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Handling Priority Bulletins

posted Jun 4, 2020, 5:38 AM by C. Matthew Curtin
We have procedures for handling priority traffic. Roughly, it moves as soon as there's an outlet.

We have procedures for handling bulletins. Roughly, the station transmits it and then each station on the net acknowledges the traffic.

What do you do with a priority bulletin that's listed at the very start of the net, before stations are even in? That's a weird case that rarely arises. Last night, we had an example of that situation and COTN handled in an almost textbook example of how it should work. I am proud to be a part of COTN. You guys are great. Let's recap what happened.

 W8ARD (NCS) Stations with emergency or priority traffic? Standard script to open the net.
 KD8TTE Kilo delta eight tango tango echo, bulletin 1 priority.
 W8ARD KD8TTE, send your bulletin.
 KD8TTE (Transmitted bulletin, standard voice procedure, KD8TTE NR 3195)
 W8ARD Any fills needed? Gave anyone who missed anything a chance to get what they missed. Then just continued on with the script.
 W8ARD Section net liaison?
 KD8UUB KD8UUB, section net liaison, no traffic, roger 3195.

Here are the things that went right:
  1. The net has a standard time to open, and it's regular, and opens with a call for priority traffic.
  2. A station with priority traffic listed it as soon as it could be brought in.
  3. The priority traffic was sent immediately.
  4. Each station joining the net did so when at the right point in the call-up, and added "roger 3195" to indicate receipt of the bulletin.
As I noted already, this is a weird case and we might not have had anyone on frequency who had ever even heard the situation of a priority bulletin arise like that. A few stations not in the net issued a "roger," which would be correct if they were in the net. (No big deal... this is a training net, and this is a fine point. Furthermore, every station that did acknowledge prematurely did also follow KD8UUB's example so we got it all worked out and we didn't even need to talk about it on-air.)

Because it was real-world priority traffic, I was taking it to another net after COTN, so I didn't have time to explain on-air what just happened. Hence, this article.

So, let's roll back a bit. How did we get here?

At 1904 EDT (2304Z), I received by email a copy of an advisory sent to FEMA Region V (includes Ohio) Regional Emergency Crisis Communications Working Group (RECCWG). My station had been open for about 20 minutes, and I had been operating on Buckeye Net (CW, 1845 session), then Ohio Single Sideband Net (SSB voice, 1845 session) when the email arrived. OSSBN was closing and I was preparing for COTN. I read the email and saw that it's a communications-related advisory, which puts it in the amateur radio generally and NTS specifically area of interest and capability.

The advisory included some text formatting, images, and so on that would not move very quickly, so rather than taking the alert verbatim and originating it as traffic with the signature of the FEMA official issuing the advisory, I originated a radiogram that summarized critical information and included its source, then signed it myself since I was the last one exercising editorial control over the content. I was still editing the text in the flmsg application when W8ARD started to call the net. I read through the resulting text one last time to be sure that I hadn't changed meaning, introduced or lost some information that mattered for amateur operators' situational awareness. I hit the [ck] button in flmsg which formatted the text and computed the check, just as W8ARD called for emergency or priority traffic.

Because this kind of information is about a situation that could lead to an activation of COTN, I addressed the message to the net, i.e., a bulletin ("QNC" in amateur radio telegraphy). This is something for every station to hear.

I had to decide the precedence for the traffic. I chose Priority (MPG 1.1.2):

PRIORITY (P):
Use abbreviation P on CW/RTTY. This classification is for a) important messages having a
specific time limit, b) official messages not covered in the emergency category, c) press
dispatches and emergency related traffic not of the utmost urgency, d) notice of death or injury in
a disaster area, personal or official.

I was pressed for time, but if I had to wait a few more minutes to finish editing the content of the message, I would have. Getting the message right in five minutes is more valuable than getting it wrong now. Nevertheless, I'd finished reading my edited text and was satisfied that it was ready for transmission when W8ARD called for emergency or priority traffic. The traffic in front of me looked like this.

3195 P KD8TTE 70 BEXLEY OH 2309Z JUN 3
QNC
BT
INTERNET OUTAGE MULTIPLE STATES RV
ADVISORY 06032020 INITIAL JUN 3
2020 1530 CDT WIDESPREAD INTERRUPTION
SLASH OUTAGES OF INTERNET SERVICES
PROVIDED BY COMCAST HAVE BEEN
REPORTED ACROSS FEMA REGION V
AFFECTING CUSTOMERS IN CHICAGO FORT
WAYNE INDIANAPOLIS DETROIT AKRON AND
OTHERS X CAUSE UNKNOWN X
NO ESTIMATED TIME OF RESTORATION
X AFFECTED STATE EOCS ARE
AT FULL ACTIVATION DUE TO
COVID DASH 19 X FEMA
REGION V AT PARTIAL ACTIVATION
BT
KD8TTE
AR

I joined the net, ensuring that I would be clearly understood by anyone listening, not just listeners who recognize my callsign or voice.

Kilo delta eight tango tango echo, bulletin, 1, priority.

Net control recognized me and moved the traffic at once. This is net control's prerogative. Net control could have waited for the net to be called up completely and then moved the traffic. That would also have been correct. Net control has the responsibility to make those decisions on behalf of the net and each station on the net has the responsibility to follow net control's instruction (MPG 4.10.5):

4.10.5 PRECEDENCES
Traffic is handled in order of precedences as much as possible with the means at hand to do so.
Emergency traffic is handled immediately, and it is important to use any means available to get
Emergency traffic delivered promptly, including telephone, public safety services, etc. Death and
serious injury or illness messages are often best delivered by public safety or private relief
agencies such as the American Red Cross.

It is a myth, however, that all Priority traffic must be handled before any Welfare or Routine
traffic. The P, W and R traffic is handled in order, but it is often misunderstood that it is the
option of the NCS to dispatch lower level traffic while there is higher precedence traffic pending.
The NCS may need to wait for an available outlet to be free.

It is equally important for the NCS to consider the overall net workload, time available, and
situation. Nets operating during disasters may dispense with handling Routine traffic, and
perhaps even Welfare traffic, for extended periods until the higher priority traffic is cleared.
Multiple nets may be needed.

Because I had transmitted the traffic before other stations were in the net, we were operating in the third case for acknowledgement of a bulletin ("open loop"), but with an added complexity of stations not yet in the net. Nevertheless, the procedure of having stations join the net, and acknowledge receipt of the traffic as they joined did work and made quite a lot of sense. (I didn't actually know that the requirement for priority traffic to be handled before all other lower precedence traffic was a myth. I know the MPG pretty well, and these curveballs give us all a chance to learn as long as we go back and review what we've done.) See MPG 4.11.5 for details on the handling of bulletins:

4.11.5 DISPATCH, MESSAGE(S) TO ALL STATIONS, ON NET, QNC
FORMAL Bulletin Radiograms, ARES/RACES ALL STATION TRAFFIC, etc. These messages
are single formal radiograms with one message number and text typically addressed to the net
stations (net name initials, etc.), to several nets or groups, or to all or a subset of the
ARES/RACES or other liaisons on the net. Liaisons accept and forward the message to other nets
based upon the message address.

If separate numbers or addressees are given in the message use the BOOK to MULTIPLE
STATIONS method above.

These messages are treated as a book of messages to multiple stations with the exception that
they have no variable parts. They are listed on the net as a book to all specific type recipients or
to all stations; as in a message from a served agency headquarters to all the liaisons on the net for
district offices in all jurisdictions, or from the NM to all stations, etc.

The NCS will usually have the occasional bulletin traffic sent at the beginning of the net after all
stations are checked in. Bulletins and books for the net delay the beginning of normal traffic
handling and are seldom done on Area/Region Nets. A cumbersome alternative is to dispatch
each net station off frequency with the book holder during the net.

Case 1: A QNC message is really a book of messages to multiple stations on the net. It may be
handled in the same fashion as the book transmission above (previous section) with only minor
changes in the dispatch and sending syntax. The TX station polls ready to copy and polls for
acknowledgment. This is the recommended method for passing such traffic.

Case 2: The NCS makes the ready to copy poll, TX polls for acknowledgment;

Case 3: A shortcut method omitting the ready to copy poll but with NCS making the poll for
acknowledgment. Open loop traffic handling is risky business. See notes at end of section.

[...]

CASE 3) Shortcut method, with all stations on frequency, omitting the check for ready to copy,
and with the NCS calling roll for acknowledgment (TX can copy along for records).
This method is not consistent with traffic exchanging procedures. It assumes that All stations on
the net are paying attention and ready to copy.
VOICE:
NCS: ALL STATIONS W3TX HERE MESSAGE TO NET
TX: NUMBER... (msg) END NO MORE; services any fills; then returns control to the NCS with
the following request:
TX: NET CALL?, or [NET ACKNOWLEDGE?]
NCS: STATIONS ACKNOWLEDGE WHEN CALLED.. W3XA?
XA: ROGER W3XA
NCS: XB?, or W3XB? Etc., until all stations acknowledge.

NOTES:
Transmitting to all stations without polling is risky business. Any net station distracted, unable to
copy the dispatch, etc., will miss the traffic and require wasted net time to recover.

Some nets consider the transaction complete without an acknowledgment from each receiving
station. This is also questionable and risky open loop traffic handling, but may be expedient in
some cases. In these cases the NCS will sometimes ask each station receiving the traffic to
acknowledge at a later time when convenient, such as when excusing the station. The NCS may
assist with fills or repeat the message at that time if required. This technique should be used with
care, and the TX station needs to have confirmation of delivery for each message.

Assuming stations are ready to copy, and/or assuming stations copied a message, without
confirmation, can lead to missed traffic and cumbersome corrective actions, not to mention the
risk to served agencies in missing important traffic.

The NCS poll for the ready to copy check (optional), TX transmission, and NCS poll for net
station acknowledgment may be used effectively with minimal overhead.

The case 1 method is customary, efficient and certain, and his highly recommended.

The TX sending station in cooperation with the NCS must make sure careful records are kept of
which stations received the message(s). It is the responsibility of the TX station to assure that the
message is passed to all the intended addressees, relist those undelivered, or create service
messages back to the originator regarding those not delieverd for whatever reason. In other
words, the book is treated as individual messages to each addressee (even though not named),
each serviced in the same fashion as any other single radiogram.

For served agency and other critical traffic it is more certain to use unique numbers and
addresses, sent using the BOOK to MULTIPLE STATIONS methods.

Traffic handling is clearly a skill that requires training and experience, because there are judgments that need to be made by net control. Now having some time to consider everything, another net control operator (or even the same one now that we're not in the heat of the moment!) might choose to handle the situation slightly differently. Perhaps continuing with the call-up and using Case 1 for the bulletin handling, even if priority, would be a better option. That's the call that I would make having a chance to reflect this morning but last night I would have done it exactly as last night's net control operator did it.

COTN and NTS more broadly, as well as ARES, exist for the purpose of providing a public service. We had a real-world communications problem and that priority traffic was the real deal, situational awareness. Should the problem identified grow in scope, and particularly if starting to affect emergency management infrastructure, we could well see ARES and NTS activation. The training we practice on this net every night of the year and in other sessions helps us to operate well even when hearing cases where we don't have a lot of practice (like last night), and to be prepared to provide critical communications functions "when all else fails."
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