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ARES groups are volunteer amateur radio operators who come together for the common purpose of providing emergency and/or auxiliary communications service to public safety and public service organizations. Most individual ARES units are autonomous and operate locally. Although the Amateur Radio Emergency Service is a program (and trademark) of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in the USA, the structure is more supportive than directive in nature, providing mostly for mutual aid in the event of large-scale emergencies. As long as local units are operating in the best interests of Amateur Radio in general and the ARRL in particular, intervention from the national organization is minimal. The government expresses little governance of ARES (other than the FCC regulations--47 CFR Part 97-- which regulate all of Amateur Radio) and local authorities only passively regulate ARES groups by way of formal understandings.

ARES groups are generally organized by city or county and are made up of volunteers from the local area. The only requirements to join ARES are a willingness to serve and a valid amateur radio license.

Groups are organized locally by the person holding the position of Emergency Coordinator (EC). The EC maintains full responsibility for organizing the local groups and serving as their leader during operations. The EC must be an ARRL member, and is generally the point of contact for those wishing to perform Emergency Communications in their local area. S/he may appoint one or several AECs (Assistant Emergency Coordinator) to oversee certain geographical areas, or s/he may appoint by function such as the SKYWARN severe weather spotting network, Net Managing, Training Direction, or Public Information, or maybe a mix of the above (i.e. whatever works locally). Some members may be appointed as Official Emergency Stations and are trained to serve specific duties such as being a net controller during emergencies. In many cases, the ARES Emergency Coordinator for a county coordinates all local Amateur Radio emergency and disaster communications activity.

The next higher level of coordination is the optional District Emergency Coordinator (DEC). This person coordinates the operation of several local county or city ARES groups and reports to the Section Emergency Coordinator (SEC) in those sections where the span of control would otherwise be too large. A DEC may have one or more Assistant District Emergency Coordinators (ADEC) serving him or her.

Leading the structure is the Section Emergency Coordinator, or SEC. This person is appointed by the elected Section Manager and is responsible for emergency communications in his/her section. An SEC may have one or more Assistant SECs serving to assist him/her. In the U.S., a Section is one of 71 geographic administrative areas of the ARRL. It is either a state or in more densely populated areas of the U.S., a portion of a state.