EMCOMM techniques are different from everday communications because of the stress, competing demands, and uncertainty that surrounds the sudden onset of an emergency. Life and death communications are not part of our daily experience. In an emergency, any message may literally affect the lives of patients, stranded civilians, or shelter inhabitants. An unclear message, or one that is altered, delayed, misdelivered, or lost can have disastrous results.

Listening is half of an emergency communicator's job. You can't communicate the a message if you don't actually hear it. You must learn to focus on receiving the message and tune out distractions.

Sometimes the job of listening is made more challenging because you are operating in a noisy environment or there may be static or interference on the frequency.

Speak Clearly
How you use your microphone seems simple, but there are many things that could affect how well your audio sounds. Each microphone has different pickup characteristics and the radio may applify the signal differently. In theory, the optimum method of transmitting is to hold the mic close to your cheek, and just off to the side of your mouth. Talk across, rather than into, the microphone. This will reduce breath noises and "popping" sounds that can mask your speech.

Always speak in a normal, clear, calm voice. Speaking loudly can result in over-modulation and distortion, and will not increase volume at the receiving end. Remember to speak slowly when communicating a message and at a regular pace when communicating tactical traffic.

"Voice operated transmission" (VOX) is not recommended for emergency communication since background noise or an impromptu discussion can trigger it.

When using a repeater, be sure to leave a little extra time between pressing the push-to-talk switch and speaking. Signal detect time, CTCSS (often called pl) decode time, transmitter rise time create a delay between the time you key the microphone and the repeater is retransmitting your words. A short pause after keying the microphone will ensure that your entire message is transmitted, avoiding time-wasting repeats for lost first words.

Lastly, pause a little longer than usual between transmissions any time there is a possibility that other stations may have emergency traffic to pass. A count of "one, one thousand" is usually sufficient.

Clear & Concise
When communicating information keep it as short and concise as possible. The object is to get the message across clearly and accurately. Anything beyond necessary information can lead to misinterpretation. If you are the author of the message and can leave a word out without changing the meaning of a message, do so. If Details of the message don't add value to the content, leave it out. Avoid using contractions - words like "don't" and "isn't" can be confused. If someone else has drafted the message, work with the author to make it more concise, but once you have been charged with communicating a message, NEVER alter it.

Transmissions should sound crisp and professional, like the police and fire radio dispatchers. Do not editorialize or embellish. Do not have sidebar conversations unless they are necessary to get the message out.

Be sure to say exactly what you mean. Use specific words to ensure that your precise meaning is conveyed. For instance, don't reference “the school” if you can say “Jones Middle School”, unless you are absolutely certain there is no uncertainty of what “the school” refers to.

Communicate one complete subject at a time. Mixing different subjects into one message can cause confusion. Chances are that the two requests (one for food, one for cots) will have to be forwarded to different locations, and if combined into one message one request will be lost.

Plain Language
As hams, we use a great deal of specialized terminology in our daily conversations, and we generally all understand it, and even if we don't, it probably won't cause any harm. In an emergency, however, the results can be much different. A misunderstood message could cost someone's life. Always use plain language in place of our usual abbreviations.

Officially, nobody involved in emergency communications should be using codes. Even law enforcement and other public service entities are instructed to avoid codes when engaging in emergency traffic handling. For these reasons, all messages and communications during an emergency should be in plain language. "Q" signals (except in CW communication), 10 codes, and similar jargon should be avoided. The one exception to this is the list of standard "pro-words" (often called "pro-signs") used in Amateur traffic nets, such as "clear," "say again all after" and so on.

I'm not holding my breath expecting law enforcement to not use 10-codes during stress situations, but we will serve our agencies well by communicating in clear English, allowing their representatives to understand what we're doing if they should be within earshot or standing nearby waiting for a message.

Avoid words or phrases that carry strong emotions. Most emergency situations are emotionally charged already, and you do not need to add to the problem. For instance, instead of saying, "horrific damage and people torn to bits," you might say "significant physical damage and serious personal injuries."

Certain words in a message may not be immediately understood. Some words may be unusual and many words sound similar to others. The best way to be sure a potentially confusing word is understood correctly is to spell it. Spelling alone isn't enough, since many letters sound alike at the other end. "Z" and "C" are two good examples. For that reason, radio communicators often use "phonetics." These are specific words that begin with the letter being sent. For instance, “WX4BK” would be communicated “Whiskey X-ray Four Bravo Kilo.”

Standard practice is to first say the word, say "I spell," then spell the word phonetically. This lets the receiving station know you are about to spell the word he just heard.

Several different phonetic alphabets are in common use, but most hams and public safety agencies use the ITU Phonetic Alphabet, shown below, and others use military alphabets.

Many hams like to make up their own phonetics, especially as a memory aid for call signs, and often with humorous results. Unfortunately, this practice has no place in emergency communication. In poor conditions, unusual phonetic words might also be misunderstood. We need to be sure that what we say is always interpreted exactly as intended - this is why most professional communicators use standardized phonetics.

ITU Phonetic Alphabet

A - alfa (AL-fa)

B - bravo (BRAH-voh)

C - charlie (CHAR-lee)

D - delta (DELL-tah)

E - echo (ECK-oh)

F - foxtrot (FOKS-trot)

G - golf (GOLF)

H - hotel (HOH-tell)

I - india (IN-dee-ah)

J - juliet (JU-lee-ett)

K - kilo (KEY-loh)

L - lima (LEE-mah)

M - mike (MIKE)

N - november (no-VEM-ber)

O - oscar (OSS-cah)

P - papa (PAH-PAH)

Q - quebec (kay-BECK)

R - romeo (ROW-me-oh)

S - sierra (SEE-air-rah)

T - tango (TANG-go)

U - uniform (YOU-ni-form)

V - victor (VIK-tor)

W - whiskey (WISS-key)

X - x-ray (ECKS-ray)

Y - yankee (YANG-key)

Z - zulu (ZOO-loo)


Numbers are somewhat easier to understand. Most can be made clearer by simply "over-enunciating" them as shown below.

Numbers are always pronounced individually. The number "60" is spoken as "six zero," not "sixty." The number "509" is spoken as "five zero nine," and not as "five hundred nine" or "five oh nine."


One: "Wun"

Two: "TOOO"

Three: "THUH-ree"

Four: "FOH-wer"

Five: "FY-ive"

Six: "Sicks"

Seven: "SEV-vin"

Eight: "Ate"

Nine: "NINE-er”


Zero: "ZEE-row"


Pro-words, called "pro-signs" when sent in Morse Code or digital modes, are procedural terms with specific meanings. ("Pro" is short for "procedural.") They are used to save time and ensure that everyone understands precisely what is being said. Some pro-words are used in general communication, others while sending and receiving formal messages. We will discuss the general words here, and cover the formal message pro-words in a later unit.



Meaning and function



End of contact. In CW, SK is sent before final identification



Used to let any station know to respond

Go ahead


Used to let a specific station know to respond



Leaving the air, will not be listening

Stand by


A temporary interruption of the contact



Indicates that a transmission has been received correctly and in full

Tactical Call Signs
Tactical call signs can identify the station's location or its purpose during an event, regardless of who is operating the station. This is an important concept. The tactical call sign allows you to contact a station without knowing the FCC call sign of the operator. It virtually eliminates confusion at shift changes or at stations with multiple operators.

Tactical call signs should be used for all emergency nets and public service events if there are more than just a few participants.

If one does not already exist, the Net Control Station (NCS) may assign the tactical call sign as each location is "opened." Tactical call signs will usually provide some information about the location or its purpose. It is often helpful if the tactical call signs have a meaning that matches the way in which the served agency identifies the location or function. Some examples are:

"Net" - for net control station

"Carroll EOC" - for the County Emergency Operations Center

"VR EOC" - for the Villa Rica Emergency Operations Center

"Checkpoint 1" - for the first check point in a public service event

"Welcome Center" - for the County Welcome Center

"Tanner Carrollton" - for Tanner Hospital in Carrollton

How To Use Tactical & Call Signs
If you are at "Welcome Center" during a directed net and want to contact the net control station, you would say "Net, Welcome Center" or, in tight run nets (and where the NCS is paying close attention), simply "Welcome Center." If you had emergency traffic, you would say "Welcome Center, emergency traffic," or for priority traffic "Welcome Center, priority traffic."

Note how few words were required to convey your intentions.

If you have traffic for a specific location, such as “Welcome Center”, you would say "Carroll EOC, priority traffic for Welcome Center." This tells the NCS everything needed to correctly direct the message. If there is no other traffic holding, the NCS will follow with, "Welcome Center, call Carroll EOC for priority traffic."

Note that no FCC call signs have been used so far. None are necessary when you are calling another station.

Station Identification
While we've pointed out tactical call signs are acceptable practice, stations must still identify themselves per FCC requirements. The FCC requires that you identify at ten-minute intervals during a conversation and at the end of your last transmission. During busy tactical nets it may be difficult to keep up with when you have identified yourself. So how to make sure you fulfill your FCC requirements, especially while using tactical call signs?

The easiest way is to use your call sign when you complete moving formal traffic or when completing a task on the net and handing the net back to the NCS. Most exchanges will be far shorter than ten minutes. This tells the NCS that your task is complete and it fulfills all FCC identification requirements.

Completing a Call
After the message has been sent, you would complete the call from Carroll EOC by saying "Carroll EOC, <your call sign>." and an optional “Clear” or “Back to Net”. This fulfills your station identification requirements and tells the NCS that you are done.

If the Net Control Station believes the exchange is complete, and you forgot to identify, then the NCS should say, "Carroll EOC, do you have further traffic?" At that point, Carroll EOC should either continue with the traffic, or hand control back to NCS as above.

For the above methodology to work the NCS must allow each station the opportunity to identify at the close of an exchange.

Short, Clear, & concise communications save time, and minimizes confusion. Avoid any non-essential transmissions. Use tactical call signs, and give your FCC call sign at the end of the completed task, or every ten minutes. Plain language is more easily understood, codes and jargon should be avoided.

Reference links:
The Public Service Communications Manual, please see www.arrl.org/FandES/field/pscm/index.html

ARRL ARES Field Resources Manual: http://www.arrl.org/FandES/field/aresman.pdf

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