Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Tonight's edition will cover some important communication skills for Emergency Communication (EmComm) situations. This lesson borrows heavily from The ARRL Emergency Communication Handbook. Although there is a lot of overlap between this book and the three ARRL Emergency Communication course books, I still think it is worth having as a ready reference. I would even recommend bringing it along during a real emergency. While you should avoid trying to use it while you are actually operating, you will likely have some down time when you could refresh your memory and incorporate the good practices you find there. This lesson will use information and tips found in Chapter 5, Basic Communication Skills.

Listening Skills
The need for this is obvious but let's break it down a bit.
  1. Train yourself to understand what is being said under difficult conditions; such as when you have a poor connection with lots of static and some drop outs, or when you are in a noisy environment, or simply in an environment with another conversation. Sometimes a quiet room with just one other conversation going on is more distracting than being in the middle of a crowd. And you can't always ask the people having the conversation to keep it down or move it elsewhere. That other conversation may well be another radio operator performing an equally critical function.
    As with any training, the best way to train for it is to do it in realistic environments. For ACS members, our field exercises like Field Day or the SET are good opportunities. Another idea that I believe I got from Brian, WB7OML, is to have two radios on tuned to different talk stations and try to pick out one.
  2. Use headphones if possible to reduce the level of the noise or conversations around you. The Seattle EOC is fitted out with Fire Engine headsets and they work great. Airplane headsets would be another good choice. I don't have my own yet but they are on my wish list.
  3. Be sure to leave enough of a break between the end of the received transmission and the start of your transmission to allow for breaking stations. This is courteous practice all the time but is critical during emergencies.

Be Boring
This is not the time for creativity in your use of language. Simplicity, clarity and predictability in your communications are very good things when you will potentially be describing things that are well outside the ordinary. A few other tips:
  • Be brief. Keep your transmissions short and to the point. This is a bit of a judgment call since you want to make sure your transmission completely conveys the information you want it to; but try to avoid a lot of unnecessary extra descriptions or irrelevant facts.
  • Use plain language, avoiding Q signals, 10-codes and other jargon. One exception to this is the use of pro-words described below.
  • Spell unusual words, abbreviations or names with phonetics. The ARRL standard is to say the word, say "I spell" and then spell the word phonetically. In keeping with the "boring" theme here, it is best to use the standard phonetics rather than some other one, even if it is in common use on the HF bands. A lot of people that will be on the air will not have spent any time there and may not understand what to you is a common alternate phonetic.
  • Avoid contractions. This is one I hadn't thought of but is a very good tip to avoid confusion. I use contractions all the time and will have to concentrate to avoid them.
  • Avoid thinking on the air. If you need to collect your thoughts and still need to continue your transmission say "Stand By" then un-key, decide what you are going to say then key up again and say it.

There is one exception to the "use plain language" rule and that is the use of pro-words also called pro-signs. These are promoted by the ARRL and, I believe, in EmComm generally. So far I have primarily been discussing voice communications but there are pro-signs for both Voice and for Morse/Digital communications. The Morse/Digital code is in parentheses. They are as follows:
  • Roger (R) - message received completely and correctly
  • Over (KN) - indicates that the specific station that is being communicated with should respond
  • Go Ahead (K) - indicates that any stations may respond

    [Bob's Note: I don't know how common it is to differentiate between Over and Go Ahead. I seem to hear them interchangeably and I wouldn't count on the strict difference in voice communications.]

  • Clear (SK) - completed transmissions and releasing frequency. Usually this indicates that you are still listening on the frequency but it is common and, in my opinion good practice to say "Clear and Listening" to remove any doubt.
  • Out (CL) - completed transmission and leaving the air. Will not be listening.
  • Stand By (AS) - The ARRL manual only calls this a temporary interruption of the contact. In my experience it has a different and much more useful meaning. It is explicitly telling the other station to refrain from transmitting and wait for you to transmit again. Another very useful variation on this is "All Stations Stand By" which would normally only be used by the Net Control Station if there was one.

Tactical and FCC Call Signs
It is easy to get confused about the use of Tactical Call Signs and the use of your (or your station's) FCC Call Sign. Hopefully this will make this clear.

One of the first things you learn when learning about ham radio is that you must use your FCC Call Sign once every 10 minutes and at the end of your last transmission. This requirement still holds during an emergency! The only time you wouldn't use your own FCC call sign is when you using the FCC Call Sign of a club station (e.g. W7ACS) or you are not the control operator and you are using the call sign of the control operator of the station you are on. That second one is not likely to ever occur. The ARRL manual has a very good rule of thumb to accomplish this without going overboard. Since nearly all tactical exchanges are less than 10 minutes in length, give your FCC Call Sign at the end of each full exchange. This doubles as a signal to the other station and anyone else listening that you are finished with that exchange of transmissions.

The use of Tactical Call Signs are purely for better communication and have nothing to do with the FCC requirement to use your FCC Call Sign. Tactical call signs are used to identify the particular station either by location or function, etc. This allows the use of more than one operator at a station or the switching of operators without confusion about which station is sending or is intended to receive the transmission. Here are some examples of Tactical Call Signs:
  • Net Control
  • Seattle EOC
  • South Seattle Community College
  • Green Lake Community Center
  • Seattle City Light
The ARRL book recommends a particular protocol such as, "Net, Seattle EOC" to indicate that Seattle EOC is calling Net Control. They even go so far as to recommend simply, "Seattle EOC" which is to imply that they are calling Net Control. I have mixed feelings about this because I think it could be confusing to people that haven't practiced it and you are likely to have people on the net that have not practiced these things. In my personal opinion a better way for Seattle EOC to call Net Control would be, "Net Control, this is Seattle EOC". It doesn't add a lot more to the transmission but is clearer.

So for an exchange it is good practice to use only the tactical call sign for the entire exchange and finish with both call signs together to signal the end of the transmission, for example, "Seattle EOC, K9PQ". This keeps everything legal but allows for clearer transmissions during the exchange.

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