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Radios should only be used if they are necessary: in some situations other methods of communication are sufficient.
It takes time to learn to use a radio well. All staff should be taught basic radio use as an essential aid to security, in those field operations where radios are necessary.
Types of radio
Long-range radios are High Frequency (HF) radios, which can communicate several hundred kilometres and in some circumstances several thousand.
Short-range radios are usually Very High Frequency (VHF) radios. They can usually communicate a few kilometres directly, but using a repeater station (on a hilltop or a high building) can sometimes communicate several tens of kilometres. Typical ranges for VHF radios are:
Some VHF radios are hand-held, with a small antenna: these are often carried by humanitarian staff. Larger radios, either VHF or HF, are mounted in vehicles or in buildings, with larger antennas.
Care of a radio
A radio battery needs to be recharged regularly. Some kinds of batteries should be fully discharged before they are recharged, or the life and power of the battery will be reduced. It is good practice to carry a spare battery, fully charged, to enable an immediate change of batteries when the first one runs out.
Radios are expensive items, attractive to thieves and to unscrupulous soldiers. All staff should sign for receipt of their radio and be warned to keep it with them at all times.
Many modern radios need to be programmed before they can be used. A technician will normally do this. The radio is tuned to the frequencies in use by humanitarian organisations in that area, plus one or more frequencies specific to your organisation.
Often, humanitarian organisations will share one or more radio channels. A UN agency may make available two or more of its channels, for use by all humanitarian organisations. If so, one channel is likely to be designated as the ‘calling’ channel, and another may be designated as the ‘security’ or ‘emergency’ channel.
Procedure for speaking on the radio
It is important to follow the standard procedure for speaking on the radio. Only one person can speak at one time, and while doing so he or she prevents anyone else from speaking. Unlike a telephone, anyone with another radio can hear what you are saying. Therefore bear in mind the following principles of radio use:
Do not use the radio like a telephone. Work out what you want to say before transmitting. The following procedure words (known as prowords) are some of those commonly used:
Calling another person
When spelling letters on the radio, or using letters in callsigns, the international phonetic alphabet is used. All radio users should know this alphabet by heart:
Radios cannot operate without power. In most humanitarian situations, mains electricity supply is either non-existent or unreliable. Therefore you are likely to need a generator and a fuel supply for the generator, to power larger radios directly and to power battery chargers for battery-powered radios.
Ensure you keep all your batteries fully charged so that, if an emergency occurs, all power fails and your generator breaks down, you can still communicate.
Generators should be sited far enough away from offices and accommodation to reduce the noise disturbance that they cause. If they can be housed in an outhouse with sufficient ventilation, or a wall built around them, so much the better. They are valuable, so secure them with strong locks and prevent public access to them.
When using unreliable mains electricity or a generator, electronic equipment can be damaged or destroyed by power surges. It is vital to connect a surge protector between the power supply and your radios, battery changers and computers.
Generators need regular maintenance from a competent technician.
The standard radio emergency call, primarily used for shipping or aircraft, is “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY”, followed by your callsign three times, followed by your location, a brief description of the emergency, and what assistance you need. In practice aid workers rarely use this procedure, but use plain language and/or an immediate incident report.
Duress code words are generally innocuous words or phrases selected for use over the radio or telephone to indicate that the speaker is in a threatening situation but not free to communicate. All staff should be informed of the duress code word(s).
This is an extract, with minor adaptations, from the ECHO Generic Security Guide for Humanitarian Organisations, © Copyright the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid – ECHO. Available here as a free download online, in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.