The Amateur Amateur: Hammy-Grams
That particular assignment changed everything for me. First, I had to get my fledgling HF efforts moving along so that I could reach a traffic net. And second, I had to figure out just what formal traffic was.
In a nutshell -- and I realize that this is a gross oversimplification -- formal traffic is a telegram-like message sent over the air. Such messages are often called radiograms.
If that term conjures up images of cramped radio rooms aboard ships at sea, then you've got it about right. But many radiograms have also been sent over land, often by Amateur Radio operators. Just remember that there was a time when not everyone had a telephone, and even those who did were loath to make a long-distance call.
Long ago, the ARRL set up the National Traffic System (NTS) to efficiently handle the movement of radiograms. I won't go into the intricacies of its structure. Suffice it to say that it worked then, and it still works today.
You may be wondering why radiograms are still sent. There are several reasons, but the one most relevant to the ARECC was that during an emergency you want crystal-clear communications. You want explicit, undistorted information sent. You want to know exactly who sent the information. You want to know precisely who should receive it. And you want to know how urgent the information is.
The ARRL devised a standard message form that is blocked out to contain all of these data. It also created standard formats for the data so that all traffic-handling operators know what everything means.
Gee, sounds kind of like a telegram, doesn't it?
There are four sections to the ARRL message form:
- The preamble: This contains clerical information, such as the date and urgency.
- The addressee: Who's supposed to get the message?
- The text: What's the message?
- The signature
The fundamentals aren't all that complicated. Some hams love handling traffic. It's their niche in the hobby. There are also hams who will avoid it at all costs.
Personally, I'm ambivalent. I can't say that I'm enamored with message-handling, but I do recognize its value as an important emergency communications tool. That's why, as the net manager of a weekly ARES net, I promote the passing of formal traffic. I also encourage its use during exercises.
The exercises are actually fun. The exercise director makes up the messages that will be passed. They often have sneaky content such as, "Send the latter." Over the air, that may sound like "Send the ladder." If the transmitting operator is on their toes, they will spell the word. Sometimes the messages are just plain amusing, such as the one having to do with the disposition of pickle juice.
For our weekly net, we used to rely on messages that had come from the National Traffic System. That was a sporadic effort, though, sometimes feast and sometimes famine. So for a long time I talked about creating our own practice messages for the net, just as we do for the exercises. I just never got around to it.
Until last week.
I finally did it. I sat down and wrote a practice message for our weekly net. I deliberately kept it very simple so that (1) people listening to the net would give it a try, and (2) no one called and told me that I'd put together the message incorrectly.
Ha! I should have known better. Of course I put together the message incorrectly! As I said, the fundamentals aren't all that complicated, but the devil is in the details.
I crafted this week's message more carefully. Or so I thought. I think one person noted a mistake I'd made, and about a dozen more had questions. And by and large, I didn't have the answers. That was pretty embarrassing.
As I read the message over the air I wondered if anyone was actually writing it down. No one asked me to repeat anything during the breaks. It was only after I'd finished that the melee began.
Despite my mistakes and embarrassment it was a good experience. Clearly a lot of the net participants were paying attention to the message, indicating that they, too, realized the importance of practicing handling traffic. And truth be known, we do learn more from our mistakes than we do from getting everything perfect the first time.
So I guess I will continue. I'll put together a new message for next week. But from now on I think I will claim that all the mistakes are deliberate. Just for practice, you know.
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.
Gary Hoffman, KB0H