It seems to be a law of nature that when an actual weather net or emergency deployment happens some part of our tried and true equipment will most certainly malfunction. If not that, then some other extenuating circumstance tosses the proverbial monkey-wrench into the mix.
Take a recent weather net. Our big-bad Great Pyrenees decided the thunder was just too scary. We’d normally let him into the basement but we’re keeping some other dogs downstairs right now so that was out. What more to do than hang out in the garage with my trusty friend.
That wasn’t all bad, because I could step out the garage door and look at current conditions. The problem was my HT decided to act up, and although it was functional enough to get by, I was marginal into the repeater and the audio on the HT was poor at best. I was already considering the fact that storm season is coming and this will probably not be the only time spent hanging out with the Pyrenees out there.
While there I realized that my VHF coax was passing right over my head on the way to my external VHF antenna. I also have two of those 12v battery boosters sitting on the table, charged. Already I had a contingency plan in the making.
I’ll be splitting that cable and reconnecting it with a BNC male/female combo. I can then hook my auto or base rig up on the table out there with a short hop to the outside antenna. Now I can operate with greater power and a better antenna configuration. As a fallback, I’ll be sure to have an SMC to PL-259 adaptor so I can hook the HT up to the outside antenna. I can hardly wait to find out what goes wrong with that plan.
Okay, so what’s the point of this story? Things never go as planned, and while we can’t think of every possibility, we can utilize each experience to build a better plan, backup plan, and backup plan for the backup plan!
It also had me thinking about other fallback positions. What if my external antenna fails? I do have the rig in the car and an HT is marginal, but usable from inside the house. However, many have had success using a magnetic mount antenna on a file cabinet or refrigerator – yet another fallback position to test.
We should be thinking of the things that can go wrong and what we can do to mitigate. Perhaps a backup mic for our base or mobile rigs? A spare mic for our HT? In my case the mic would have resolved my poor audio problem experienced during the recent weather net.
We’ve talked about having backup power, and several of us are not only equipped, but exceptionally equipped. But are we ready for something other than a power failure? In my case, despite my belief I was ready for most anything, reality quickly disabused me of that notion.
I hope you’ll give some thought to the less obvious situations or equipment failures that might impede your ability to function during a weather net or emergency deployment. I certainly look forward to hearing the thoughts and suggestions of others.
Since we’re involved in amateur radio and emergency communications we tend to make amateur radio the focus of our involvement in emergency communications. It’s understandable, but can sometimes make us lose sight of our mission.
We use the term “Emergency Communications” rather than “Amateur Radio Communications” because the mission is first, and most importantly, to communicate in an emergency.
However, we should look at ourselves as a resource beyond using amateur radio. Let’s look at a few examples of how we can use our skills beyond keying a microphone.
1) Message Handling. Sure, during message handling with the National Traffic System we’ll communicate messages from one radio operator to another to get it to the destination. However, at some point in time we pick up a phone to deliver the message or hand-deliver it to the recipient.
2) Special Events. Amateur radio operators often volunteer for bike and foot races. The mission there is often to facilitate assistance to an injured participant or to notify those in charge that the last participant has passed a checkpoint. We’re doing more than communicating, we’re participating.
3) Alternative radio services. I was recently at an event where people were staged about 200 feet apart and yelling information up the line to get it to the stage where event participants’ names could be called out as the finished. Sure, we could have stuck amateur radio operators at both ends, but I just grabbed a couple FRS radios and handed them to the people at each end. I provided communications assistance but not the actual service.
4) FRS and CB as tools. We shouldn’t ignore utilizing FRS or CB when circumstances warrant it. Imagine how useful FRS radios might be in a shelter where key people could relay information to each other or make contact with the amateur radio operator to pass tactical traffic between shelters.
5) Our involvement with the National Weather Service SKYWARN program is another example of being more than mere communicators, we’re trained observers who participate.
6) Organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross expect their communications personnel to be responders who communicate, not communicators who respond.
In summary, we should think of our mission as being communicators of formal traffic and tactical traffic but we should also think in terms of being providers of operations assistance, when requested, for those we serve.
The National Traffic System is the backbone of Amateur Radio traffic handling. These nets run routinely, allowing us to refine our skills for the time when this system will be used to pass a variety of emergency traffic. Here are some Frequently Asked Questions:
- Tactical call signs are words or phrases that identify a station regardless of who the operator of the station is. Ideally, the tactical call sign provides a short and concise identification of the location.
- Why use tactical call signs? We use tactical call signs specifically because we need to identify the location traffic is coming from or going to. Operators may move from site to site or be replaced by another operator, so ham call signs are poor tools for identifying tactical locations.
- It is important that all EMCOMM communications be clear and distinct regarding who is calling whom. Frequently we hear situations where considerable time is wasted in relaying messages taken up by over use of long and unnecessary FCC call signs that hams are accustomed to in our daily communications and yet there can be confusion as to who is communicating to whom.
- EMCOMM communications typically uses an adaptation of Military and Aviation communications protocol to provide for more streamlined ”to” and “from” definition and still comply with FCC Part 97. This is called using tactical call signs. Tactical call signs can identify the station’s location or its purpose during an event, regardless of who is operating the station. This is an important concept. The tactical call sign also allows you to contact a station without knowing the FCC call sign of the operator. It virtually eliminates confusion at shift changes or at stations with multiple operators.
- Tactical call signs should be used for all emergency nets and public service events if there are more than just a few participants.
- If one does not already exist, the NCS may assign the tactical call sign as each location is “opened.” Tactical call signs will usually provide some information about the location or its purpose of each station.
- It is often helpful if the tactical call signs have a meaning that matches the way in which the served agency identifies the location or function.
- Some examples of tactical call signs are:
- “Net”--for net control station usually at Incident who orchestrates smooth transmissions and sets communications priority.
- “Alternate Net” – for alternate NCS perhaps at a home location for backup.“
- “CHECKPOINT 1” - Identifies physical location or function.
Meeting FCC Part 97 rules regarding Amateur Radio Service:
- The FCC requires identification only at end of transmission sequences and every ten
- minutes during a single transmission.
- A directed net can be thought of as a series of transmissions comprising a single sequence
- and thus there is no need for FCC ID during the working part of the net unless a single
- transmission is longer than 10 minutes which is not recommended.
- Always listen before transmitting and be as brief as possible on the initial call until you have clearance from NCS.
Tactical Calls and procedures to avoid
- “Control” or phrases with control in them. Unless you are assigned to shadow the Incident Commander in an ICS situation and can speak for him/her or directly to him/her, do not use the pro word or call sign “Control”. Get used to calling the ham NCS as “Net” and not Net Control to avoid any confusion with the Incident Commander who has ultimate control of the exercise or activation we are supporting. Our NCS has no role being a pseudo IC.
- “Turkey Trot 77, Sky King 23, or even EMCOMM Unit 1” - This flavor of military tactical call does nothing to convey a sense of what your functional support role is. Avoid this type of call sign unless directly authorized by higher authority for information security reasons.
- Never use your Ham Call on other frequencies such as FRS, EMA, or Public Service bands.
- Except on informal time or training drills at the discretion of NCS, avoid using operator names during nets. It makes us look un-professional to those listening on scanners.
- When using a tactical call together with your required FCC Ident, use your own operator’s call not a call issued to the station you are working from. This is a carry over from the days when station and operator calls were issued separately. Unless you have the direct permission of the trustee/control operator, you should identify yourself for FCC purposes together with the linkage to the tactical call being used. Avoid trouble by using some third party call. You are the one responsible for insuring that the station is operating within the limits of your license.
Rules of thumb:
- USE COMMON SENSE AND USE THE MOST ABREVIATED ID TO ESTABLISH WHO YOU ARE AND WHO YOU NEED TO TALK TO WHEN CHECKING IN OR DURING A CONVERSTION ON THE NET.
- USE YOUR FULL FCC ID WHEN ASKED TO BY NCS OR DURING YOUR FINAL TRANSMISSION DURING A SERIES OF TRANSMISSIONS ON THE NET.
- AVOID LONG TRANSMISSIONS WITH REPEATER KEYED. IF ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, ID EVERY 10 MINUTES IF YOU CAN NOT AVOID IT.
ARRL Radiograms, like the FEMA forms ICS-213, used to communicate formal traffic. ICS-213 will be covered elsewhere. This document focuses on the “Radiogram” format, used heavily in ARES exercises and actual emergencies.
The Radiogram has 4 parts: Preamble, Address, Text, and Signature. The “Records” block constitutes a possible 5th block, often not counted as part of the radiogram since it is there for station record-keeping purposes and is not communicated to other stations.
The preamble is message tracking information. It ensures a way to track a message from where it originates to the destination. The preamble is filled in by the first amateur radio operator to transmit the message (the originator). Here are the various components of the preamble: