Public Service Primer
for Amateur Radio

[ Safety | Special | What is Comm | Comm Types | Brevity | Clutter | 5 Ws | Fun! ]


If you are a little boy, with only one tool in your tool kit, and that
tool is a hammer, how many of your projects end up looking like a nail?

Which is another way to say diversify your solutions.

Ham Radio operators get into the hobby for a veritable plethora of reasons. Why? Because there is such diversity within Amateur Radio. We as radio amateurs can spend as much time/money as we care to in pursuit of the hobby. What gives us this ability? FCC Part 97 Rules, which say in part:

The rules and regulations in this Part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:
  1. Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
  2. Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
  3. Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communications and technical phases of the art.
  4. Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
  5. Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

As you can see, the FCC anticipates Amateur Radio Operators will either learn or enhance their communication skills. One way to do that is to join ARES/RACES which is the same organization in some areas, and distinctly different in others. For those that decide not to go into emergency communications, there is the option of Public Service (PS) communications, usually conducted by local Amateur Radio Clubs. The PS communications are less formal than emergency communications, yet use many of the same techniques because the communications may become emergency in nature.

We will discus some of the more important considerations in what follows.


Remember the saying "If you don't look out for number one, no one else will". Your FIRST priority is to look out for YOUR OWN safety. Once you are safe, then the next priority is to look out for the safety of others you are working with. After those, your priority is to handle the event communications.

If you see something the is not safe, avoid it, or if it may affect others, bring it to the attention of someone that can resolve the issue.

While we are on the subject of non communication duties, you may do anything the served agency asks you to do so long as you are comfortable performing that task and it does not interfere with your ability to communicate. Remember that we are there to communicate, not just be another worker-bee. If you find that upsetting, why not just volunteer to work for the served agency, rather than in PS communications?

Special Needs

There are many of us that have special needs in food, medication, liquid refreshments (NO, NOT BEER) or transportation. If you are going to volunteer for public service, each and EVERY one of your special needs is UP TO YOU to make arrangements for. Can you ask for someone to provide your special needs? Sure can, IF you do that BEFORE you volunteer as a communicator. If you volunteer, you MUST have made arrangements for any unique requirements that you have.

What is Communication?

Before we start, I'll add a comment from an SK ham that many knew. Floyd, WØILR, was known to repeat
"A Ham has two ears and one mouth. Doesn't that mean he should listen twice as much as he talks?"

Communication IS:
Communication is NOT:

Communication Types

What is the purpose of your communication?


One of the more important concepts in Public Service and Emergency communication is brevity. Simply stated, be as brief as you can with what you say. How do you do that? The easiest way is to write down what you are about to say. Since very few of us like to write mini novels in our spare time, committing the thoughts to paper ends up being the most efficient way to minimize the word count, while including all necessary information. This alludes to another recommendation, KEEP A LOG of what you do and when. You will not be able to remember everything, so don't try. Just write a summary for later reference.

One other item to reflect on is PTT does NOT mean Push Then Think!

Another closely related subject is SLOW DOWN!. Far too many people believe that if they are the first one on the microphone button and then proceed to speak as fast as they can, they will increase the flow of information. As it turns out, the exact opposite happens.     If you allow three or four seconds between transmissions the net calms down AND there is time for emergency or priority traffic to make contact and be passed without needing the largest signal on the net. Also, if you read it at the same speed that you could write it down at, you will seldom need to repeat anything.

Yet another pitfall to avoid is the "Every one else is talking, SO I NEED TO!" syndrome. This usually comes from those with the least experience but even those with decades of experience can easily fall into the trap. If you do not have information that the net needs, please stay quiet, unless NCS calls you. Another way to say that is just because you have not said anything on the net in the last twenty minutes, does not mean it is time for you to talk! There are many newbies (even some with a decade of "experience") that ignore this concept.

Information Clutter

There are many things to think about when it comes to information clutter. First, is what is information clutter? It is information that, while somewhat related to the subject at hand, does nothing to enhance information-flow or meaning. For example:

Over Identification
Using your call in virtually every transmission does - nothing - to enhance the information flow. A horrid example I have heard: "This is KZ0ZZD, Billy-Joe-Bob at rest3 (pause) (made a comment)" and when he received a reply, he repeated the entire    "This is ... rest3"    each time he spoke. Give your call once, as you complete your exchange. That is all that is required, and helps speed information flow and reduce clutter.
Not using Tactical calls
Tactical calls allow you to address a specific location/assignment no matter who is working it. PLEASE use them. It saves time and increases efficiency. Tactical calls will be assigned by the mission coordinator or the NCS as the net opens, or when you join the net.
We know who you are!
Your call, or while you are working an event, your tactical call, is all we need. If you insist on repeating your name, similar to the example on over-identification, you are simply cluttering up the net. WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE.    At the same time, NCS can use a person's name to remain friendly, especially when traffic is very slow.
Literally hours can be lost by people inserting their opinion on unrelated subjects. What someone thinks about a ball game or the weather, is irrelevant unless weather or the ball game is the subject being discussed.
   An example from an SK ham that I paraphrased to hide who it was is something like: "This is Phred in the North East portion of the county at 9300 feet where it is snowing, but it was sunny five minutes ago when I came in from feeding the birds, geese and hamsters, but its cold right now and it looks like it could rain in the next day or so - just checking in (pause with mic keyed), this is Phred, KZ0ZZD, in beautiful North East Boulder County."
YES, that is the way he did things. Please do NOT follow his example.

To summarize:

  1. Tactical in, call-sign out.
  2. Keep a log
  4. Summarize your thoughts, BEFORE you key the microphone.

Five Ws

Who, What, Where, When and Why

I have been caught in this trap multiple times, so try and avoid it for yourself. Scenario: Your served agency person says "I NEED THUS-AND-SUCH!" so you grab your microphone and repeat the statement. What have you actually done? You have slowed the net down, because you did not get all of the information needed to fulfill the request.

Your outgoing request needs to have: 1) Name of the person requesting the item 2) Who should be providing the item 3) What is the item 4) Where will it be coming from 5) Where will it be going to 6) When will it be needed. If all of that information is there, the request can be easily handled.

Have FUN!

The single most important thing to keep in mind, unless there is an emergency, is HAVE FUN! Public Service communication can be a whole lot of fun! Try it, you may like it. I'll also say that the larger percentage of people following the above recommendations there are, the more fun it is likely to be.

One last thought: Do not adjust, play with or fiddle with any piece of equipment in use for an event, during that event, unless it is malfunctioning. Remember, an incident scene is not about radios and being a Ham, it's about the incident and YOU will either be part of the solution or you will become part of the problem.

Links to Related Information

The following links are to Emergency Communication materials, should you have interest.

Should I be in ECom? A good question to ask yourself if you are thinking of joining.

ECom Introduction (6 page PDF).

E-mail at: