Cibola
Search and Rescue

Basic Communications for the SAR Grunt

from Volume 6, Number 5 of Lost ... and Found

by Tom Russo

More and more, a radio is seen as an essential tool for the search and rescue volunteer. But as Bob Cowan pointed out at ESCAPE this weekend: "The problem used to be that nobody had a radio so we couldn't communicate. Now everyone has a radio and we still can't communicate." That is to say that talking is not the same as communicating, and it is very easy to get into habits that lead to poor transfer of information; throwing more radios at the comm problem isn't the right approach. The point of this minilesson and its associated pre-meeting "trainlet" is to make you aware of some of the things I think interfere with efficient and effective mission communication, and with any luck help you to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

I'll begin by discussing basic radio etiquette and rules of the road to put the discussion in the proper frame. Then I'll move on to some simple features of the average radio and how to use them. And since that will pad out the newsletter more than it needs to be, I'll leave the rest for the trainlet.

What is Communication?

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary has two interesting, but very different definitions for the word "communication:"
Main Entry: com-mu-ni-ca-tion
1 : an act or instance of transmitting and [...]
3a : a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. [ellipsis added]
My position is that only the "3a" definition should be considered correct in the SAR context. The definition of SAR communication should be the process by which information is exchanged and all the rules of the road that we should live by should boil down to improving that process and making sure that the information is exchanged efficiently and accurately. So what sort of rules should we live by?

Miss Manner's Guide to Excruciatingly Correct SAR Geeks

Lastly, some more manners: if you are not communicator on your team, strike team, or task force, please, please, please turn off your radio. There are a number of reasons for this:

Lastly, when you're on a team that is standing in base camp you should turn off your radio if you are not the base camp communicator. Base camp is a busy, noisy place, and you do not need to contribute to the pandemonium. Shutting off your radio while standing in base camp should be an automatic, reflexive action.

What does this button do?

A few lines in the team newsletter will never replace a careful reading of your specific radio's owner's manual. You should familiarize yourself with all the features of your radio before you come to rely on it as a tool for use on missions. This is especially true of features that you could activate with a button-press or two without knowing it. Learn to recognize the behavior of your radio under pathological circumstances so you know how to get it back to the right state for use in the field.

Most of the radios out there have a few common features that can be discussed generically.

Locate these functions or components on your own radio, and make sure you know how to use them.

Using the radio

Well, you turn it on, set the volume and squelch, pick a frequency, and key the mike. Nothing to it, right?

Well, almost. Turning it on is usually a no-brainer for most radios, but how do you set the volume and squelch? The easiest way is to select a clear frequency and turn the squelch to higher sensitivity (i.e. it will "break" with a weaker signal) until you hear static (no signal to speak of, as weak as you can get!). Most radios increase sensitivity as you turn squelch counter clockwise, but not all, so consult your owner's manual. Once you hear the static, adjust the volume to a comfortable listening level, then turn the squelch the other way until the static just goes away. You're now at the highest sensitivity you can get without hearing static all the time, and your eardrums probably won't shatter when squelch is broken.

Pick a frequency? Well, that depends on your radio, your mission, and your license. Odds are good that you'll use the channel selector knob to set your frequency from a pre-programmed set, if you've planned ahead properly. If not, you may be able to key in the frequency on your keypad.

During missions, SAR teams are allowed to use the State SAR frequency of 155.160MHz (MHz=megahertz). That doesn't mean you can just grab any radio that can transmit on 155.160 and use it, though. The radio must be FCC Type Approved for the public service band to be used legally for transmitting under the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 47 Part 90 rules. I can't tell you which radios are type approved, but I can tell you one thing: if your radio allows direct frequency entry of frequencies in the public service band (e.g. selecting 155.160 by typing "1 5 5 1 6 0" on the keypad, as opposed to selecting channel 2 with the little knob on top) without an external programming device attached it is not type approved according to the federal regulations. There are some radios out there that do allow direct frequency entry in the public service band, usually because someone opened up the back of a ham radio and snipped a diode. Transmitting with such a radio on the public service frequencies exposes you to potential legal action by the FCC, and fines as stiff as $20,000, even if you supposedly have authority to use the frequency. That authority presupposes that you're using it within the scope of the regulations, which includes using proper equipment. Think before you key the mike.

Frequencies between 144.000 MHz and 148.000 MHz are 2-meter amateur radio (HAM) frequencies. Radios used on the amateur bands do not need to be FCC Type Approved. Even if one of those frequencies is in use on a mission, and even if your radio is capable of transmitting on them, you are never authorized to use those frequencies unless you have a current FCC Amatuer Radio Operator/Station license, even on a mission. If you are a licensed ham you should already know this, but you are required to transmit your call sign once every 10 minutes during an extended contact (you should rarely be having one that long on a mission!), and at the end of a contact. It is not enough to use your "tactical call sign" (e.g. "Team 1 Alpha"), you must use your FCC assigned call sign.

Sometimes you have to stick your radio somewhere where it will be exposed to bumps and random button presses. Many radios have a "keypad lock" feature, and this is a valuable thing to use when your radio's snapped into a harness. It disables the keypad and protects it against accidental keypresses. Be aware, however, that some radios that support frequency selection by keypad and channel selector knob don't always lock the knob when they lock the keypad. My radio is that way, and I need to check periodically to make sure that nothing has bumped the knob and changed my frequency while I was walking. I'd recommend checking this feature when looking into a radio to purchase. I find it a very annoying "feature" of my radio.

Another type of lock is useful: the "push-to-talk lock (PTT lock)." The best reason to lock your push-to-talk is when you have to stick it in a pocket where the push-to-talk may accidentally be pressed; locking the push-to-talk will prevent you from causing interference on the channel and potentially blocking emergency traffic. Another good reason to use it is that sometimes your radio may be capable of transmitting on frequencies that you have no authority to use: an example might be a team radio that has been programmed with the NOAA radio channel so you can listen to weather forecasts while on the mission. It would be a Very Bad Thing to accidentally transmit on that frequency, so you should lock the push-to-talk before switching to that channel. Another good reason to lock the keypad is because you have a "modified" ham radio that could transmit on a public service channel, but shouldn't be used for that. You can still listen on those channels, and locking the PTT prevents you from accidentally transmitting where you shouldn't. Some radios allow you to specify that a particular channel is "receive only" --- all they're really doing is storing the PTT lock setting with the channel information. It's important that you know how to recogonize, activate and deactivate this lock on your radio, because you may find that your radio isn't transmitting and it's just because you've accidentally engaged it or forgotten to disengage it.

One last recommendation on equipment: you will probably find that using a "speaker mike" or something similar will aid you in the field. Without such a device, you usually have to take your radio out of its harness to transmit, and keep its speaker unobstructed. The latter generally requires that you leave it out and exposed to the wind, rain and cold, while the former lets you run the risk of improperly securing it when you put it back over and over again, and ultimately you may allow it to drop from the harness. With a speaker mike you can keep the mike clipped close to your ear so you can hear it, while the radio is kept safely tucked inside clothing or your pack. Keeping the radio warm helps its battery life. When you need to transmit you need only take the speaker mike from where it's clipped. You can't usually lose it if you fail to secure it, because it's tethered to the radio by its cable anyway. Back to the Minilesson Page
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