Whether they're called ARES, RACES or ACS, amateur radio teams and individual operators can be called upon to provide backup and/or alternate communications during times of emergency. Amateur operators can bring huge capacity on HF, VHF and UHF amateur spectrum to operate within or between jurisdictions with voice and digital modes to provide communications between county and state emergency management offices and to border States and Canada as required. The amateur station at the Washington state Emergency Management office at Camp Murray uses the radio call sign is W7EMD.

Most public safety communications systems are designed to perform in emergencies at any time of day or night. These systems generally fulfill the demands placed on them by normal conditions or small emergencies and operate within their system design. It is when these systems are expected to perform beyond their design that volunteer communications are considered as an alternate means of communicating. Amateur radio operators have the ability to communicate with their own dedicated spectrum and operate commercial and public safety equipment and can find communications solutions to difficult problems.

In Part 97.1, the Federal Communication Commissions (FCC) rules and regulations are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following:

(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.

This is an essential element of the "public interest, convenience or necessity" doctrine embodied in the Communications Act of 1934. With this in mind, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) makes emergency communications an objective for its Field Organization, using Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) as its vehicle for accomplishing this task.

Part 97.407 of the FCC rules provides for RACES, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services. RACES is a special service of amateur radio recognized by FEMA, that provides radio communications for civil preparedness purposes only, for local, regional or national civil emergencies. These types of emergencies are not limited to war time activity, but can include natural disasters such as fires, floods and earthquakes.