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-tionMy 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?
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]
Miss Manner's Guide to Excruciatingly Correct SAR Geeks
- Listen: You have two ears and one mouth. That should mean you listen twice as much as you talk, right? Make extensive use of the "Release to Listen" button on your HT (this is often referred to as the "Push to Talk" button, but I think the other label is often more appropriate).
- Be Brief and Clear. Information is not being exchanged
accurately if you use confusing constructions, and it is not being
exchanged efficiently if you're using ten words where one will do. So
each time you key the mike, consider:
- Minimize the number of words you use: There are limits to this rule, but you should be able to strike an appropriate balance between brevity and clarity. Say what you need to say, get the information across clearly, but don't clutter the frequency.
- Keep irrelevant traffic off the air "We're stopping here, our coordinates are, um, wait a second lemme get my GPS on, I'm acquiring now, ah there it is, 038745 easting 3887152 northing, ah, we need to rest because of the fact that Joe is really thirsty and has to get the 5 gallon jug of water out of the bottom of his pack, we'll be here a few minutes" can be easily conveyed more efficiently with "We're stopping to rest for a few minutes." --- if Base wants a position they'll ask, and the rest of the information isn't relevant to the mission. Remember that if you're on the primary mission frequency, everyone gets to listen to these monologues.
- Never, ever, use jargon. In keeping with the "common
system of symbols, signs or behavior" part of the definition, stick
to plain English. Unless you're way out of district, this
is a common system of symbols you can count on.
- There is no need for 10-codes: "Ah, 10-4 base, our -20 is 375132 by 3887141, we need a -55 for the subject in about 10 minutes" will probably elicit a "huh?" more than "We copy that, base, our current coordinates are 0375132 easting 3887141 northing, we'll be in base in ten minutes and will need an ambulance for the subject." More words, yes, but clearer. Besides, 10-codes vary in meaning from agency to agency. For example, until about two years ago the Albuquerque Police Department and Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department used incompatible 10-code systems.
- Q signals are for morse code: "QSL, Chauncey, had a bit of QRM there but I think I got it." Again, "huh?" is the response most likely if you're not talking to an old-time ham who cut his teeth on a Vibroplex bug. Furthermore, Q-signals were never intended to be used in voice modes, they were an abbreviation to make sending Morse code more efficient. While every ham should know the Q-signals pretty well, a SAR mission is no place to separate the old hams from the new --- it's about getting the message from field teams to incident management and back. "Received, Chauncey, there was some interference but I think I got it all" says the same thing, and doesn't require a pocket dictionary of jargon.
- Keep team-specific terminology off the air: Remember that you may not be talking to a member of your own team, and explaining your own jargon to others is a waste of time and batteries. Say it in English instead!
- Certain types of professional terminology are unavoidable, especially when transmitting medical assessments between medical providers, but that's different --- we've got a few other 'rules' below to cover that case. Saying "subject is verbal on AVPU" has meaning to the intended recipient. That's distinct from cutsie team jargon of "We have located the subject, he's FDGB" meaning "Fall Down, Go Boom."
- The 'Condition Code' is an exception, too: Sometimes we are deliberately cryptic on the radio. The only reason for this to relay information to base that should not be made public carelessly. The classic example is the 'Condition code' to designate the status of a subject -- it would be a Very Bad Thing for a family to learn that their lost loved one is dead by hearing it from TV news reports generated because the reporters heard that information on the scanners before the IC has had a chance to talk to the family personally. You should generally obtain such a special code as part of your mission briefing, and you should use it appropriately to achieve the desired level of discretion. Saying 'Aw, man, we've got three red sneakers here and boy are they messed up, looks like the coyotes have been chewing on them for a few days! Better send up OMI." would rather defeat the purpose. If you do not get a code, use the 'Echo code' system, with 'Echo Alpha' meaning the subject is uninjured, 'Echo Bravo' meaning the subject has minor injuries, 'Echo Charlie' meaning the subject has major injuries, and 'Echo Delta' meaning the subject is deceased. The echo codes are well understood by some of the folks we're trying to keep out of the loop, though, so the use of that code is somewhat rare.
- Avoid contractions: Under less than ideal conditions, sometimes contractions can be misunderstood. Sometimes that could completely invert the meaning of a transmission. "Can't" and "Can" could sound exactly the same with a little static or interference.
- Use ITU standard phonetics when spelling: Many
letters sound the same when pronounced over the air: B,D,T,P,V may all
wind up sounding like "Ee" after the radio has had its fun with them.
If you need to pronounce a letter over the air, use one of the
standard phonetics. Please learn them and don't make up new ones on
the spot. "B as in Bravo" is very distinct from "T as in Tango" but
"B as in Boy" isn't distinct from "T as in Toy." The standard
phonetics were chosen so that no two of them can be confused under
poor conditions. Here they are for reference:
Letter Phonetic Pronunciation Letter Phonetic Pronunciation Letter Phonetic Pronunciation A Alpha AL-fah B Bravo BRA-voh C Charlie CHAR-lee D Delta DEL-tah E Echo ECK-oh F Foxtrot FOKS-trot G Golf GOLF H Hotel HOH-tell I India IN-dee-ya J Juliet JU-lee-ett K Kilo KEE-loh L Lima LEE-mah M Mike MIKE N November no-VEM-ber O Oscar OSS-kah P Papa PAH-PAH Q Quebec kay-BEK R Romeo ROW-me-oh S Siera SEE-air-ah T Tango TANG-go U Uniform YOU-ni-form V Victor VIK-tah W Whiskey WISS-kee X X-ray ECKS-ray Y Yankee YANG-kee Z Zulu ZOO-loo
- Pronounce numbers individually: Read off numbers one at a time. "487" should be read "Four-Eight-Seven" not "Four eighty seven." "100" is not "One hundred" but "One-zero-zero." Pronounce 9 as "Niner" to distinguish it more from "5". I've also read recommendations to pronounce "3" as "Tree" and "5" as "Fife," presumably to keep the sounds as distinct as possible.
- Do not editorialize: This is more of the "keep irrelevant traffic off the air" stuff. Unless asked for an opinion, stick to the facts. If asked to pass traffic, pass it and don't add anything to the message.
- Don't be afraid to ask for clarification: If a message is directed to you and you don't understand it, by all means don't be afraid to generate more traffic by asking for clarification.
- The last rule does not apply to traffic you are being asked to relay! If asked to relay traffic it is not important whether you understand it or not --- it is only important that you receive it, transcribe it, and pass it on verbatim. If the intended recipient asks for clarification, only then should you transmit a request for it. If, for example, base relays a message from an EMT in base to a medical provider on your team of "What is the subject's TLA?" it is not your place to say "What's a TLA?" but rather "Copy, 'ask our provider "what is the subject's TLA?"'. Stand by." and then go ask. When the provider says "TLA is Blargh and Frobnicating" you don't ask "what's that mean?" you simply transmit "Base, medical provider says 'TLA is Blargh and Frobnicating.'" Of course, you may have to ask the provider how to spell "Blargh" later on, when the communicator in base thinks "Huh?" but instead properly says "Copy 'TLA is Blargh and Frobnicating.' Please spell 'blargh' and 'frobnicating' for me" while transcribing the message and relaying it to the intended recipient verbatim.
- Don't rely on convention where English will serve: Consider
"Cibola Sam, Cibola Irving"Does this mean "This is Cibola Sam calling Cibola Irving" or "This is Cibola Irving calling Cibola Sam?" Well, that depends on whether your background is in amateur radio, the military, law enforcement, or whatever. Hams would most likely interpret this as "Cibola Irving calling Cibola Sam" and police would probably interpret it as "Cibola Sam calling Cibola Irving." Who knows how a police officer who dabbles in amateur radio would interpret it. This is one case where reducing the number of words has destroyed clarity, and it is one that is very common. Avoiding it is easy. It is far better to say "Cibola Sam, this is Cibola Irving" or "Cibola Sam to Cibola Irving" --- it doesn't matter who listens to either of these, the intent is clear.
- If you're not communicator, having your radio on simply makes unnecessary noise in the field.
- You are wasting your battery. 12 hours from now it may be needed!
- Sometimes transmissions not meant for general consumption get
heard by the 'wrong' people because someone left a radio on. A
notable example of this:
During a mission near the Needle in 1998, a technical team below a cliff was tying a litter into a high angle raise system, and communicating with the haul captain at the top of the cliff. At one point there was a transmission from below of "ready to haul." This transmission was meant to tell the haul captain that they were ready, not to tell the haulers to start tugging. Unfortunately, a team member at the back of the haul line who had no communications responsibility insisted on having his radio on at full volume, and several members of the haul team began tugging, mistakenly thinking the call was meant for them. The haul captain was not ready for hauling, nor was the rigging completed. Had the radio been off as it should have been and people been listening to their haul captain instead this would not have happened. Fortunately nobody was injured and the problem was corrected quickly.
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.
- Power switch: This is often combined with the volume knob, shutting the radio off when the knob is turned to the extreme low end of the volume range. Some radios, however, have a separate power button. Know which one yours uses, because the radio's of little use if you can't turn it on.
- Volume control: You will need to set this to a comfortable, but reliably audible level. We'll get to that in a minute.
- Squelch control: When activated, squelch will keep the radio quiet unless a signal of a sufficient strength is present. At the low end of its scale you'll hear loud static in between transmissions, at the high end you will only hear the strongest stations. When a signal of sufficient strength is detected, we say that it "breaks squelch" and causes the received signal to make its way through the circuitry all the way to the speaker. Weaker signals, including all that static, are not enough to break squelch, and the speaker remains silent. Set this wrong and you may never hear any signals.
- Power source: In the field we're usually using batteries. Batteries can hold a certain amount of charge, measured in "amp-hours" or "milliamp hours." That means that a given battery can supply a given current (measured in amps or milliamps) for a certain period of time. A 1200mAh battery can provide 1200 milliamps (1.2 amps) for one hour or 1 milliamp for 1200 hours, or 100 milliamps for 12 hours, or any other combination. If you know how much current your radio draws in standby, receive, and transmit mode, you should be able to estimate how long a fully charged battery will last. My radio, the ADI AT-600, draws a current of about 20mA in standby (on but not receiving anything), about 40mA while receiving, and about 1A (1000mA) while transmitting on medium power. Obviously, my battery will last longest on standby if I've got the 1200mAH battery on (about 60 hours) and least if transmitting continuously (about 1.2 hours).
- Antenna: An antenna is a must --- you can't get a radio to do much unless you have one --- but some are better than others. You may find that if you have no antenna at all you can still receive some repeaters, or hear transmissions made very close to you, so listening to repeaters or people transmitting near you is not a good test of whether your antenna's broken or not. Most "handi-talkies" (HTs) come equipped with a "rubber ducky" antenna that's mainly a rubber-covered metal spring. Such antennas are designed with size and convenience in mind, not with efficiency. Speaking very crudely, the shorter a 2-meter HT's rubber ducky is the worse it is. I tend to refer to them as "rubber dummy-loads," but that's another story. Quarter-wave "whip" antennas for HTs are a relatively inexpensive way to boost the performance of your equipment; the telescoping whips are also a reasonable choice, but since they're made of metal you do have to keep them unextended while walking lest they snag on branches and snap (or worse, break the antenna connector off your HT!). It is even possible to make your own "wire j-pole" antenna that will coil up and fit in a ziplock bag in your pack, and can be unwound and tossed in a tree for a little extra "oomph" when you need it.
- DTMF Keypad: The "touch-tone" keypad of your HT can be used to activate the "phone patch" of certain repeaters --- usually only if you're a member of the club that sponsors the repeater --- and can be used for a few other purposes such as paging, for those HTs that support it. The keypad usually doubles as the programming interface for the radio, sometimes with the use of an additional "function" key.
- VFO or channel selector knob: This will switch your operating frequency. Ham radios usually have a mechanism where you can set the frequency directly either with the knob or keypad, commercial/public service band radios instead allow you to select only from pre-programmed "channels." Most ham radios allow both "channel" and "direct entry" selectors, often using the same knob.
Using the radioWell, 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.
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