Public Service Operating Guidelines

The following is a list of general guidelines, suggestions, and operating procedures for use during Marin Amateur Radio Society public service events. This page is written by Rich, AG6QR, and has not been reviewed or endorsed by any organization.

Public Service events can be fun, rewarding, and educational as we set up stations in the field, work together to pass traffic which helps coordinate a worthwhile event, and practice some of the techniques we might use in an emergency. The techniques and protocols we use at a public service event are only minor variations on our everyday ham radio practices, but there can be a bit more emphasis on being brief, clear, and businesslike, with less time spent on chit chat, as we sometimes get busy with a lot of traffic that has to be passed quickly and efficiently.

This is a list of what to do on the day of the event when you are at your station. For a list of what to bring, see here.

Listen to your radio. Always keep a continuous watch on your primary assigned frequency, so that net control can get hold of you if needed, and so that you can know what is going on with the event. If you ever have a reason to listen to other frequencies, do that in a way that doesn’t inhibit your ability to hear a call from net control. Multiple receivers can sometimes be useful. Even when net control is talking to someone else, keep listening to your radio. It can be easy to get caught up in local non-radio conversations, but always be aware of who’s talking and what’s being said on the radio. Keeping situational awareness can help you understand what’s going on and anticipate requests that may be coming your way.

When net control calls you, one response they enjoy hearing is, “copy by intercept”, meaning you heard and understood the previous conversation with another station, and you understand the implications it has on you. This can save net control having to repeat the message to you.

Try to listen to as many public service events as possible, even on days when you’re not participating. You will sometimes hear exemplary operating practices, and other times you will hear the distinct sounds of learning going on. Either can be educational.

In case of emergency, do what’s needed to get professional first responders on the scene ASAP. The most important thing to do in most medical emergencies is to get professional help on its way ASAP, and then to provide first aid to stabilize things until the professionals can arrive.

With that in mind, if there is an emergency where it is appropriate to call 911, the strategy should be to call 911 as quickly as possible, from a location as close to the victim as possible. Relaying messages over distance or via the radio slows down communications with emergency dispatchers, and may make it difficult to answer a dispatcher’s questions. Use a relay only when necessary.

If 911 can be called from the scene of the emergency, then 911 should be called from the scene of the emergency!  This is the best way to get help on the way quickly. Someone at the scene can answer the dispatcher’s questions most reliably. Since a cell phone call to 911 will have GPS coordinates readable by the dispatcher, it allows the dispatcher to locate the emergency quickly.

If you get a report of an emergency and 911 hasn’t been called, then call 911 if you can. 

If you are mobile and come across an emergency at a place lacking cell coverage, use your judgement about whether to get to a nearby ridge top to reach dispatchers directly, or relay a report via net control. 

If you cannot call 911 yourself, then call net control and ask them to make the call to 911.  Make it clear to them that you are unable to call and you are giving them that responsibility. Make sure they acknowledge taking that responsibility.

If you need to report an emergency over the radio, break in with the word “Emergency Traffic”. Be prepared to state the nature of the emergency, a description of the injured party, and the precise location. Tell net control what you want them to do, and briefly tell them what you have done and/or will do. Keep transmissions short so that net control can ask questions and/or suggest what to do. Do NOT hold the transmit button down for a long time while volunteering lots of unneeded details, making it impossible for net control to come back to you and help.

The 911 dispatchers will at least want to know three things:

  1. The nature of the incident
  2. A description of the injured party or parties.
  3. The location. Usually this will be the road or trail name, nearest intersection, direction and distance from the intersection. All public roads in the rural part of the county have mile markers on the side. Dispatchers are familiar with these mile markers and you can use them to describe the location of an incident.

Sometimes, you’ll hear second-hand information from a participant, reporting an incident on the course, maybe a few miles away from your location. He may be unsure of details, and/or unsure if 911 has been called. Use your judgement about whether to call net control first, or 911 first, but keep net control informed, regardless.

If there are two of you at a rest stop, sometimes it may be appropriate to send one of you to the scene, with an HT or mobile radio. If you do this, use judgement, and have a communications plan. Will the radio operator on-scene have cell service? Will he be able to call the repeater directly? Will he be able to contact the radio operator at the rest station via simplex? Will the radio operator at the rest station be able to monitor both a simplex frequency and the repeater frequency simultaneously? Do not leave your assigned station with no coverage! Net control may need to call you to try to find out important information on behalf of the emergency dispatchers.

After professional emergency services have been called, it’s still important to report the incident to net control as soon as practical. Getting the emergency onto the air may make it possible for nearby first aid resources to come to your aid before the professionals arrive. It helps us avoid having multiple people independently reporting the incident to 911 dispatchers. Also, there may be less urgent logistical details which net control can help coordinate after the primary emergency is dealt with — things like arranging transportation for bicycles, belongings, participants who had been accompanying an injured participant, etc. In any case, event staff will want to stay informed of any emergencies that happen during their event.

If you hear someone call with emergency traffic, do NOT transmit, unless you’re net control, or unless you really and truly have some vital lifesaving information to offer as assistance, or unless you have your own emergency traffic to report.

If one emergency is being dealt with, and you have your own separate emergency that comes up, do a quick assessment of priority, and break in as appropriate.

Handle traffic according to the event’s plan. Each event has slightly different details, but before your specific event, you should get a plan containing the frequency list, with some guidelines about what kinds of happenings net control wants to be kept informed of. If any details of the event’s plan conflict with the general guidelines in this list, follow the event’s plan. Typically, net control may want to know when the first participants start to arrive, the registration numbers of any participants who drop out and/or require medical attention or transport, when the last participants come through, the arrival and departure times of course monitors or sag wagons, etc. With races (as opposed to untimed hikes/rides) they may want to know the bib numbers and times of the first five or ten leaders as they pass through each checkpoint. In addition, event staff will have varied messages they’d like you to deliver, often involving requests for supplies and similar.

And of course you should always report emergencies or any issues relevant to safety.

If multiple frequencies are being used, try to listen to them all. Usually, we try to stay together and keep all event traffic on one single repeater, often the club’s main simulcast system. This item only applies to events that are spread out beyond the range of a single repeater’s coverage area, where we may use more than one repeater. If multiple repeaters are in use on a given event, try to listen to them all if that is possible from your location. That way, you will be more aware of what’s happening elsewhere in the event, and you will be able to avoid calling net control with routine traffic while they’re busy with other traffic on the other repeater.

However, make sure you’re continuously listening to your main assigned frequency at all times. Don’t put your primary radio in “scan” mode if that would mean that a long conversation on an alternate frequency could prevent you from hearing a call from net control.

Having separate receivers dedicated to each repeater is nice if you can arrange that. This might be a great use for a spare HT that isn’t quite powerful enough to transmit to the repeater.

Introduce yourself to event staff. Often, you’ll be working at a rest stop or checkpoint where there will be event staff serving food and beverages, keeping track of participants, timing a race, etc. Usually, you and the event staff will be arriving and setting up well before event participants arrive. Introduce yourself to these people, and let them know that you are there to provide communications. Find out who has first aid training. Ask them all to be alert to any safety or medical issues among the participants. Have them notify you and/or their rest stop captain of anything that needs to be communicated. Also ask them to keep an eye on their supplies, reporting shortages long before they become critical, so that any requests for food and supplies can be coordinated and bunched up to minimize the number of trips that may be required.

Be alert for medical issues. You’re not expected to be a doctor or nurse, but try to be alert and notice if someone’s condition stands out as different from the normal level of fatigue that most participants are displaying. When a participant decides to drop out of an event and requests transportation, don’t assume he’s just tired. Even if he looks fine, ask him how he’s feeling, and talk with him briefly. If he seems to have a medical condition that may need attention, let net control know, and inform local event and/or medical staff. On the other hand, if someone appears to be having difficulties, but insists on continuing the event anyway, that’s another thing to communicate, so that staff at the next checkpoint may keep an eye out for that person’s well-being.

You may also ask other event staff — food servers and such — to be similarly alert and to notify you if they see anything of concern.

It’s not your responsibility to determine whether someone should continue or drop out. But if someone asks for your advice, you may point out that it’s safer and more comfortable to wait for transportation at an established rest stop rather than out on the course somewhere.

Prioritize your traffic, and fit it in when appropriate. Most transmissions are routine, and can wait until there’s a suitably long lull in traffic before being aired. If the transmission isn’t urgent, then give yourself time to plan exactly what you’ll be saying. Allow enough space between transmissions so that another station with emergency traffic can break in if required. This means waiting for all squelch tails to drop entirely before keying up. If you’re the one with the emergency, you don’t need to wait for the squelch tails to drop. Since you are always carefully listening to your radio, you will have a feel for how busy things are, and what kind of traffic is being passed. This should help guide you as to how to rate the priority of your own message against others. It also lets you get a feel for when there is so little going on that you have time to exchange brief pleasantries, or when things are so busy that you really have to be as quick and efficient as possible, because others are likely to be waiting to use the frequency.

Know the difference between urgency and importance. They often go together, but not always. A medical emergency is both urgent and important. A tired rider who has decided to drop out and is comfortably at your rest stop waiting for a sag wagon is important, but not urgent (we must pass the traffic, but it won’t be a serious problem if it’s delayed a few minutes).

Plan before speaking. For routine messages, you may want to write down your message, or at least jot down notes of key points you want to make, before transmitting. It’s good to jot down things like bib numbers to minimize the chance of getting them wrong. It’s not a bad idea to write down requests for supplies and have the event staff check what you wrote down, to make sure you correctly understood the request before you put it on the air. If you don’t do so on paper, at least make a mental plan of what you’re going to say before you key up.

Speak slowly, and consider your listener. If your listener will have to write down details, like bib numbers, phone numbers, etc., speak at “pencil speed” so that the information can be written down.

Shoot for clarity, then brevity. There’s an art to passing traffic while minimizing the amount of time you occupy the busy repeater. It’s important to keep your transmissions short and simple, but it’s even more important to keep them clear. Don’t rush things so much that the other party has to ask you to repeat information.

Combine routine traffic when appropriate. If event staff tell you they’re running low on some food item, ask them what else they’re running low on, so that the requests can be combined into one. This not only reduces radio traffic, but it may also reduce road traffic as the scarce drivers and vehicles deliver supplies around the course.

Use plain English. Generally speaking, avoid radio jargon, particularly if the jargon isn’t widely known by hams. This is not the time to try to impress everyone with your ability to use the “insider” terms that not everyone knows.

Check in/check out. Call net control when you open your station. Call them just before you close for the day. If you are alone at a station, and you’ll need to be away from your radio a moment for biological necessities, let them know you’ll be temporarily out of service (you don’t need to say the reason — we’ll all know), and let them know when you’re back in service. If you have multiple operators who can cover the radio, nobody needs to know if one of you will be away for a moment. What we’re trying to avoid here is a situation where net control calls your station repeatedly without getting an answer. Then they not only can’t get their traffic through, they’ve got to debate how long to wait before sending somebody to check on your well-being.

Use directed net protocol. All calls should go through net control, unless you ask net control for permission to contact another station directly. Keeping conversations as two-way with net control reduces the confusion about who is supposed to speak next, thus minimizing the number of “doubles” where two stations transmit simultaneously and neither is understood.

Use tactical call signs in combination with your FCC call sign. To initiate a call, use your tactical call sign, assigned for the event. To conclude a call, state your tactical call sign followed by your FCC issued ID. We always operate under the FCC Part 97 rules, and nothing about these rules is suspended for a public service event. Section 97.119 requires us to use our FCC-issued call signs at least every ten minutes and at the conclusion of a communication. Part 97 rules do not require any particular ID at the beginning of contacts. For the purpose of efficiently passing information, we address and identify each other by the tactical call signs at the beginning of transmissions. During an event, it’s more important for everyone to immediately know your tactical role (a particular rest stop, a course patrol, net control, a sag wagon), than to know which individual you are.

In the unlikely event an exchange extends for ten minutes or more, follow Part 97 rules and state your FCC-issued call sign as required.

Example traffic between AG6QR, operating at the Valley Ford rest stop, and K6GWE, operating as net control:

Net Control, Valley Ford.

Valley Ford, this is Net Control, go ahead.

Net Control, Valley Ford. SAG 21 has arrived. He will be taking a 20 minute lunch break here. He wants to know what directions you have for him after lunch.

Roger, Copy SAG 21’s arrival. We’ll probably have him continue forward on course, but contact us to confirm before he leaves your area.
Net Control, K6GWE.

Valley Ford, AG6QR.

We conclude with our tactical signs, followed by our FCC signs. This implies “Roger, 73, have a great day, signing off, clear and listening, standing by, back to net, out”, but we keep it short and don’t say any of that.

Other stations know that they may call net control after the earlier station announces his FCC call sign.

We don’t need to say “over” at the end of each VHF transmission. “Over” is very useful on SSB/HF, but here on FM/VHF, the squelch tails dropping off are enough to tell the other party that it’s their turn.

If you hear a stuck mike, listen to repeater input frequency. Sometimes there will be a radio stuck in transmit mode, holding on to the repeater until the repeater times out. This can disrupt communications for everyone. If you hear a very long carrier and it sounds like a stuck mike, quickly switch your radio over to the repeater’s input frequency (there may be a “REV” button or something like that — KNOW YOUR RADIO!), to see if the stuck transmitter is nearby. If you hear it very strongly at your location, check all the radios near you to see if the offending radio is one of yours. If it’s not strong, but you can receive it, it may be helpful to report that to net control, to help determine the offending transmitter’s location. If you can operate on an alternate repeater, now may be a good time to do so.

Use standard phonetics. Know the standard ITU/NATO/ICAO phonetic alphabet (alpha bravo charlie delta echo foxtrot golf …), and use it when you need to spell things out. If everyone tries to creatively invent their own new nonstandard phonetics on the spur of the moment, confusion may ensue.

Avoid giving participants’ names on the air. For privacy reasons, refer to participants by bib number or similar registration number, instead of by name.

Key up, wait, then speak. Our club’s simulcast repeater system has a significant delay between the time you key up and the time others will hear your voice. If you primarily operate on other repeaters, know that this one takes longer than most to come fully up. You will often hear other operators’ transmissions with the first few syllables clipped off. Let that serve as a reminder not to repeat their mistake.

Keep a log. It doesn’t necessarily have to be very formal, but it can be helpful to jot down significant communications and events, along with a time stamp. You’ll occasionally find someone asking how long it’s been since a particular course patrol left your station, or how long it’s been since the truck delivering ice estimated themselves to be 20 minutes away from your station. It’s nice to be able to give an accurate answer. Sometimes you will receive messages over the air which contain too many details to keep in your head. Always be prepared to write information down as you receive it, so that you may accurately pass it on to event staff or other recipients. If you’re writing things down before you transmit them, as suggested in the “Plan before Speaking” item above, this can serve as part of your log.

First and foremost, be a communicator. Our club agrees to provide communications for these events. We generally don’t agree to provide first aid, crowd control, traffic direction, food preparation, rule enforcement, litter patrols, etc. There may be a few non-MARS events where radio volunteers are also expected to perform other duties, such as traffic direction. This should be called out explicitly on the information page for that individual event. And even in MARS events, some individuals volunteer to combine the roles of being a communicator while being a SAG wagon driver or something similar. Those individuals should be aware as they’re signing up that their duties may be more than merely operating a radio. Assuming you believe you only signed up to operate a radio, there nevertheless may be times when you, as an individual, have the opportunity to accept or decline additional duties not directly related to communications. It’s OK for you to decline, saying that the only thing you signed up for was to provide communications. It’s usually not a good idea to accept duties that would interfere with your ability to provide communications. For example, don’t run an errand that would keep you away from your radio for an extended period of time.

But you may decide to accept other duties. For example, if sandwiches need to be prepared, and if the preparation won’t interfere with your ability to continuously listen to your radio and provide communications when needed, then you can make whatever decision you like about sandwich preparation. Regardless of your decision, nobody will dock your pay or fire you, so don’t feel pressured either way. Helping out might be a fun way to pass the time.

If you see a participant breaking a course rule, your most important job as a communicator is to communicate what you saw to event officials, not to confront the individual. If you feel comfortable doing so, you might remind the individual of the rule that was violated.

For medical situations, your primary role as a communicator is to communicate in order to get professionals on the way. Some radio operators may be trained in first aid, but many are not. It’s very likely you’re the person best suited to provide communications. It’s less likely that you’re the person best suited to provide first aid.

Many events will have trained first aid providers deployed at rest stops, who may be in a position to respond immediately. When you first arrive at your station, if it’s not immediately obvious who is providing first aid, it’s a good idea to speak to event staff and determine if one of them can be called upon if required.

If you’re in a bind, you can always shout out to the crowd, “Medical emergency: is there a doctor or nurse around?”, and you might be surprised at how many people have formal medical training. Use caution and judgment in what sort of aid you provide yourself, particularly if you are not well trained and equipped. If you do carry a first aid kit, don’t include things that you don’t know how to use. This is especially true for things like needles, tourniquets, medications, and other items that can cause great harm if misused. “First, do no harm.”

Critique your own work, and try to improve your on-air technique. After an on-air exchange, think about how you could have done it better. Could you have made it shorter without sacrificing clarity? Could you have made things more clear? Could you have listened better?If you really want to improve your technique, try tape recording an event, and replay it to see how you could have done better.The above applies to self-critique of your own work. Of course, as polite, diplomatic, and civil radio operators, we don’t need to point out the minor mistakes of others. We especially don’t need to do this on the public airwaves during a busy event.

Don’t accept money. Part 97 Rules, with a few exceptions that almost certainly won’t apply, prohibit us from accepting payment for providing ham radio communications.

Learn from your mentors. Our club normally tries to pair up newer volunteers with more experienced ones on public service events. Take advantage of the learning opportunities. Eventually, when you find yourself as the more experienced member of a pair, let the less experienced ham do plenty of talking on the radio, and provide helpful and encouraging coaching.

Enjoy, and have fun. Any time you’re dealing with the public as a ham radio operator, you’re an ambassador for the hobby. It’s easier to be a good ambassador if you’re smiling and having fun. Take the opportunity to strike up conversations with those who approach you, and answer any questions they may have about your radios, our radio club, how they might become a ham if they want to, or any other interesting subjects. It’s even OK to talk about subjects that are unrelated to radio!