Current Newsletter

Conduct of Operations Newsletter #1

Mark Hunn

Topic: Radio Communications

Summary: Proper radio communications are essential for the safe conduct of operations. Formatted exchanges consisting of establishing communication, transmitting the message, repeating it back, and confirming the repeat back ensure that messages are understood.

Full Article:

"90M, Seattle Center. Traffic at ten o'clock, five miles, closing. Come right, new heading 030, descend and maintain 8000."

"Seattle Center, 90M. Roger. 030, 8000. Traffic in sight."

"90M, Seattle Center. Roger."

Clear, concise radio communication is essential to operations in many industries. In aviation it can mean the difference between a safe flight and an unfortunate appearance on Headline News. The radio frequencies used by pilots and air traffic control are busy and getting a word in can often be a challenge. Under these circumstances, getting the message across reliably in the shortest amount of time possible is vital.

In the example above, Seattle Center, is providing air traffic control services to a Cessna 182, 1090M, based out of Pasco, WA. Noticing an impending conflict with another aircraft, he needs to have the Cessna turn right and descend to a new altitude. Radio airtime is the lifeblood of these folks, so the message passed is terse, but complete.

First, Seattle Center alerts 90M that a message is coming with the "90M, Seattle Center." This gives 90M a head's up and let's him know he needs to listen closely for what's coming next. Then, the important information gets passed in a very concise format. Pilots and controllers do this all the time, so both know what to expect, helping ensure the message gets through with a minimum of effort.

Next, 90M acknowledges receipt by name with "Seattle Center, 90M, Roger." At this point, Seattle Center knows that the right aircraft got the message. Believe it or not, sometimes the wrong pilot acknowledges, so this is more important than you might think. 90M then goes on to repeat the new heading and altitude, so Seattle knows it was copied correctly. The final "traffic in sight" lets Seattle know that he doesn't need to worry about it any more and that 90M will be responsible for his own collision avoidance.

Seattle Center then confirms correct receipt with a quick "roger".

The same basic problems apply in our industry. We share frequencies with other users and need to ensure that operational communications occur accurately in the minimum amount of time. Opportunities for confusion abound, and reception in our facilities is often poor. Coping with these issues has the same solutions.

According to DOE-STD-1093-92, Guide to Good Practices for Communications:

"All of us depend on verbal communication for the exchange of information or instructions. Depending on the job, an individual may be responsible for transmitting or receiving information in the form of operating instructions, feedback, or the result of operations, reports of operational data, or emergency warnings and instructions. Whether face-to-face or electronic communication, this information has to be transmitted and received; it has to be accurate and complete; most importantly, it has to be understood.

"Communication problems have caused many adverse situations in Department of Energy (DOE) facilities. Inadequate communication can be identified as a causal or contributing factor in human performance-related events."

The standard format for operational communications has four parts: establish communication, transmit message, repeat back message, confirm repeat back. As with air traffic control, the format itself helps ensure that the message gets through.

DOE-STD-1031 has this to say:

"The sender should identify the intended receiver and then him/herself. Either formal names or workstation titles may be used as identification, however, workstation titles are preferred."
"Once communications have been established, the message text can be transmitted."
"In operational communications, the receiver should repeat the message back to the sender. This is especially important when receiving instructions involving operation of facility equipment to assure the sender that the instruction is correctly understood."
"After the repeatback, the sender should confirm or correct the receiver."

The more complex the message to be passed, the more important these steps become.

When circuits are busy, and time is short, proper identification and repeat backs, the hallmarks of good radio communication, ensure that we can operate safely and professionally.