, including actual and contingent.” IFPD has 20 business days to provide this information to MHRC and it has 60 business days to accept to take exception to the accounting.

Once mutual agreement has been reached, MHRC will maintain the financial responsibility for WNKI.