Developing a Radio Protocol

I am no stranger to radios. I got my first introduction when I was on an A-team in 1970. I was not one of the two commo-guys on the team but rather a medic, but we were generally cross-trained in all of the team specialties to a basic degree and were expected to expand our knowledge of the other skills over time. In addition to the PRC-25 we carried a radio with us when we went abroad that was capable of transmitting back to our Ops center in Germany and we communicated everyday. I don't remember the name of the radio but it came in four pieces that had to be wired together and it had a hand-pedal generator that someone would have to crank while transmitting. He sat on a folding frame that looked like an upside down bicycle frame with the pedals up. I remember it well since I got my first and only "radio burn" from it when I brushed my hand up against one of the terminals. It felt like a horrific wasp sting and it lasted forever. I wasn't required to know anything about frequencies but I did know Morse code and how to encode messages. You didn't have to be fast with a keyboard because we used a "burst transmitter" with which we would broadcast at exactly a certain time. It was a simple chirp.

I didn't have much to do with radios after that other than a short fascination with CB radios when they became a fad, but when I joined the Fire Department in 1992, I dealt with them almost everyday. While I became fluent in "radio speak" which was simple enough, I never really took the time to understand frequencies and all the other stuff that avid radio-heads learn. My next radio-active period was when I retired with my wife to live aboard our sailboat "Lily Pad" for five years. Again, we used the radio frequently, especially when underway. In none of these occasions, did I need to apply for or have a license to operate the radio. But when I came up with the idea of paramotor search and rescue, all that changed. The airport that I fly out of requires that I take off from the runway because there is no area adjacent to the runway itself. So I am required to carry a radio and use basic protocol for talking to other traffic in the area, that is, I need to announce my location and intentions if I don't want to get run over and chopped up.

With airborne search and rescue the lines of communication are even more complicated. First the pilot needs to communicate with his ground support and someone needs to communicate with other aircraft in or near the search area as well as with the authorities conducting the search. This duty falls under the responsibilities of the Operations Specialist who should be focused on the safety of the pilot as well as the efficacy of the search itself. Radio protocols dictate that at least two radio communication systems need to be in play. First an Air-band radio is needed to communicate with other aircraft in proximity to the search area, especially police or fire rescue helicopters, which can be a serious hazard to paramotor aircraft. Unless the team pilot has an actual visual on other aircraft or is about to take off or land, the Ops Specialist should speak to other aircraft in the area as a proxy for the paramotor pilot to inform them of his position and what is in progress. The Ops Specialist will need to track the movements of the pilot for both his safety and to be sure that the search pattern is being followed. It is unlikely the paramotor pilot will hear approaching aircraft.

And second, a two-meter radio system needs to exist for all the members of the team to communicate with each other, whether they be in the air, on the land or on the water. The command center vehicle should be outfitted with each type of radio system for use by the Operations Specialist. The Pilot, Ground Support and the Medic all need to be in radio communication with each other using a walkie-talkie 2-meter radio. Members of ASAR National should express their ideas on this topic with their blog or vlog posts so that we can have an idea of what is working best. This includes handheld radios, vehicle mounted radios and helmet mounted radios. YouTuber and paramotor pilot PPG Gorilla is forming an ASAR team and has started this conversation with his blog on radio protocol for paramotors. It is a very good video on this topic. See the link below.

One of the things that stand out loud and clear is that trying to hear what is being broadcast into my headset with a motor screaming behind me is anything but clear and is a problem. It may be necessary to develop a system of clicks and buzzes (dots and dashes) codes between the Ops Base and the pilot in order to communicate clearly and effectively. The pilot can respond by voice to acknowledge and confirm the meaning of the clicks or buzzes. Team members could identify themselves using this code system, for example - one buzz is Ops, two buzzes is Ground and three is the Medic. One short click is "No", two is "Yes" or "Okay" and three is "Danger", (aircraft or obstacle in your path) and four clicks could mean "RTB," return to base. Buzz, pause, click, click, click, click - would read "This is Ops, return to base." The pilot would confirm by saying, "Ops, Red Angel One, RTB, copy."

When using Air-band communication, confirmation is not normally used. I find this confusing because you can never tell if you were heard and understood. That doesn't mean you can't confirm that you received the transmission just that no one normally does. In the Fire Department we confirmed all transmissions by replying with "Copy." In my area, Fire Department radio protocol is to identify yourselves first, the reverse of what is done with Air-band communication.

In the Fire Department you announce yourself first and then the person you are addressing; the dispatcher or another unit or person - e.g. "Rescue 12 - Seminole." You acknowledge all transmissions that are addressed to you - "Rescue 12 - Seminole, copy." This protocol might be a good practice to adopt with ASAR since it clearly defines that the traffic is coming over the two-meter walkie-talkie and not the air-band radio and that all communication was received and understood. With Air-band you announce who you are speaking to and then who you are - "Ground support - Red Angel One." Since Ops and the pilot will probably be the only team members speaking using Air-band it shouldn't be confusing. I should point out that every Fire Department is different and some large metropolitan Fire Departments have a radio protocol that is certifiably a foreign language such as FDNY.

Actual training exercises will do the most to hone the team members' radio skills as well as troubleshoot any issues before an actual search and rescue event arrives. A couple of other points. Licenses are good to have. If you have a basic HAM license then you are covered for most of the situations I list above. Become involved in a local radio club if you want the "Idiot's Guide" version of understanding radios. I plan on joining our local Lake County radio club and getting my HAM license. I even plan on trying to recruit club members as team members. They should make awesome Operations Specialists and they are all about emergencies.

Please feel free to comment with constructive suggestions and questions. If you no longer wish to receive these posts, please answer this email with simply "stop" and I will take you off the mailing list. If on the other hand you want to help us promote ASAR National and paramotor search and rescue in general, send this article to others you think would find it interesting. Everything with ASAR National is free except the coming merchandise. Help make it a valuable resource for the community.

PPG Gorilla's video on radio protocol. (click here)

Online HAM radio licenses. (click here)

Lake Amateur Radio Association (LARA) (click here)

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Save lives!

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"Buzz, pause, click, click, click, click"

"Ground support - Red Angel One - RTB - copy"

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