Using Radio

Clear, concise and unambiguous are keywords for search and rescue communications, where a misunderstanding can cost lives. Here are a few tips, and a guide to the lingo of radio operators.

These guidelines can also be used over telephone lines to ensure that emergency messages are received and understood properly. If you have ever heard tapes of emergency calls to fire or police dispatchers you know that many such messages are hard to understand. You can get help faster by making yourself understood.


Be careful what you say, you never know who is listening.
It’s always best to assume that the family of the missing people, the media, police chief and fire chief are all listening to the radio. Canadian law allows anyone to monitor almost all radio communications, but unless the transmission is intended for you, it is illegal to repeat details of what you hear. (Of course, these two sentences can’t cover the exceptions and caveats!)

Know what you want to say before pressing the PTT (Push-To-Talk switch).
Writing some notes will help. Think of reporters: who, what, where, when, why, how.

After pressing the PTT, wait one or two seconds before talking.
This lets the transmitter come up to full power, and the receiving radio to wake up.

Speak slowly and clearly, in a normal tone of voice.
The recipient is probably trying to write down what you say, so don’t talk too fast. Shouting into the microphone will only distort your signal, making it harder to understand. Most microphones are very sensitive so hold them at least a hand width from your mouth.

Identify the station you are calling, then yourself.
For example,”SAR Base, this is Team Bravo.” Or, simply, “SAR Base, Team Bravo.”

Pause before replying.
After the other operator has ended his/her transmission with ‘Over,’ wait one or two seconds before pressing the PTT. This will allow someone else with something more important to interrupt.

Other people can’t see what you are looking at.
This may seem obvious, but you’ll often hear someone on the radio say, “I see a signal to my left.” More useful would be, “I see a signal to the south east.” Even better is, “I see a signal mirror approximately 2 km away at a bearing of 120 degrees true. My location is UTM 062352.”

Acknowledge receipt of messages or instructions.
Remember that the other station can’t see you. Suppose you receive “Team Bravo, this is Search Base, return to base, over” and your team simply turns around and heads back. Base will not know if you received the message. If you reply “Search Base, Team Bravo, wilco, out,” base will know what you are doing. (Also, since base ended their transmission with ‘over,’ they are expecting a reply.)

Don’t assume, specify.
Don’t assume the other station knows something about the search, or Foothills SAR procedures. For example, ground SAR uses true bearings, UTM coordinates, and the maps usually use the NAD83 datum. Aviation SAR uses magnetic compass bearings, latitude & longitude, and NAD27 datum maps. This can cause a location to be several hundred metres off, and headings to be 20 degrees out.

Keep an eye on your radio.
It’s easy to turn the volume down or change channels. The speaker microphones can unplug, or batteries die. If an unusual length of time passes with no radio traffic, check your radio. Many radios have a “lock” function, use it if possible. It’s also possible that something is pressing on the microphone, thereby transmitting, and blocking the channel. This is especially likely to happen by accident if the radio is clipped to your pack, and, when taking a break, the pack is lying on the ground.