Fiction Writer w/Questions re: HAM / Amateur Radio

Discussion in 'Survival Communications' started by KJ_Jones, Feb 27, 2015.


  1. KJ_Jones

    KJ_Jones Monkey

    I'm a fiction writer, writing an apocalyptic novel, and I could use some help re: HAM / amateur radio. The protagonist is a licensed HAM operator. He uses the radio in a few scenes. But I know nothing about amateur radio – I've never seen it operated. The Internet has mostly info on licensing, not the basics that writing a scene requires.

    May I ask you some questions of the HAM / amateur radio operators? I appreciate the help. Everyone who helps gets an acknowledgement in the Acknowledgements section of the novel. Thank you!
    • The protagonist, Peter, is located in Wilmington, North Carolina. He's calling Walpole, Massachusetts. Would that distance be any especially long distance, requiring any extra license or anything special?
    • Peter lives on a trawler that has a mast. If you were him, where would you put the antenna for the radio? On the mast or on top of the wheelhouse? (I'm envisioning a lot of blowing around if it was on top of the mast; maybe I'm wrong.) Roughly, what size would the antenna be? I don't need specs, only approximations. I'm seeing on the Internet antennas that look like TV antennas – that would be noticeable on top of a boat, so it must be described during the overall description of the exterior of the boat.
    • The callsigns I use are expired and inactive, according to the directories. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to post the one I've chosen for him, so I'll write it like this W3*RF, removing the middle digit. It's a vanity callsign, from my understanding in my research.
    • To make a general call, it would be: “This is W3*RF, anyone using this frequency?”, “CQ CQ CQ this is W3*RF, is this frequency clear?” Or “Calling CQ CQ CQ.” Things like that?
    • What do you say when making a call to a specific contact? Do you tune to a certain frequency? Generally, how does that process work?
    • I have a scene in which a stranger makes a general broadcast to warn listeners of what's happening in his rural area. How would the stranger start off his call? He wouldn't say “Calling CQ” for such a thing, would he?
    • Cursing is a big no-no, right? Is there any FCC regulations on cursing – fines if you go beyond the "crap" level maybe?
    • What do you say to make an emergency call?
    • How do you know when the other person has stopped talking? You don't say "over" and things like that, right? Can more than one person speak at a time, like a conference call on a phone?
    Thank you again. I really appreciate any help you can give.
    K.J.
     
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  2. melbo

    melbo Hunter Gatherer Administrator Founding Member

    lots of Hams here but I think @ghrit and @BTPost are around today
     
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  3. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    • The protagonist, Peter, is located in Wilmington, North Carolina. He's calling Walpole, Massachusetts. Would that distance be any especially long distance, requiring any extra license or anything special?
    • Nothing special for the scenario you describe
    • Peter lives on a trawler that has a mast. If you were him, where would you put the antenna for the radio?
    • "It depends" somewhat. Ship to shore comms usually use smaller antennas for the relatively high frequencies used. For the distance you mention, it will take a lower frequency, hence a physically larger antenna. Higher is always better.
    • (I'm envisioning a lot of blowing around if it was on top of the mast; maybe I'm wrong.)
    • You aren't wrong there. Marine antennas have to be considerably stronger than land based whiskers.
    • Roughly, what size would the antenna be?
    • Again, "it depends". For what I imagine you are shooting for, preselection of the contact frequency will dictate the size of the antenna. I'll leave it to BT to suggest a suitable frequency, but I'm thinking either 20 or 40 meter bands will work. That's a pretty good sized antenna unless it's a compromise with performance.
    • I don't need specs, only approximations. I'm seeing on the Internet antennas that look like TV antennas – that would be noticeable on top of a boat, so it must be described during the overall description of the exterior of the boat.
    • Those TV antenna looking things are not suitable for the postulated scenario, unless at dockside. They are directional and won't be a good thing shipboard unless the course is constant for a long time. Your basic vertical antenna would be useful.
    • The callsigns I use are expired and inactive, according to the directories. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to post the one I've chosen for him, so I'll write it like this W3*RF, removing the middle digit. It's a vanity callsign, from my understanding in my research.
    • Please do NOT use an "expired" call sign. They can be reissued after a period of dormancy. I would be inclined to not follow the standard call sequence at all, would likely dummy something up that does not look like a call, say a sequence beginning with two digits rather than letters..
    • To make a general call, it would be: “This is W3*RF, anyone using this frequency?”, “CQ CQ CQ this is W3*RF, is this frequency clear?” Or “Calling CQ CQ CQ.” Things like that?
    • All of those work.
    • What do you say when making a call to a specific contact? Do you tune to a certain frequency? Generally, how does that process work?
    • Called station sign, repeated a couple times then the calling station sign, say twice maybe, followed by "standing by." There are variations, but that works well enough and will save you ink.
    • I have a scene in which a stranger makes a general broadcast to warn listeners of what's happening in his rural area. How would the stranger start off his call? He wouldn't say “Calling CQ” for such a thing, would he?
    • Probably not use CQ, but might if he wanted to find out if anyone was listening. I think he might start with his own call, then just launch into the message.
    • Cursing is a big no-no, right? Is there any FCC regulations on cursing – fines if you go beyond the "crap" level maybe?
    • All sorts of bad things can happen, including confiscation of the equipment and a rather large fine.
    • What do you say to make an emergency call?
    • Almost anything implying an emergency that will get other users to yield the frequency for the message. "Break, break" is one use. Mayday, SOS, almost anything that attracts attention.
    • How do you know when the other person has stopped talking? You don't say "over" and things like that, right?
    • Yea, "over" is used often. "Your turn" is sloppy, but used, "back to you" and similar phrases as well. Without a hand off, there's no real way to tell when a transmission is complete.
    • Can more than one person speak at a time, like a conference call on a phone?
    • Not and have either person understood. Ham is one at a time and take your turn using voice comms. Some of the digital comms can accommodate simultaneous transmissions, but they are WAY out there uncommon and require very special gear.



    You have questions, we will find answers or sew them up out of whole cloth --
    Now, for what it's worth, marine radio has a whole 'nuther set of tricks and techniques that BT is familiar with, I'm not, that might be more useful to your seafarin' guy, if the Walpole guy has the same tickets. So far as the ham questions you asked go, they are all covered in the technician's ticket course of study. You might get bit by the ham bug and go for your ticket, a recommended activity.
    BTW, Peter should have a General License. The lower classes would keep him illegal for the bands he's apt to need. There is also a marine operator's ticket of some sort that BT will probably explain.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 27, 2015
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  4. BTPost

    BTPost Old Fart Snow Monkey Moderator

    Having a LONG History in Marine Comms, as well as Ham Radio, and with the FCC, I think I can answer your questions.....
    1. This distance can be covered by just about ANY of the HF Ham Bands, which require only a General Class Ham License.
    2. How big of Trawler? Over 60' ? Vertical Antennas mounted on the Top of the Mast, and feed with an Open Wire, and a Tuner are very common on these type vessels. Also if the Vessel has two Masts just a Straight Wire from the Tuner, to the closets Mast, and then horizontal to the other Mast, are also very common. 70+ Ft of wire or more is desirable.
    3. Callsigns are issued, and dropped all the time, by the Commission, so you can't be sure that what you publish will be unIssued forever. I would just put a footnote in the book, that the Callsign is "Fictitious".
    4. "CQ" is asking for ANY Contact.... "CQ to a Location" is asking for a Contact to or near a specific Location.
    5. When looking for a specific Station or Operator one usually will have a Previously Designated Frequency and Time, (schedule) PreArranged.
    Call would be like "K1AF K1AF K1AF, here is W3RF W3RF Calling on 7220Khz LSB, on Schedule, do you Copy? Over"
    6. Broadcasting (Making One Way Call) is not permitted on Ham Radio Frequencies, except for CQ Calling.... One MUST have a "Contact in Progress", before passing any traffic No "In the Blind" messages allowed, unless it is a "Safety of Life, or Property" Type Message.
    7. Cursing is specifically Prohibited, as is Broadcasting. Fines and Prison Time can be imposed, HOWEVER it happens all the time, and Enforcement is a LONG and not inevitable Process, where the FCC needs to get a US Attorney involved, and those guys hardly EVER, have the time, even in the most egregious Cases. The Commission usually just gets one of it's Administrative Law Judges, to sign off on a simple "Monetary Forfeiture", of up to $10KUS, and then go to Civil Court to Collect.
    8. Hams rarely use anything but the International "MayDay" or "SOS" Calls for Emergency Calls, as these are recognized, universally, around the world. A Voice Call would go something like this: " MayDay, MayDay, MayDay, this is W3RF, W3RF, W3RF, calling on 7230Khz LSB" and Repeated three times, then followed by "This is W3RF Standing by for a Reply" In Maritime such calls usually are sent during the "Quiet Period" @ the Top of each hour, for 10 minutes, and where All Marine Stations are listening on the Emergency & Calling Frequencies in each Marine Band. Hams have NO SPECIFIC Emergency and Calling Frequency, designated in each Band, in CFR47Part97.
    9. "Over" and "Back to you" are very common in Ham Radio. Most Ham Radio contacts are made in Half Duplex. (One Transmitter at a time) there are very few Full Duplex Conversations, (both parties talking at the same time) on HF Ham Radio. (HF = 3 - 30Mhz)

    Just a NOTE, here. Since the protagonist, Peter is on a commercial Trawler, he already is REQUIRED to have a Marine Radio fitted on his vessel, by the Fishing Vessel Safety Act, and depending how far out in the ocean he fishes, very likely has both VHF and HF Radio's REQUIRED to be onboard and Operational. He very easily can use those SAME Radios for his Ham Radio contacts, but he may NOT use a HAM Radio for contacts on Marine Radio Frequencies. HF Marine Radio has the same capabilities for distance Comms as Ham Radio does, HOWEVER, Marine Radio is limited to Specific Frequencies, or channels in each of the Marine Radio Bands, as well as International Emergency and Calling Frequencies designated in each Marine Band. There is NO "CQ" Blind Calling on Marine Radio, Except in the case of Emergency Comms, PERIOD. You MUST Know who you are calling, on Marine Radio. You are allowed to Broadcast Emergency, and Navigation Information, Blind Calls, on Marine Radio, HOWEVER, these MUST be Proceeded by either a "MayDay" for Emergency, or "Security" for a Navigation Blind Call.
     
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  5. Dunerunner

    Dunerunner Monkey

    Do you guys use the typical K1AF (Kilo, One, Alpha, Fox) W3RF (Whiskey, Three, Romeo, Fox) ??
     
  6. RAD909

    RAD909 Neophyte Monkey

    KJ good questions, here is a link to a page that answers many of your questions on two-way radio etiquette (it seems I can't post the link here but just go to quality2wayradios.com/store/two-way-radio-etiquette). It covers the basic lingo, it gives examples of making a regular call and an emergency call. It also gives you the phonetic alphabet most commonly used in radio communications.
     
  7. DKR

    DKR Interesting ideas, interesting stories

    FWIW - I use this format

    "Kilo Zero Mike..." Bill continued calling ...

    I featured ham and 2 way radio in several of my books. To include a commercial CW network, like telegraph stations of old.

    PM me your email addr and I'll send some sample text.
     
  8. melbo

    melbo Hunter Gatherer Administrator Founding Member

  9. KJ_Jones

    KJ_Jones Monkey

    Sorry about the delay in responding. I have something wrong with my back and it's been acting up badly the last few days, requiring the break-through-pain painkillers, which makes a lot of nap time. Replying to you guys requires more than one brain cell functioning, and, when awake, I was using that other brain cell for important stuff. Got that stuff done, so now I can use the two brain cells here … until I fall asleep again.

    Thank you, guys, for all the great answers. That rocked. This is a huge help.

    I was going to ask what PM was when I got back here. Thanks, Melbo.

    RAD909, that etiquette site was perfect. Thanks.

    Dunerunner, that etiquette site RAD909 recommended answers your question – they do use the phonetic alphabet.

    Ghrit, re: the dummy callsign, what's the smallest amount of digits (alpha and numeric) callsigns use -- five digits, it looks like. I'm exploring all the possibilities of a dummy callsign before making a decision on what way to go with it. I won't use an expired one.

    BTPost, the trawler, Molly, was a commercial shrimping boat, active in the 1970s. Peter found her in dry dock when he was stationed with the 75th Rangers in Georgia, about ten years ago, and began rebuilding her, including using wood scavenged from other discarded old boats. She's all wood. He rebuilt her with the dream that he'd retire out and live on her. But he was wounded in Afghanistan, causing a medical discharge, and living on her came a lot earlier than he had planned (he's 34).

    The Molly's docked through the whole book. That means a directional antenna is feasible. I can picture Peter up on the mast, hooking it up – probably built it himself – yelling at the guys below for feedback on the strength of the signal, as he tries to manually shift its direction to reach a greater distance – with his girlfriend watching in horror from below, because he could fall. That fits his personality. And the crazier the better. A guy who made a living jumping out of perfectly good aircraft, you know he's nuts. ;)

    I have a few more strange questions for a scene. It's a weird communication through the HAM in which a guy breaks into a conversation Peter is having with guys he knows, and tells certain information that is a foreshadowing of what's to come. It's the scene for which I was asking about the cursing.

    Do you guys chat on HAM, or is it all getting down to business?

    Can you break into conversations while someone else is speaking, despite how rude it is? Or is it like walkie-talkies, when someone presses to the PTT lever, no one else can talk? I'd really hate to write a great scene and it's technically impossible. That would suck. I research everything I write to make sure that doesn't happen -- I cannot stand it when writers screw it up.

    When putting up a directional antenna, what kind of clamp would you use? My vision for the scene, if chatting is permitted, one guy is telling about his difficulty in putting up an antenna before the break in on their conversation, and I need to mention a clamp to keep the antenna up.

    Thank you again! I'm going to fall asleep to a DVD now.
     
  10. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    Three, alpha, number, alpha. They can be used, but are reserved for vanity call signs. These days, assigned calls are usually alpha, alpha, number, alpha, alpha, alpha. Totaling, obviously, 6. The reason I suggested starting with a number for a dummy callsign is because that format is not used anywhere that I know of.
     
  11. Airborne Monkey

    Airborne Monkey Gorilla Survivalpithecus

    Subscribed.

    Love threads like this ... many thanks!
     
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  12. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    If you are really headed for authenticity, you might just go ahead and get your own ticket. The Technician class license will give you enough to work with for your purposes. A few hours of study and you'll be in business with plenty of background and possibly the itch that ham operations can produce. The book is under 30 FRNS from Amazon, (The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual: ARRL Inc.: 9781625950130: Amazon.com: Books ) and even if you don't go for the ticket, it will answer lots of the questions you want to know about so far. Also, for your purposes, see if you can find a local ham club and go to a meeting. Hams love to yak, and you should have an easy time finding one that will answer any question, any at all.
     
  13. azrancher

    azrancher Monkey +++

    BT, correct me if I'm wrong, I'm just a HAM newbie... but you wouldn't be up on the mast/tower adjusting the antenna while guys at the radio were checking for signal strength. Two reasons, one depending on the wattage you could get burned, second reason is that you are going to affect the direction and signal strength just by being there.
     
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  14. BTPost

    BTPost Old Fart Snow Monkey Moderator

    Breaking into an ongoing conversation, IS a Time Honored way to include ones self in that conversation. The Protocol is to Transmit a voice "Break" transmission, immediately after one of the Participants stops his Transmission, and before the next party starts their Transmission. The following Party should acknowledge the "Break" and invite the Breaking Station, into the conversation, after Identity of the Breaking Station has been established, by exchange of Callsigns with the participants of the original Conversation. RoundTable conversations are very common on Ham Radio, with as many as a dozen participants, each taking their turn, in rotation.

    A Wooden Trawler would make a great platform for both a Marine, and Ham Radio Station. However, understand that a vessel, on Dry Land, can NOT use Marine Frequencies, legally, by International Convention. These Frequencies are ONLY available to things that are FLOATING, or Over Water, and in the Air. This is a very FINE Distinction, but never the less, VALID. Installation of a "Directional Antenna" for HF Frequencies (3-30Mhz) on a vessel, is very problematic, in that there isn't really enough Room to do so on a typical vessel of that type. Another NOTE, here, the typical HF Antenna System,as described in my original reply, is a "Marconi" type End Feed Vertical, which DOES REQUIRE that an RF Ground be present, for the Antenna to operate properly. For a Wooden Hulled Vessel this means that, either the fellow builds that in while rebuilding the vessel, and that the vessel is at least Floating in SeaWater, or he happens to be using the RF Grounding System that was previously designed when the Hull was built in the first place. A Metal Hulled Vessel, doesn't have this issue, as the Metal Hull IS the RF Ground for the Antenna System.

    Just read the @azrancher post, and actually the tuning of a Marconi Antenna is done at the Antenna Tuner, which is typically mounted either just Inside, or just outside, the WheelHouse. I spent a decade, or two. setting up Marine Radio Antenna Tuners, back before AutoTuners were invented, for Channels, on the many Marine Bands, in the HF Spectrum, as a young Marine RadioMan. One of the moat memorable, of those, was where the Tuners were on the ends of each WING, on the Main Mast (100ft above the Top Deck, and 200ft above the Water) of the Alaska State Ferry "Columbia" when she was still in the shipyard, being built. This was the first of three, different Antenna Systems, that the Vessel had installed, and was SCRAPPED, because it Didn't Work, even though the Marine Architect thought that it was Ascetically Pleasing to look at. (Never allow a Marine Architect have anything to do with designing an Antenna System, for a Vessel) Yes, there is a LONG Story that goes with that experience, and they finally got it RIGHT, on the Third Try, which was after the FIRST Year of operation, and just before the ShipYard Warrantee was due to expire.
     
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2015
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  15. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    Correct on both counts. If one is up the mast, one does NOT want the transmitter energized at operating power levels. The adjustment that was referred to was azimuthal, not tuning for best SWR. Our protagonist (Peter) is a cob job specialist, and I'm sure he will figure a way to swing the antenna to aim at Walpole. (There is an easy way using azimuthal maps.) Besides, aiming a directional antenna is not particularly sensitive at hf, and doesn't really become critical until in satellite comms.
    "Tuning" the antenna is a different subject. For now, we'll just say that dumping power into the air requires that the antenna and radio like each other, to say the impedance is matched. If the impedance just happen to match by luck or design, a tuner isn't needed at all.

    Now, @KJ_Jones : Peter is going to need some more info. As @BTPost says, a marconi antenna HAS to have a ground of some kind, and salt water is about the best that can be found anywhere. Saying that, your initial concept of a directional antenna implies to me that it is a type of dipole arrangement that will NOT require a ground to operate. Where I'm having a visualization problem is with the size and swing needed for most directional (ham) antennas, most of which are not going to do well on a vessel in commission due to the otherwise needed "stuff" on top. If he has a marine radio too, higher is even better. Since you say he's in overhaul mode, he might not have one installed to be in the way.
     
  16. Airborne Monkey

    Airborne Monkey Gorilla Survivalpithecus

    Glorified CBers. Only thing missing are the convoys and the "good buddies." :)
     
  17. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    Oddly enough "break" went CB from ham use. Still good for the purpose.
     
  18. Airborne Monkey

    Airborne Monkey Gorilla Survivalpithecus

    I think "break" actually started with military use but I could be wrong ... then to HAM, then to CB. But I was just kidding the HAMies ... I'm hoping to earn my ticket soon and I've had a ton of fun going to the meetings. I grew-up in the 60s around a Grandfather who was big on CBs, and a big prepper for that matter, so I do realize how much more comprehensive HAM-ing is compared to CB-ing.
     
  19. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    "Break" was used in the .mil to signify a break in the message, be it from the header to subject, subject to body...QSK was used many moons ago, primarily in cw, but "break" does seem to be becoming more commonplace in amateur voice comms. "Break, break" is used to indicate emergency traffic...at least around here ;)
     
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  20. Airborne Monkey

    Airborne Monkey Gorilla Survivalpithecus

    I didn't mean to play dumb here but ...

    "Break" awki today, began as a full stop in wire transmissions or: di-dah-di-dah-di-dah ... basically a period.

    Naturally, as the bureaucracy of wire transmissions kicked-in the bravo sierra took-over and it turned into: dah-di-di-di-dah-di-dah

    But even that wasn't enough and there had to be all-sorts of different breaks: di-dah-di-dah and di-dah-di-dah-dit and di-dah-di-di-dit ... when I figure most operators out there today wouldn't know di from dit it if bit'em in the backside.

    But as an old FDC man with a secondary in Commo, especially us airborne types with whatever regiment ... we kept it pretty simple and tended to have a general unspoken understanding that whether-or-not we were tapping-it-out or talking-it-out on the PRC 77s, (for the benefit of the novel-writing OP that's pronounced "prick seventy-seven"), ... we only needed one form of "break."

    We could always tell the difference between a civilian hammie "break" and one of our military "breaks" ... most operators be they E3 RTOs, or from the Techs to AmEx level VI techs or whatever it is called these days, we all knew who we were talking-to without it needing to be said.

    So the writer, the OP, might do well to ask himself is the HAM operator in his story an old military RTO/Commo type? Infantry or Artillery? Or was he pre-06 certified or post '06 certified? It's important stuff, among other things, if you want to be authentic. Chances are he's going to be an older fella in the first place with a ton of experience under his belt doing something here and there.

    There is a huge, massive, difference between a HAM geek, (no offense intended), and an old RTO who is also a ham-fisted guy ... especially the old RTO commo guys who strung wire for a living, they are nothing like your normal hammie heads.

    And if you think there are a lot of nuances where radio coms are concerned ... wait until you try to get the firearms right.

    I was on a mountain late one night, bored and pissed-off, with my RTO trying to find a TV station on his PRC 77, the night I heard Bear Bryant died. Thirty-something years later that guy is still radio-obsessed. My phone will ring some times and it will be him on his radio. He's in love with some woman in Canada who lives in the wilderness ... that he has never met except on the radio. (He lives on a big hill in New Mexico.) He figured-out how to fax over his radio and he still has a thermal fax printer. I mean some of these radio guys ... they are not like you see in the movies with Contact or Frequency ... they live and breath this stuff. It's more than simply communicating with the real good ones - it's more akin to a religion of sorts, literally.

    But, as I typed a moment ago ... if you believe the radio nuances are tough, wait until you get into the firearms where you have to learn the differences between M16A1s and M4A4s and LAWs, SAWs, HAWs and MAWs and M9s and M9s and AKs x39 and AKs x45 and so on and so forth.

    [sawgunner][m16]
     
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