An important skill for radio operators providing emergency communications is the ability to concurrently receive, send, and log messages so that information is readily accessible to the radio operator, the supporting team of radio operators, and members of the served agencies.

Messaging has long been our primary activity as amateur operators. In an emergency condition, certain specialized types of messaging are needed to support the operational capabilities of our agency partners. For that reason, the types of messages that are sent and received by ARES volunteers, the forms, and the records that are used to record those activities are important and necessary for our success. There are three key NIMS documents that capture information and organize the work effort so that each member of the radio team can handle the flow of radio messages systematically.

This chapter outlines the documents and the workflow. It assumes that the messages are handled in an EOC/Incident Communications Center setting — which is the most challenging of the four scenarios below.

Message Scenarios and Methods

For amateur and served agency partners during an emergency or a declared disaster, moving pertinent and precise information from one point to another is of the utmost importance.

Typical scenarios for the operators handling the messages include:

  • Operators at an Emergency Operating Center (EOC) working with representatives of responding agencies.
  • Operators supporting a large field operation, such as an evacuation shelter.
  • Operators supporting a small field operation, such as a neighborhood incident or mobile in a vehicle.
  • Operators located at home.

Messages can be handled in many ways. Here are a few:

  • By phone — cellular service or by landline.
  • By fax.
  • By Internet.
  • By local UHF/VHF voice transmission.
  • By HF voice transmission — medium and long-range communications.
  • By digital communications — UHF/VHF, HF.
  • By satellite communications.

Though many of these modes of communication and others not mentioned here may or may not be accessible or available, it is the job of the ARES communicator to move messages to specified parties on request by any combination of means available.

Messaging and Logging Documents

There are several types of messaging documents that have been developed around the country and the world that have been useful for certain emergency issues or operational capabilities. However, for the purposes of ARES messaging and unit operations, we endorse the standard use of Incident Command System (ICS) forms for both exercise as well as operational use. The reason is that our served agency partners already use these documents as part of their standard protocol. If we are working with the same documentation as our partners in exercises as well as our own practice scenarios, it will be much easier to work our team members and agency partners in an actual incident.

During an emergency, the operators need to maintain good awareness of an evolving situation. The operators must have information about the incident ready for briefing team members at the local site as well as exchange messages in an accurate and timely fashion.

After an hour of intense radio communications, operators can easily forget or be confused on the details of what happened and when. Accurate logging of information helps the operator maintain situational awareness by shifting the operator’s reliance from personal memory to transcribing information real-time onto log documents that can be reviewed by the operators and others.

The operator or other team member can quickly scan through the logs to locate the time and key details of an event or message. The key documents are the ICS 214 Activity Log and the ICS 213 Message Form.

Radio messages fall into two broad categories:

Tactical or informal radio messages

Tactical messages are unstructured messages originated by the radio operator and typically convey status, progress, or situational information. Examples are road closures or obstruction, current location of a vehicle responding to a situation, or a short message from a third party to be relayed to another person. For tactical messages, key elements of the message are implied and usually not stated such as time of the message, and the position of authority of the message originator and recipient.

These types of messages are used to facilitate many things. Here are some examples:

  • Command communications
  • Weather status
  • Resource needs
  • Logistics needs
  • Search and rescue operations 
  • Damage assessment 
  • ARESMAT coordination 
  • Security 

Formal radio messages

Formal messages are structured messages containing a prescribed sequence of key message elements. Radio operators expect the elements to be exchanged in a certain sequence and will receive and write the information onto message forms. The NIMS ICS 213 is the message form common to emergency management agencies. Each agency in turn may implement specialized message forms to report and exchange operational information important to that agency.

ICS 214 Activity Log

The radio team should maintain an ICS 214 Activity Log at their operator position. When an operator arrives at the EOC and is ready to start a shift, that information should be logged in the ICS 214 log. Similarly, when an operator ends their shift, that information is also logged in the ICS 214.

Major internal events, such as the start of the incident, start of the radio operations, or key changes in the readiness or capabilities of the radio team should be logged into the ICS 214. Major external events, such as a key milestone, improvement or worsening of the incident, and availability or loss of electrical power should also be logged.

The updates to the ICS 214 log tend to be occasional during the incident. Attaching the current copy to a clipboard will keep it readily locatable and accessible for the team.

The ICS 214 form’s primary purpose is to capture the record of significant activity during an operational period other than message traffic. If there is no other recording form available, the ICS 214 Activity Log could serve as a means to capture the necessary information concerning the transmittal of point-to-point messaging. This form will list the supervisor as well as the operators of the communication group as assigned for that period and the pertinent information of the operation and will provide a chronological record, by time, of that period’s activities.

ICS 213 General Message Form

The standard ICS Form ICS 213 has been used for a number of years for general messaging and is used to exchange most formal radio messages. This form is not restricted in the number of words that can be used in the message. The ICS 213 is described as a general message form. It serves both as a sending document as well as a response document. When used operationally for either exercises or actual emergencies, the document becomes part of the permanent record of the operation.

The ICS 213 can be used as a transmittal document for other pertinent documentation, such as:

  • Health and Welfare information
  • General supplies requests
  • Transfer facilities statuses
  • Shelters available
  • Shelter capacities
  • Road and other infrastructure statuses
  • Hospital availability reports and patient capacities
  • Personal injury status and transport reports, etc.

As messages are received, the radio operator:

  • Logs the incoming message activity in the ICS-214 activity log.
  • Writes the incoming message activity onto the top half of the ICS 213 form.
  • Records the communications event information in the bottom margin of the ICS 213 form.
  • Retains a copy of the message at the communications position.
  • Handles and delivers the message to the intended recipient according to the established procedures of the EOC.

The intended recipient composes a reply to the message and completes the signature block of the reply. The reply message is handled according to the established procedures of the EOC and delivered to the radio communications position for transmission.

The radio operator:

  • Logs the outgoing message request in the ICS-214 activity log.
  • Establishes contact with the receiving station.
  • Exchanges the message with the receiving station.
  • Records the communications event information in the bottom margin of the ICS 213 form.
  • Retains a copy of the message at the communications position.
  • Completes the handling and filing of the message according to established procedures within the EOC.

The radio operator should expect occasional inquires about the messages that were received and sent. It is important that the message events be logged in the ICS 214 and the ICS 213 forms so that the flow of messages can be tracked and the status of a particular series of exchanged messages is known. It is also important that the operator position retains a copy of the message forms. For this reason, experienced radio operators know to expect occasional pauses with other stations as they process and update information in these logs and forms.

Modification of ICS Forms Including ICS-213

One of the reasons that ICS is successful is the use of common terminology. The use of common terminology allows personnel from different organizations to communicate with each other without being misunderstood.

“ICS-213” is the name of the ICS General Message Form. The official ICS forms are published by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) for wildfire ICS and by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for all-hazards ICS. ICS-213 doesn’t refer to just any general message form; it refers to the official form. When amateurs modify the official ICS-213 and publish it with the same name, they violate the common terminology principle of ICS — now there are two or more things that have the same name but are not the same.

Naming the form in the style of ICS forms, such as ICS-213AR, implies that it is an ICS form approved by the same authority that approves all ICS forms. Sometimes modified forms will carry other designations that compound the confusion, implying endorsement where none exists. For example, there exists a modified ICS-213 form that bears the designations “ICS-213” and “NFES 1336.” NFES 1336 is the ordering code in the National Fire Equipment System for the NWCG ICS-213 General Message Form. Someone could order printed forms from NWCG and not get what they thought they were ordering.

To avoid creating confusion about which form is which:

  1. Whenever modifying an existing official form, it is important to remove all agency names and form number designations, etc., that are unique to the original forms, unless the form contains a specific prohibition on making changes. Forms created by the US Government are usually in the public domain (17 U.S.C. 105) and changes can usually be made to them. For example, if changes are made to form ICS 213, remove “ICS 213” and “NFES 1336” if they appear on the original General Message Form, to make users aware that the form has been modified.

  2. Do not make up a designation that resembles any other widely-accepted designation style. For example, do not label your Amateur Radio General Message Form as ICS-213AR. Instead use plain language (another ICS principle) — label it something like “Amateur Radio General Message Form,” or if necessary to have a code, something like AR-MSG, or something that won’t imply it is an official ICS form.

  3. Consider giving credit to the source in a line at the bottom, such as “Based on FEMA Form ICS 213” — doing so makes it clear that this form is not the official ICS 213.

Those who designed the official ICS forms established a system to periodically review and update their forms. If blocks to track message transmission need to be added to the official ICS forms, the case can be made to the forms review committee; it is for them to decide on the final design and to publish the new official version. Until then, amateurs can write the message tracking information they desire by hand in the top or bottom margin of the official ICS 213 form; or they can create their own version, as long as they take care to avoid confusion between their message form and the official form.

NTS Messaging Forms

During an operation, messages may be received into the communications group from a representative of the National Traffic System on one of two forms.

Though both documents are very similar in format and content, the FSD-244 is more specifically dedicated to relating information specifically related to an incident or disaster. If the operator receives a message in either of these formats it should be forwarded on to its intended recipient in the same format it is received unless the operator is instructed otherwise.