Simulations are great opportunities for experimentation

ICS 213 form
Form ICS-213, “General Message”

Every year, members of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) — the primary national organization of ham radio operators — participate in Simulated Emergency Tests (SET). These events give hams opportunities to practice the skills they’d need in a real emergency, when government agencies and non-governmental organizations might need hams to fill in for non-functioning telephone and Internet systems.

The elected leader of the Indiana section of the ARRL — section manager Joseph Lawrence, K9RFZ — has asked Indiana hams involved in the message-handling arm of ARRL (the National Traffic System, NTS) to support the League’s emergency response arm (the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, ARES) during the SET by transferring messages in a format that’s different from that normally used by the NTS. Specifically, Lawrence wants participants to use the Incident Command System General Message Form ICS-213, which is commonly used by the emergency response agencies that ham radio operators would assist during a real emergency.

Form ICS‑213 is used by incident personnel and dispatchers to record incoming messages that cannot be orally transmitted with accuracy to the intended recipients, according to the outline of one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s online independent study courses (IS-201, “Forms Used for the Development of the Incident Action Plan”). The ICS-213 is also used by incident command posts and other incident personnel to transmit messages (e.g., resource orders, incident name changes, other ICS coordination issues, etc.) to the incident communications center for transmission via radio or telephone to the addressees. The form is used to send any message or notification to incident personnel who require hard‑copy delivery.

Because ARES commonly interfaces directly with agencies whose staff members are trained to use form ICS-213, many ARES members have developed skill at transmitting and receiving via radio the contents of such forms. Generally speaking, members of NTS have significantly less experience in doing so, but considerable experience in a different message form, the ARRL “radiogram.”

Blank radiogram
ARRL radiogram form

Lawrence’s request that SET participants — including Indiana members of NTS — plan to send and receive messages in the format commonly used by served agencies (Form ICS-213) caused considerable consternation and debate on email discussion groups, particularly a Yahoo group used by Indiana ARES members. Some NTS participants seem to believe that any and all messages that flow through an NTS net — even messages that stay within a section-level net — must be in ARRL radiogram form and that there is no place for form ICS-213 in an NTS net, unless the contents of the form ICS-213 are encapsulated in an ARRL radiogram.

Which leads me (finally) to the point of this article: For the sake of the upcoming SET, the above concerns don’t matter.

As its name implies, an SET is a simulation. Like any other simulation, it provides an excellent opportunity to experiment with new techniques, procedures, etc. Some such experiments might fail, but it’s only a simulation, so it’s a safe time to fail. After a simulation ends, participants can discuss what happened during the simulation, what worked, what didn’t and how operations can improve.

I encourage all Indiana hams, therefore, to participate in the upcoming SET and to use it as an opportunity to experiment with different methods and procedures for handling messages in ICS-213 format.

Try encapsulating one in a radiogram. Try sending one without making it into a radiogram. Try sending them on different modes (including voice and digital).

In short, experiment!

It’s only a simulation, so the worst that can happen is that we all learn something.

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