Santa Clara County, California
ARES/RACES

Operating in a Tactical Radio Net – Procedures and Equipment - Part I


Before I begin, I would like to give credit to the author of this article, Dick Rawson, N6CMJ. Dick wrote this article for SVECS in February 1993. I'd also like to thank SVECS for allowing me to use this article on the training net. Some minor editorial changes have been made to make it more readable over the air.

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Emergency radio communications nearly always use formal nets, as do NTS traffic nets. Casual everyday ham operation mostly doesn’t. Tonight, we'll discuss how to operate as part of a formal radio net, probably one where most operators are using handi-talkies in unfamiliar locations.

What is a Net?

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For the purposes of this discussion, a radio net consists of several stations on one frequency (more if linked), following organized procedures, and directed by a net control station. This arrangement makes for efficient use of the frequency, and helps ensure that urgent matters get handled before less urgent ones. In short, the net functions as a team to work towards the common goal of effective net operation.

What is a Net Control Station?

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A net control station is the net’s moderator, chairman, team captain, or traffic cop; take your pick. The net control station exists for the purpose of exercising control of the net as the name implies. The amount of control depends on the type of net that is being run.

What are Two General Types of Nets?

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Two general types of nets are a directed net and an open net.

What's the difference between a Directed Net and an Open Net?

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During a directed net , the net control station typically exercises strict control, requiring every station to get its permission before passing traffic. A directed net is essential if the frequency is busy since net control must be able to select the stations with the most urgent traffic first.

During an open net, net control is relaxed considerably. Stations may be permitted to call one another directly, and even have casual conversations on the frequency. Net control will intervene only when there is net traffic to pass. An Open Net may be appropriate in anticipation of an impending event such as when a storm is moving into the area. It may also make sense when activity on the net dies down for extended periods of time.

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Net Control is responsible for choosing the best way to run the net; when you join an ongoing net, you should observe how it is being run and fit in accordingly. Until you know otherwise, assume the net is operating as a directed net.

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Tactical vs. FCC Call Sign Use

During a directed net, you will be called by your tactical call sign, not your FCC amateur radio call sign. You should use the tactical call sign to identify your transmissions, and you should call other stations by their tactical call sign. Of course, you must also comply with FCC regulations and identify properly with your FCC call sign. Remember, part 97 requires that "Each amateur station . . . must transmit its assigned call sign . . . at the end of each communication, and at least every ten minutes during a communication . . . ." That means our FCC call sign. To comply, simply add your FCC call sign to your last transmission in a series.

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Listen for your Tactical Call Sign

The use of tactical call signs allows the net to be conducted without regard to what operator is at the radio at any particular location. Different individuals may operate the radio at different times. Changes will occur due to shift changes, meal breaks, errands or movement of operators to other assignments, just to name a few. For all these reasons, it is awkward and error-prone to use an operator’s FCC call. However, Net Control should still try and keep track of the FCC call of each operator. Sometimes an inattentive or distracted operator will answer his FCC call when he does not catch his tactical call.

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Answer Promptly When Called

Unless you make other arrangements, you are expected to listen continuously to the net, and answer immediately when called. If you have to step away from your station briefly, tell Net Control before you do so, and check in with Net Control when you return. Otherwise, net control can waste a lot of time attempting to call you when you aren't there.

Never Leave a Net without checking out

If you have to leave your station before you are relieved, make sure that you notify net control of this fact, before you leave. You properly should ask Net Control to release you but as a practical matter, we are volunteers and Net Control cannot compel anyone to stay who wants to leave. But we owe it to the people and agencies we serve, and to our reputations as individuals and as ARES/RACES organizations, to be reliable. Once we agree to support an agency’s activity, we should do our best to deserve that agency’s trust.

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Brief the Operator that Relieves You

If another operator has your assignment after you, don’t depart before briefing them. If your relief is late and you must leave your station, at the very least leave a written list of the what that operator needs to know to do the job. If possible, write down the information they'll need during lulls in activity. If they do arrive on time, go over the list with them in person. You would want the same thing if you were coming onto a shift.

What are some examples of the kind of information your relief will need?

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1. The frequencies being used

2. The tactical call signs in use and where the stations are located

3. Who is at each location; their name and call sign.

4. If a telephone is available; what is its location and phone number.

5.     The names of the officials or others you are serving; how you find them and recognize them.

6. Any pending activity, i.e. messages you have sent and replies you expect; also, who gets the

reply?

7. What is your station's purpose?

8. What's going on in general? What changes are expected?

9. Where is the restroom, water, food, etc.

10. Any other radio, power, or antenna details.

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Arrive For Your Assignment Ahead of Time

Arrive at your assigned operating point 10 to 20 minutes before your shift starts so that you can get set up and be briefed by the start of your shift. The operator you are relieving would like to leave at the end of his shift also. If the operator you are relieving doesn't have written information for you, you can use the same list we just discussed (with any additions you need) to guide your questions.

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As participants in a net, there are several things we can do to ensure that urgent traffic gets through when necesary.

Any idea what they are?

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1. Keep transmissions short.

2. Stop transmitting when you stop talking.

3. Avoid unnecessary transmissions.

4. Don't call endlessly.  

Keep all transmissions short

Short transmissions allow other stations to interrupt if they have more urgent traffic. Similarly, it lets Net Control exercise its control more promptly. Less time is lost if the transmission was partly or completely unreadable due to radio problems, simultaneous transmissions (doubles), local noise, etc.

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Stop transmitting when you stop talking

Always release the push-to-talk button if you need to pause for any reason. You may need to think of a street name, remember something else you needed to report, or listen to an urgent message that someone is trying to pass to you. When you pause, others should stand by and wait for you to resume; they shouldn’t just jump in and start transmitting. However, if something more urgent does arise, the other station should interrupt while you are not transmitting ... that's the point of allowing breaks! Just remember, don't crowd in and transmit just because it's quiet. The original station may not be finished passing its traffic; just pausing. When you have traffic and you haven't been monitoring all along, listen for at least 5-10 seconds before transmitting.

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Avoid unnecessary transmissions

If you make a call to a station and they do not answer, don't transmit just to say that you are "clear". If it is apparent from the context of your message that you are finished, it is not necessary to sign "clear". Provided you have identified with your FCC call sign at the end of your transmission, no further transmissions are required.

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Don't call endlessly.

If you get no answer to your first two calls, wait for a few minutes and let others

use the frequency. Call again in a few minutes. If urgency warrants, however, disregard this advice.

Breaks

Wait a second before keying after the previous speaker. Give other stations a chance to break in - it might be urgent!

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Contacting Net Control

When you need to contact net control, key your transmitter briefly, just long enough to ID or state something about the nature of the traffic. For example, "N6ABC, emergency traffic," or "info." If net control does not notice you in time and transmits at the same time that you do, nobody will be able to understand either one of you for the next 30 seconds or however long the two of you are "doubling". Make sure that net control acknowledges you before proceeding with your traffic.

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Use short, simple phrases. There are lots of ways to word an idea; pick one of the shorter ways.

That helps you "keep all transmissions short". It helps the listener, too; the fewer words you say,

the fewer he has to understand. Again, establish contact before saying messages longer than 2-3 words . That may mean calling the other station, and hearing it tell you to proceed. Or it may mean hearing the other station reply to Net Control's call. Net procedures vary. But don't spend air time saying a long message until you have reason to believe you have the other operator's attention.

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Acknowledge transmissions to you

Acknowledge transmissions promptly, even when it’s obvious from the context that you were asked to do something that you can’t do immediately. Until you acknowledge, people don't know if you received the transmission, and don't know if a repeat will be needed. Once you acknowledge, the net can assume you will continue with your assignment, and the frequency can be used for other traffic.

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State questions in a positive form

Ask a question directly. For example "Should we go to Checkpoint Alpha?" That question can be safely answered by "affirmative" or "negative." Avoid turning it into a negative question. For example, "Shouldn't we go to Checkpoint Alpha?" A yes/no answer to that question is ambiguous, so the answer will have to be a complete sentence.

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Answer questions as directly as possible; do not explain.

That is, avoid unnecessary transmissions. If asked a question, just answer it; do not volunteer additional detail or an explanation of why something is so. As always, use good judgment. You may believe that the simple answer is misleading. Or the question may indicate that the person asking it does not understand the actual situation. If you think it's necessary, volunteer some more information. But be brief, let the questioner ask for more detail if he chooses to.

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Ask who a message is for, if you don't know

As you copy a message, consider what you’re going to do with it. If it isn’t obvious, then ask the station that’s sending it; this may be the most expedient way for you to learn how to handle it. The sender might even notice that the message should not be sent to your station after all, and cancel the message.

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Let third parties speak over your radio

This is often better and faster than passing messages back and forth. It's just as legal as passing third-party messages. However, don't expect to reserve the frequency for several minutes while one of the operators gets someone to come to the microphone. Instead, agree with the other operator about who is needed at each end for the contact, then release the frequency for others to use until everyone is available.

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Don't answer too many stations at once.

This is a hint for a net control station . If two or more stations call you at the same time, and you miss or garble some of the call signs, just answer the stations that you copied. When done with all of them, ask if there are any other stations ? This is faster and simpler than trying to call stations with fragments of their call signs, such as "the station ending in XZ", particularly if it was really W6XYC! (This often happens during netcheck-ins.)

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THIS CONCLUDES PART I OF

OPERATING IN A TACTICAL RADIO NET

Are there any Comments, Words of Wisdom, etc. that anyone would like to pass along regarding tonight's subject?

 

Operating in a Tactical Radio Net – Procedures and Equipment - Part II

Before I begin, I would like to give credit to the author of this article, Dick Rawson, N6CMJ. Dick wrote this article for SVECS in February 1993. I'd also like to thank SVECS for allowing me to use this article on the training net. Some minor editorial changes have been made to make it more readable over the air.

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Summary of Part I

Remember that last time we defined the meaning of a net , and a net control station. We also defined the difference between an Open Net and a Directed Net . We discussed tactical versus FCC call sign usage as well as the need to notify net control when leaving your assigned station. We also discussed briefing of your relief and arriving for assignments 10 to 20 minutes early. We talked about keeping transmissions short and avoiding unnecessary transmissions as well as the best way to contact net control. We also briefly discussed third party traffic and message handling. Would anyone like to review any part of last week’s discussion before proceeding with Part II ?

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OK, let’s begin with Part II . . . . . .

Minimize Misunderstandings

Avoid saying "QSL" and "Roger" because they can be ambiguous. Be sure you are

clear about what the other party means if you hear one of these terms. Hams use these terms

all the time with various meanings. You could hear each one used with any of several

meanings, and not know for certain which meaning was intended.

Would anyone like to offer a definition of QSL?

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The definition of QSL as far as morse code "Q signals" is concerned is "I acknowledge receipt of your message or transmission."

How about a definition for Roger?

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Roger is defined as "copy," "check," "understand", etc., to mean "I understood all of your last transmission."

Instead:

1. Use "affirmative" or "yes", OR "negative" or "no" in response to a question that clearly needs a yes/no answer.

2. Use "affirmative," "okay," "will do," etc. in response to a request that you take some action.

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Preparing a message - Getting and organizing the information

There are 5 parts to every message:

1) Originator (From:)

2) Destination (To:)

3) Message Text

4) Message Number (For tracking purposes)

5) Priority

If it can’t be determined who the message should go to specifically, then at the very least, identify the SEMS function responsible.

Does anyone remember what the 5 SEMS functions are?

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1) Management/Control

2) Operations

3) Planning

4) Logistics

5) Finance

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Do’s & Dont’s re: message handling

DO be accurate and DON'T change the message; Copy the message as received; legible handwriting is important.

DO be timely; remember, lives may be at risk.

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Personal Information Get the person's name, but keep it off the air . When you are asked to send a message about some person, immediately try to get a specific name if it seems appropriate. However, avoid saying the name over the radio unless you are told it is permitted. For example, someone may need first aid, or may be lost.

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It may not seem important while someone is standing next to you, asking you to send the message ... but they may wander off and be unavailable when that information is needed. Knowing names helps match up lost and found persons, and helps eliminate duplicate reports of the same injury (or lunch request, or transportation request).

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Similarly, do not pass victim or patient names over the radio . Generally the only personal names that belong in traffic are the names of agency officials, if they choose to put them into messages. Remember, anyone can monitor ham radio channels. There may be exceptions to this policy at certain events, such as for matching up lost children, but make sure that Net Control approves any exceptions.

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Try to get fully worded and signed messages, not paraphrases. When someone asks you to send a message of any substantial length, agree with that person on the exact wording that constitutes the message. If someone asks you to "tell Captain Smith so and so . . . .", then you are going to have to paraphrase the meaning. If you reword the message, you can introduce errors, omit details, or change the emphasis or urgency.

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A practical way to handle a message that you get verbally in the "tell them that" format is to write down what you think is the entire intended message, then read it back verbatim to the author for approval. Substantial messages should be signed with the title (and possibly the name) of the author. When sending the message over the radio, you can say, "signed, Westwood Shelter Manager."

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Use your judgment whether this much care is needed with tactical traffic. If the officer you are shadowing says to you, "Tell Wilson that his driver came back," you might reasonably not worry about transmitting his exact words. As an operator, what do you do if you are asked to get help for a problem? If possible, work with the person who asked, and try to understand who should handle the problem, then notify net control of this need. Many times the ultimate recipient of the traffic will be obvious, but not always.

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If you instead tell your problem to Net Control without first finding out who the message is intended for, and Net Control isn't the one who can handle it, you may have to tell your problem at least one more time. The person who brought you the request may know better than Net Control who should get the message. However, when you are asked to report information to Net Control, this advice doesn't apply.

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When passing a message Say your message straight through, in phrases, without any repetitions. Say the message in logical phrases of about four to twelve words. Pause and release the key while you wait for the other operator to write each phrase. Remember to always release the microphone button when you stop speaking. Speak clearly, and slowly as clarity requires, and use the phonetic alphabet to spell items that cannot be understood reliably by pronouncing them.

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The receiver should ask for any necessary repeats, until they have copied the whole message. If they ask you to repeat something, repeat it exactly the same way as you did the first time; do not paraphrase. The receiver is trying to copy your words; if you use different words, you are moving the target. If the receiver heard your words but did not understand what you said, then explain what was said.

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The receiver should then read it back to you, while you compare what you hear with the message you have sent. Once any disagreements are resolved, the other person acknowledges receipt of the message saying "Okay -- got it," or "copied" and that ends the matter.

The receiver may omit the read-back step, if confident he has the message correctly, and simply acknowledges receipt. Some groups prefer this procedure.

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Very short, simple messages may go a bit differently. You send the entire text, and the receiver may simply say "copied." Or he may say the text back to you, and you say "affirmative. " However, don't say "affirmative" and also say parts of the message again. Doing that gives the other station mixed signals. Are you agreeing or aren't you?

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From the sender's viewpoint:

1. Say the message in short phrases; release the button between phrases.

2. Do not repeat without being asked (in most cases).

3. If asked for repeats, repeat verbatim what you said before; do not paraphrase.

4. If the receiver's read-back is correct, say so without repeating any of the

message.

5. Be sure that the receiver says that he has copied the message.

From the receiver's viewpoint:

1. Ask for any repeats or explanations you need.

2. When you've copied the whole message, read it back to the sender.

3. When the sender agrees with your-read-back, say you copied the message.

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When copying a message, if the sender continues before you are ready, mark where you left off and continue copying the message being sent. Later, ask for the missing text; for example, "say again the words after SHELTER and before EQUIPMENT." This gets the message through faster than most other techniques.

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GENERAL OPERATING PRACTICES

Wait after keying, before speaking Wait a fraction of a second after pressing the mic button before speaking. This ensures that you don't clip off the first syllable of your transmission. Your radio may take a moment to change over to transmit, and the repeater may introduce its own delay. Once you are used to your own radios and usual repeaters, you might still find yourself using unfamiliar equipment some day. This is particularly important for a one-syllable message such as: yes, four, or Bob. If that syllable doesn't make it, the transmission is useless.

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If the station you are calling has their HT in battery-saver mode , and the channel

has been quiet, the first second or two of your transmission might go unheard. If you

suspect that, give the entire call sequence twice, as in "NA6ABC, this is KF6XYZ; NA6ABC, this is KF6XYZ."

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Don't talk louder in a noisy environment. It's natural to talk louder if it gets noisy around you, but don't do that on the radio; it generally makes your signal less understandable, not more. You should always speak loudly enough into your microphone to achieve full modulation. If you speak any louder, the radio clips your voice to avoid overmodulating the transmitter, distorting your voice and reducing intelligibility. The only way to overcome loud noise is to reduce it somehow, or wait until it passes. More complicated and expensive are noise-cancelling microphones, which work by favoring sound from nearby, over the more distant noise.

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Shield your microphone from the wind . Wind blowing across the microphone can make it impossible to understand you. Try to keep the wind from hitting the microphone. Simple measures to shield the mic from the wind often work well enough, provided you remember to use them.

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Don't use VOX or a locking PTT switch on a tactical net, unless you’re sure it won't cause problems by keying your transceiver when you don't intend to transmit. VOX operation may be appropriate for informal intercom-style coordination, when no hands are available to push a button. But in a noisy location, a VOX control may key your transmitter and jam the frequency, without you even noticing. Even in a quiet area, you may transmit unintentionally from time to time, due to stray noises or fumbles, disrupting the frequency. Push-to-talk operation is better than VOX on a tactical net because you can explicitly control when to transmit. Avoid locking PTT switches also.

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Your HT may not work on your belt

You may have to hold your HT in your hand to transmit reliably, or to even hear well. In marginal circumstances, you may be perfect copy while holding your HT in your hand, and barely detectable with it on your belt. Perhaps worse, with marginal reception, you may miss calls directed to you. In such situations you unfortunately can't take full advantage of equipment like a speaker mic or a headset with a boom mic.

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Don't misuse battery-saver mode

Don't configure your HT to sleep for several seconds in its battery-saving mode. You may miss calls. A nap time of 0.25 to 0.75 secs may not cause you trouble, but don't set it much higher.

 THIS CONCLUDES THE SECOND AND FINAL PART OF "OPERATING IN A TACTICAL RADIO NET". ARE THERE ANY COMMENTS, OR QUESTIONS THAT ANYONE HAS REGARDING THE MATERIAL THAT WE HAVE COVERED?


This page was last updated 3/27/02