EmComm Anti-Patterns

I am a software developer. In software, we have what we call “Design patterns” which are software patterns that we can use to solve common programming problems in clean ways. There are a huge number of these patterns, but they all share a common theme: They are tested, widely used, and solve a particular class of problems in a solid way.

Similarly, sometimes we talk about anti-patterns.  An anti-pattern is a “common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counterproductive” (from Wikipedia).  In other words, it’s a response or solution to a recurring problem that seems reasonable but is actually problematic.

I am very much a process-oriented person. Whenever I spend a lot of time doing something, I can’t help but try to identify what went well, what went poorly, and how it could be improved. It’s of particular note that even very experienced hams often find themselves using anti-patterns such as these.

Here are some patterns and anti-patterns that I have observed in my area.  Perhaps they will help you!

Anti-pattern: Saying your own call sign first when making a call

“This is KD7BBC calling AC7DM”
“This is KD7BBC to net control”
“This is station 5 calling net control”
“This is net control calling station 10”

These are some examples of the type of syntax I have been hearing more and more in my area. I don’t know if this is common elsewhere or just here in Utah County. First of all, this is not in any way illegal — in fact, you aren’t obligated by law to put your call sign there at all, as long as you ID every 10 minutes and when you’re done.

Rather than going into all the reasons why people may think this is a good idea, let me give you a few reasons why it creates confusion when used:

  • People tend to not listen until they hear their name.  If you say their name second, they may not have caught who you are, forcing them to ask.
  • If other operators aren’t paying attention, they may not realize who is calling whom.
  • It’s not natural conversation. You would not normally see someone walking up and saying “This is Richard Bateman calling, hi Terry!”

Pattern: Always indicate first who you are calling, then who you are.

“AC7DM from KD7BBC”
“Net control station, this is KD7BBC”
“Net control, this is KD7BBC with runner times to report”
“Station 7, this is Station 5”

As soon as AC7DM hears his call sign, he will immediately start listening to what is on the radio and will realize that I am calling him.  He’s my father, so he may ignore me, but he’ll listen and realize I was calling him!

If you need further convincing, this is so standard that there is a question in the Tech pool about it.  Question T2A04 suggests an appropriate way to call someone when you know their call sign as “Say the station’s call sign then identify with your call sign”.

Anti-pattern: Taking the time to have a quick conversation or find information before responding.

This is a common mistake made by new NCS operators in particular, but it can be made by anyone. When someone asks you a question, it’s easy to think “Oh, I have the answer to that right here I just need to grab the correct page.”

If it takes you 30 seconds to find that page, that is 30 seconds that the other station is wondering “did they understand the question? Did their radio turn off? Why haven’t they responded?”

Pattern: Always respond to a query immediately, even if it’s just to say “stand by”

If you can respond off the top of your head, then do so immediately.  If you can’t, say “stand by” to let them know that you are finding the information. If it will take you a few minutes then let them know “I will need a minute to find that. Please stand by”.

Similarly, the other station should respond appropriately: “Copy that.  Standing by”.  Or perhaps “Copy that, we’ll do ____ and get back with you in a few minutes”, or “Copy that, just let us know when you find it.”  The important thing is that any time a message is sent on the radio, there should be a response to confirm that they received the message.

Sometimes there may be so much going on that it’s difficult to respond.  Remember that as hectic as things may be where you are, whoever is calling can’t see or hear any of that. Try to take a second to say “Stand by station x” or something similar so that they don’t keep calling you or wondering if their radio is even working.

There is a common convention that using the word “break” during an event indicates emergency traffic; if you hear that, respond immediately, and not just with “stand by!”

Anti-pattern: Use comfortable every day or “cool” phrasing on the radio

This is a hard one, because humor and variation have a place in ham radio.  However, when you’re conveying important information you need to be very careful and very concise.

Yesterday I was NCS for a 100K and had one particular incident that nailed this home.  We had a difficult time communicating with one of our stations, and the steam on his signal made it very difficult sometimes to understand what he was saying.  In one case, after hearing him repeat something three times I finally asked an operator at another aid station to relay to me what his message was.  The message I couldn’t hear was that he had understood my message to him.

In this case, he wasn’t using slang or trying to be funny, he was just answering the way he would if someone were talking to him. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was something like “okay, yeah, I heard what you said and will take care of it”.  The problem was that since his response was longer than I expected and had a lot of words I couldn’t quite copy what he was saying.

Pattern: Use appropriate voice procedure and procedure words

The specific procedure words that will be used in your area will vary, but the purpose does not.  Procedure words are words or phrases such as “Copy that”, “affirmative”, “negative”, or “roger” in order to succinctly convey information.  Some people feel weird using procedure words, like they are trying to mimic a movie, but there is a good reason for using them.

In the example above, if the other ham had simply say “Roger, I copy” or something similar I would most likely have been able to make out enough of what he was saying to realize that no response was required from me and that he had received my message. If we had had clear communications it wouldn’t have mattered, but under the circumstances it would have saved everyone time.

Procedure words don’t have to be off of a list, but they should be spoken clearly and generally should be a longer form of a word where possible. For example, “yes” is very succinct, but “affirmative” is much easier to understand through a lot of static.  Edit: A commenter pointed out that some consider that “affirmative” or “negative” sound too much alike, and so “Yes” and “No” would be better.  If you use “Yes” and “No”, make sure you pronounce them fully and possibly even a little bit slowly so that there is enough of the word to hear over poor transmission quality. I personally prefer “understood” to “roger” but either generally work.

Focus on the purpose

In all things, don’t focus on doing things because they are what you learned you should do.  Focus on improving communications. Everyone will have a different opinion on what this means, and no two nets will be exactly alike.  I’ve tried to present things in this post that will be universal, but always be ready to adapt to the communication style of whomever you are talking to.

Most importantly, remember that the operators aren’t the ones who are important — the people we are serving are the ones that matter.  Solve their problems and you’ve done your job.

Bragging rights come later 😉


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