In April 2017, I traveled to Japan to do some backpacking and general exploring of the country. I spent 9 days walking on a section of the Tokai Nature Trail, beginning in Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture, on the northern side of Mount Fuji and ending in the Kurata region of Shizuoka Prefecture, about 125 trail miles away. During that trip, I came across a section of the Shinkansen where the train was leaving one tunnel, traveling a short section of track at full speed, and entering another tunnel. The fence surrounding the tracks was fairly close to them, and given the frequency with which the Shinkansen runs, I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long for a train (or many, as was the case) to go speeding past.
I have a friend who is super into trains. Like has spent good money on rare mileage excursion trains into trains. So I knew he would love seeing the Shinkansen up close. I checked the time and it was a reasonable time for him being on the west coast of the US, so I texted him and asked if he could do a video call. Sure! Then I stuck my phone in the fence and waited for a train to go by. It was awesome. What was even more awesome is not only was I in a relatively remote part of Japan, but he was on the BART in the Transbay Tube (i.e. 100+ feet below the San Francisco Bay). And he was able to see everything just fine! It was awesome. He was happy. I was happy. It was a fantastic day.
So, given that that’s a thing I can do, and do pretty trivially, what’s the point of using a radiogram to send a maximum 25 word message from one person to another? Why does the NTS exist? What purpose does it serve? Why would someone want to bother? We have email, texting, international intercontinental real time high definition video calls. Why a radiogram?
In a word: practice.
One of the functions amateur radio can serve is to provide communications when all other communications are lost. Natural disasters can take out power to huge areas, which can impact phone and internet services. They can destroy towers or break overhead communications cables. I’m a member of Portland NET, which is Portland’s version of CERT. As a ham radio operator, my primary responsibility is providing communications support between folks on the ground and folks at the command center.
In NET, we use a “form 8” which is similar to an ICS form 213 general message form. It’s designed to be able to be filled out and passed on by anyone, even without any formal training. When relaying it over the air, you read the field names as well as the contents, so the order in which you read things isn’t important, and there aren’t technical things like checksums or callsigns or anything, it’s just a simple from/to/message sort of deal. Easy.
NTS radiograms are a bit more complex than that. There are callsigns. Checksums. Limits on the number of words. Precedence. But they still have a lot in common with ICS213 and NET form 8. They have a sender and a recipient. And they have a message. And most importantly, it’s important that they are relayed without error from one person to the next until they end up in the hands of the designated recipient.
In a disaster scenario where NET gets deployed, even if there are other means of communication active, our role will still be in large part communications. Even if cell service is active, we may still be handling a lot of written traffic. And we need to be able to effectively and accurately convey those messages.
However, we don’t often get an opportunity to practice these things or put them to work. Sure, we can come up with exercises and practice and such, but contrived examples are hard, and unless it’s interesting or useful, attendance is likely going to be fairly poor. But NTS provides a way in which practice can be had! Practice writing down what someone is saying over the air. Dealing with things like less-than-perfect signals. The sending person talking too fast and you need fills. The receiving person not writing fast enough and they need fills. General radio issues that might crop up. All of this is valuable practice, and the more comfortable you are doing all of these things, the better you’ll be able to fulfill your role in the event of an actual emergency, which could ultimately mean lives saved.
Originating traffic, even if it’s just “DID YOU SEE THAT LUDICROUS DISPLAY LAST NIGHT X 73”, gives everyone who handles that piece of traffic an opportunity to practice and hone their skills. Also, active nets are nets people come back to. If a traffic net opens and there’s no traffic but 25 people checked in, what’s the point? But if there’s a bunch of traffic, then at least it gives people a reason to keep checking in! And if there’s “actual, important traffic” being passed, it’ll probably be pretty obvious, and if not, well, that’s where message precedence comes in.
The NTS as a whole is also a good muscle overall to exercise. The idea with it is that using only radio waves and some pen and paper, a message can be efficiently and accurately communicated from anywhere in the country to anywhere in the country. Working the system means weaknesses can be exposed, flaws fixed, improvements made, etc. Working the system gives it purpose, and gives the people who are part of it a reason to be there.
I would love to send you a radiogram, or receive one from you! You know where to find my info!