Category Archives: traffic handling

“Amateur call” or “Mixed group”?

ARRL NTS logoA fellow ham radio operator who is, like me, active in the National Traffic System (NTS) of the American Radio Relay League, sent me an email message yesterday with a question about the proper way to send an amateur radio call sign when transmitting an NTS radiogram on voice.

According to the NTS Methods and Practices Guidelines (MPG) 2.1.5.7, the proper way to send a call sign in a message is to first say the words, “amateur call,” and then send the call sign phonetically, for example, “amateur call, whiskey nine Lima whiskey.”

My correspondent wrote that he witnessed confusion on the part of a receiving operator when the sending station followed this procedure. Apparently, the receiving station incorrectly recorded the words “amateur call” as part of the message text, which caused the message word count to be incorrect.

My correspondent wondered if operators should introduce call signs with the words, “mixed group,” instead of “amateur call” as a way of preventing such receiving errors.

The MPG, however, indicates that “mixed group” should only be used to introduce a call sign that contains a slash. For example, W9LW/NCS would be sent as, “mixed group, whiskey nine Lima whiskey slash November Charlie Sierra.”

Further, the words “mixed group” could just as easily create the same error (i.e. a receiving operator adding “mixed group” to the text) if the receiving operator is not sufficiently familiar with NTS methods and practices.

I believe that casual message handlers often think that those of us who advocate strict adherence to procedures as described in the MPG are unnecessarily nit-picky. The situation described above, however, is a case in point for the position that in message handling, it is essential for all participants throughout the system to know and consistently use standardized procedures. In other words, had the receiving operator known that the MPG calls for introducing a call sign with the words, “amateur call,” he probably would not have written those words down when copying the message.

If everybody learns one way to do it and everybody always does it the same way, such errors can be reduced, if not eliminated. Error prevention, after all, is the whole point of having standardized procedures. Fortunately, we all have equal opportunity to learn the standardized way of sending NTS messages on voice; by simply reading the MPG.

I welcome you to use the comment link above (under the post title) to add your comments and/or questions. Feel free, also to share this blog post. Buttons are provided below for your convenience.

Solar flare blacks out shortwave radio, more flares possible this weekend

A potent X1-class solar flare 11/7 caused a strong HF radio blackout. More X-flares are possible this weekend, as a sunspot turns toward Earth, according to http://spaceweather.com/.

Ironically, a solar-induced blackout is the scenario for tomorrow’s simulated emergency test by ham radio operators of the Indiana section American Radio Relay League Amateur Radio Emergency Service and National Traffic System.

Internet can fail even without a disaster

We don’t need a natural disaster to make large sections of the Internet unavailable. The news stories linked below should serve as motivation for ham radio operators to continue practicing their message -handling skills, so they’ll be ready should a served agency need them to fill in for Internet email.

Time Warner Cable has widespread outages

By MAE ANDERSON — Aug. 27, 2014 8:28 AM EDT

NEW YORK (AP) — Time Warner Cable says a problem that occurred during routine maintenance caused a nationwide outage of its Internet service for hours on Wednesday morning.

The company says it is still investigating the cause of the problem, which occurred with its Internet backbone, the paths that local or regional networks connect to in order to carry data long distances.

Read more …

Internet hiccups today? You’re not alone. Here’s why

Summary: It’s not just you. Many Internet providers have been having trouble as they run into long expected (but not adequately prepared for) routing table problems.

for Networking |

If you found your Internet speed has been pathetic today and some sites wouldn’t load at all, you’re not alone.

Many tier-one Internet service providers (ISPs), and in turn, the last mile ISPs they support, experienced technical problems that resulted in bad service throughout the US and some parts of Canada.

Read more …

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.

Service messages go to station of origination, not signatory

Today I received an unusually addressed service message that indicates that some NTS participants don’t completely understand how service messages work. For those who are unaware, a “service message” is a radiogram about a radiogram. We send service messages when radiograms’ handling instructions request them and when we are unable to deliver or relay someone else’s radiogram.

Although the service message described what happened to a message I originated, the service message was addressed to someone other than me.

The situation surrounding the original radiogram was somewhat unusual, but certainly not unheard of. To protect the names of those involved, I’m going to fictionalize the examples below. Here’s what my original message looked like:

NR 100 R W9LW ARL 3 BLUFFTON IN OCT 28
JANE DOE
1234 MAIN STREET
SOME TOWN, GA
555-555-5555
(BREAK)
ARL SIXTY HALLOWEEN
(BREAK)
SAM WB9XXX

Notice that the station of origination in the preamble is W9LW but the call sign in the signature is WB9XXX. Why would this happen? Perhaps the signatory ham’s station is off the air, or perhaps he has no privileges on HF net frequencies and no VHF net within range. Regardless, when the signatory contacts the station of origination by any means other than ham radio and requests the sending of a radiogram, the call sign in the signature ends up different than the call sign in the preamble, because the station of origination in the preamble is always the first station to put the message on the air.

A station close to the destination address attempted to deliver the message via phone. The addressee did not reply to his voice mail message, so the operator sent a service message regarding my message number 100, above. Here’s how the service message looked:

NR 500 R WA4XXX ARL 11 SOME TOWN, GA OCT 29
SAM WB9XXX C/O W9LW
BLUFFTON, IN
(BREAK)
ARL SIXTY SEVEN 100 NO
REPLY TO VOICE MAIL X
73
(BREAK)
TOM WA4XXX

In this example, WA4XXX incorrectly addressed the service message to WB9XXX, who was the signatory of my message number 100. WA4XXX should have addressed the service message to W9LW, because W9LW was the station of origination in the preamble of message number 100.

If you ever handle a message in which the call sign in the preamble is different than the call sign in the signature, remember that any service message should be addressed to the station in the preamble, not the station in the signature.

Traffic handling: The value of VOX

Photo of VOX control on a transciever

It’s a very good idea to use the voice-operated relay (VOX) function of your transceiver when sending traffic on SSB. If you use VOX, your rig will automatically stop transmitting between words. This will enable you to hear the receiving station, should that operator need to interrupt you for any reason.

I recently heard a real-life example of why this is important. During a section-level NTS SSB net, a net control station (NCS) was sending a radiogram to another net member. The NCS was not using VOX. His transmitter was therefore on continuously for the entire preamble and address block, until he finally transmitted the “break” between the address block and text. Then and only then did the NCS stop transmitting so he could hear a response from the receiving station.

Unfortunately on this day, the receiving station was having a problem with intermittent high noise levels in his receiver. The NCS had only transmitted for a couple of seconds when the noise popped up at the receiving end, making it impossible for the receiving station to copy the NCS. The receiving station tried to interrupt the NCS and let him know that radiogram reception was no longer possible, but to no avail. He had to wait and wait and wait until the “break” finally came.

Because the NCS was not using VOX, a considerable amount of net time was wasted. Fortunately, this is not a major issue during normal times of low traffic volume. But during a period of high volume, such as after a disaster, every second of net time counts.

You might think, “I’ll remember to turn on VOX during high traffic volumes.” But the fact is, as any musician knows, we perform as we practice.

Using VOX during the transmission of all radiograms is a best practice that all net control stations and other experienced operators should model for the newer traffic handlers among us.

Traffic handling: Unnecessary repetition wastes time

Recently I was listening to an SSB section traffic net and heard a region net representative passing inbound traffic to another station for local delivery. Conditions were good and the two stations seemed to have no trouble hearing each other. The region net representative sent the entire text like this (this was not the actual message I heard):

WITH THE STORM SEASON APPROACHING MAKE SURE YOUR SKYWARN TRAINING IS CURRENT X CHECK WITH YOUR EC OR SKYWARN COORDINATOR WITH THE STORM SEASON APPROACHING MAKE SURE YOUR SKYWARN TRAINING IS CURRENT X CHECK WITH YOUR EC OR SKYWARN COORDINATOR 

No, that’s not a typographical error. The region net representative sent the entire text and then immediately sent it again, without warning.

When reception is good, this kind or repetition wastes time, which could be a real problem during a period of high volume (e.g. after a disaster). Even in poor conditions, it’s rarely necessary to repeat an entire message. We instead wait for the receiving station to request “fills” (parts of the message he missed or was unsure of) and repeat only the needed information.

In addition, the ARRL NTS Methods and Practice Guidelines (MPG) provide a procedure a sending station should use when the operator feels unrequested repeats are necessary for clarity:

2.1.4.7 I SAY AGAIN, (use #1) To REPEAT FOR CLARITY Say the group(s), then “I say again”, repeat the group(s), and then continue. It is wise to limit repeats for clarity to one group at a time to avoid confusion with use #2 below. In bad radio conditions, however, repeating phrases or whole lines of a message can increase the chance for correct copy.
“WHISKER I say again WHISKER … ” 

Note that the MPG indicates that all such repetitions should be introduced with the phrase, “I say again.” The region net rep I heard did not use that phrase, so the copying station probably thought the first word of the repeat (“with”) was actually the next word of text. Note also that the MPG indicates that the most a sending station should repeat at a time is a “line of a message,” not the entire text.

Let’s all model best practices, as outlined in the MPG, when we pass traffic, especially if we’re serving in official capacities such as region net representative or net control station. Our failure to do so is one way that less experienced operators learn bad habits.

Signing off

After we’ve sent the last word of the radiogram text, we signal the receiving operator that the text is finished and the signature is coming. If you originated the message, remember that any salutation, like “73” or “sincerely,” is part of the text, not part of the signature. We signal the end of the text by saying “break,” but without a pause. We immediately begin sending the signature, which is usually one or more names and sometimes a title or call sign. As in the address, we spell all but the most common names. Remember, whenever we spell anything, we first say, “I spell,” and then spell phonetically. And just like elsewhere in the message, we say “amateur call” before a call sign and then transmit the call sign phonetically. After the signature, we say “end, more” if we have another message to send to the same station. Otherwise, we say, “end, no more.” So the end of a message would sound like, “73. Break. Jon, I spell Juliet, Oscar, November, amateur call whiskey nine x-ray alpha bravo, end, no more.”

(This is the 15th in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)

The meat of the message

We send a radiogram text without introduction, except for the word, “break,” as explained in the previous article. For example, we do not say, “Break for text” or “text follows.” We spell any word that is unfamiliar or sounds like another word (e.g. “to” and “two”). In that case, we say the word, then say “I spell” and then spell the word phonetically. We introduce a single initial with the word, “initial” and then send the initial phonetically (e.g. “initial foxtrot”). An exception is when an “X” appears between sentences. In that case, we just say, “x-ray,” without saying “initial.” We transmit an acronym like “NTS” as “initials November, tango, Sierra.” When the text includes numbers like 1, 12, 123, etc., we transmit them like this: “Figure one,” or “figures one, two” or “figures one, two, three” (always saying each digit individually). Before an amateur call sign, we say “amateur call.” Then we transmit the call sign phonetically. We introduce other combinations of letters and numbers with “mixed group.” For example, we send “11th” as “Mixed group one, one tango hotel.” After the last word of the text, we say, “break.” Next week, signing off.

(This is the 14th in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)

Taking a break


“Break” is a special word in traffic handling. Unless it appears in the text of a radiogram (e.g. “Having fun on spring break”), we say “break” at two and only two times during radiogram transmission (well, there is an exception for booked messages but that’s beyond the scope of this article). The first time we say “break” is at the end of the address block and before the text. At this point, we say “break” and then listen for a response from the receiving operator. That operator will either ask for clarification on some part of the preamble or address block, or, if he copied everything fine so far, he says nothing. So after we say, “break,” we listen for a second or two and if all we hear is silence or static, we assume it’s OK to send the text. You will sometimes hear operators say “break for text,” but that’s redundant and improper procedure. All you need is “break,” and a pause. Next week, the meat of the message.

(This is the 13th in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)