Emergency Communications Networks

Introduction to Amateur Radio ARES, RACES and NTS Radiogram Traffic

Copyright © 2005 by Harold Melton, KV5R. All Rights Reserved.

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The recent terrorist activity has generated an increased interest in emergency communications preparedness among Amateur Radio Operators. This article will get you started into the world of radiogram traffic handling, and routine and emergency radio communications.

Start Listening to Traffic Nets

See our Texas-centric Traffic Net Schedule and then print the page. Stick it up next to your HF rig and start following a few nets that you can fit into your schedule.

Fast Start

See KV5R’s concise Traffic Handler Training.

Order Some Books

Order the current edition of The ARRL Operating Manual. ($25) Read chapters 7 and 8. This book, available from ARRL and sundry ham vendors, is a good place to start. It contains practical information and examples not available online or in the PSCM.

Order the current edition of The ARRL Net Directory ($4). This 64-page book contains listings for hundreds of nets of all types, not just traffic nets. It also contains highly detailed and illustrated instructions for filling in the ARRL Radiogram form.

The textbooks for the ARRL CCE courses are available from ARRL (online) for $10 each. You can also take the courses online, for a mere $40 each. See http://www.arrl.org/cce/ for more information.

Gather Things Online to Print

The ARRL Public Service Communications Manual (PSCM) is an 80+ page online book with two parts: ARES and NTS. You can download the book in Word format (or PDF) and print it, or just read it online. Click http://www.arrl.org/FandES/field/pscm/.

I recommend you get and read this, especially if you don’t want to get a copy of the Operating Manual. If you download the Word version, open it in Word and when printing, select “Book” or “Double-sided” printing in Printer Settings, if available. You can then print it double-sided and punch the 40+ pages for a 19-tooth comb or 3-ring binder.

Next, collect the forms and other resource materials at http://www.arrl.org/FandES/field/forms/. Scroll down and look for ARRL Radiogram Form (these come two to a page). View one (after installing Acrobat) and print as many copies of it as you want. In addition, Save the PDF file while it’s in your viewer. Scroll on down and get FSD-3, FSD-98, FSD-218, FSD-220, FSD-256, and anything else you might need. Many of the forms apply only to net managers, so you won’t need them unless you are going to become an SEC, EC, or assistant. All these are in the Traffic Handler, by KV5R.

If you want to learn about RACES, click http://www.races.net/ and start reading their web site. Click “What is RACES” therein, and it will give you a nice introduction. The comprehensive RACES manual, by FEMA, is online — click http://www.fema.gov/library/civilpg.htm.

If you’re interested in becoming a Net Control Operator (or just want a detailed study of traffic net operations), download and read the KV5R Reformat of the NTS-MPG (PDF, 1.4 megs).

What’s the Difference in ARES and RACES?

This is a commonly heard question. ARES is sponsored by ARRL, and is the emergency section of the NTS (National Traffic System), which is also an ARRL entity. ARES groups, and members, are registered with ARRL. The structure and operation of ARES is not regulated by government, except at the local level, and then only when the local ARES group has entered into an agreement with some local authority. Local ARES groups make presentations and offer their services to various local agencies and organizations. For example, ARES group may have a formal (written) understanding with local law enforcement, local civic groups, etc. Walk and bike marathons frequently utilize ARES communications teams, and these give valuable non-emergency practice to the group.

On the other hand, RACES is structured and regulated by the FCC. RACES groups are activated as needed by the local Emergency Manager (usually the Fire Marshall, etc) When a RACES group is activated, the member volunteers will be under the authority and jurisdiction of the local Emergency Manager, and he answers to FEMA. Amateurs must be registered with the local Emergency authority before they can participate in RACES drills and operations. When the RACES group is activated, the member/volunteer RACES amateur operator falls under special rules. For example, his amateur station suddenly becomes a RACES station. He may not communicate with any non-RACES station (on designated RACES frequencies) during the activation. Even the amount of time RACES may drill is regulated, to one hour per week. One advantage of RACES is that it may be the only form of radio available to hams during a national wartime emergency, when presidential orders will cancel all non-official radio communications.

As you can see, ARES is a bottom-up, grassroots organization, and as such is much more flexible. RACES is an official, top-down emergency radio service, which, in a major emergency, will be tightly controlled by FCC and FEMA. Each has its place, and the ARRL recommends that local groups form both ARES and RACES groups. When an emergency begins to unfold, the ARES group activates and implements predetermined plans to assist local agencies. If the situation escalates and the Emergency Manager needs to activate RACES, the same people, already operating in ARES, simply switch hats (and maybe frequencies) and begin official operations in RACES.

Handling Traffic

Much of ARES and/or RACES operation is conducted in a formal message system. This is highly recommended in the books, because passing traffic generates written radiograms, and this keeps an official record of the emergency communications. This may become important if a message needs to be reviewed later. For example, if somebody DIES and you are called into question because you handled traffic regarding the matter, you can prove the time and content of the traffic. Nothing is left to memory. This gives a measure of protection to the traffic handlers (us hams) and, in addition, provides records that may be examined later to determine strengths and weaknesses in the messaging system.

Most routine traffic handling occurs via the ARRL NTS (National Traffic System). Local VHF nets, usually on repeaters, generate and receive traffic, and a liaison then passes the non-local traffic to one of the several daily NTS nets on HF. Therefore, messages trickle up, then down, through various local and wide-area nets on a daily basis. This activity, which some people find very enjoyable, provides frequent training and practice for hams that then use the same skills in emergency traffic handling.

Order the ARRL Net Directory and look up the times and frequencies for the daily NTS traffic nets. Then listen for a while. Practice taking messages and keeping notes, as if you were net control. Then, when familiar with the procedures, start checking in and helping out.

Next, please see my traffic handler training.

—73, de Harold Melton, KV5R.

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