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Blog - The National Traffic System (NTS) Overview (Or, The Beginner’s Guide to Ham Texting)

Bloggers note: I would like to thank Bill Galloway, KF5YIV, for presenting this topic on the YLNTX net and for sharing his notes, which I have blatantly plagiarized in spots. (Thanks, Bill!) ~kg5bhy

The National Traffic System is a system established in 1915 to transport Radiogram messages during natural disasters and emergencies. The NTS is used to communicate critical information across the country and is a vital piece of the ARRL’s Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES). In other words, the NTS is the “relay” part of the American Radio Relay League.

Any licensed ham is welcome to participate in the NTS. The equipment required to play is minimal: messages can be sent or received with nothing more than an HT.

While the system was established for emergency communications, you can send Radiograms for any purpose. Personal messages are okay. Birthday wishes, Christmas messages or “Congratulations on the new bundle of joy!” messages are fine.

They are fun to send and fun to receive, and more importantly, they’re great practice. The message content is (almost) negligible compared to the experience gained from the exercise. It’s a practice run for the Real Deal.

When that true emergency does arise, the ham community will be responsible for passing information in and out of a disaster area. It’s a big responsibility and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but practice makes permanent, so go ahead and give it a try.

Here’s how it works.

The sender passes the message to the local traffic net. From there, it passes to the sender’s regional net. The sender’s regional net passes to the sender’s area net. The sender’s area net then passes to the recipient’s area net and at this point, we’re making some headway. The recipient’s area net passes the message back down to the recipient’s regional net, and then finally to the recipient’s local net. From there, a ham will hear the message on their local traffic net and volunteer to deliver the radiogram to its intended recipient via voice, CW or digital mode. And voila’! A message has been sent.

Now, with so many people involved in the transport of one little ol’ message, you might think this is an error-riddled process. It’s like that game we used to play in elementary school where a message was passed through a line of first grader’s by whispering the secret from one kid to the other. By the time it reached the other end of the line, there was a lot of giggling, everyone’s ear had been tickled, we all knew who had bad breath and “Johnny is wearing red pants today” had easily turned into “Johnny is a long-haired Natzi pinko freak.” And that’s if you were lucky.

Short messages, the Radiogram form itself, word counts, and confirmation repetition between whisperer and whipseree play a critical part in preventing errors.

The Radiogram format is broken down into Preamble (internal tracking and delivery information), Addressee (vital statistics for the end-of-the-line recipient), Radio Station Received at (vital statistics for the current whispering station), Text (the secret being whispered), Signature (the original whisperer’s vital information) and Rec’d and Sent (who whispered in your ear and who’s ear you whispered into).

Now, as we all know, hams are the masters of anonyms.

I mean really.

Who has time to say “Need accurate information on the extent and type of conditions now existing at your location. Please furnish this information and reply without delay.”


What you meant to say was, “OMG, GIRL!!! I’m *totally* freaking out over here! I’ve been watching the news report about the hurricane that wiped your town of the face of the earth!! Are you well? Are you warm and dry? Do you need chocolate? How’s the dog? Is your house still there? Message me back RIGHT NOW!”

Nope. Not the ham style. We are the masters of understatement.

What you say is: ARL Twenty two. (HA! Take that Twitter!)

“ARL” is a required anonym to indicate that “twenty two” is a ARL numbered text short-hand. Also. Please, note that I spelled out the word twenty and the word two. So “ARL twenty two” takes
up three words in your text message.

That’s three words compared to the twenty three words required in “Need accurate information on the extent (blah, blah, blah).” That’s a big deal when you are only allowed twenty-five words in your message. Additionally, the short-hand numbered code of ARL twenty two is translated before delivery to the recipient so no need to worry if the recipient doesn’t speak ham nerd.

Punctuation is another animal altogether and of course, it involves more short-hand. “X-ray” is used for a period (.) and “Query” is used for a question mark (?). So, ham geek-speak for punctuation will cost you word count. And, unlike Victor Borge’s version, they’re not really fun to say, either. For the most part, if the punctuation doesn’t make an impact on the meaning of the message, it’s left out.

Currently, there are two nightly nets in the DFW area: one at 6:30pm on 146.88 (110.9 tone) and one at 10:30pm on 146.72 (110.9 tone). Remember, any licensed ham can participate.
Here’s a scenario for you. You broke out of your comfort zone, you listened to your local traffic net and have decided to deliver a message.

Now what?

Simple. The preferred delivery message in this day and age is the telephone. And guess what? It’s even okay to leave a voice mail *IF* you are comfortable that you have reached the right person. If you can’t reach the person by phone, you can even send a Radiogram Postcard instead via snail-mail.

If the sender requests confirmation that a message has been delivered, you are courtesy bound to provide that information to the originating station. (And how do you do that, Bill? Via another radiogram message?) The same holds true if you are unable to deliver a message.

And that, my friends, is the crib notes version of the National Traffic System. This is a 10,000 foot overview. There are very long classes taught on this subject and there are a lot more details involved that what I’ve shared here.

But the only real way to get your feet wet is to dip your little pink toes into the water.

So go head. Get brave. Send a message. Listen to a traffic net. Volunteer to deliver a message for more responsibility. If in doubt, ask a question. Hams love to impart knowledge.

It’s a thing we do.

In the meantime, you can find the original Radiogram form here.

And more information can be found on the DFW Traffic Net’s website.

Go forth and Radiogram.