No, this isn’t about dri­ving or get­ting from A to B.

The Nation­al Traf­fic Sys­tem (NTS) is a net­work of ama­teur radio oper­a­tors around the coun­try (there is sim­i­lar oper­a­tions inter­na­tion­al­ly but with dif­fer­ent rules) that in times of emer­gen­cies can rely brief mes­sages into and out of a dis­as­ter loca­tion. Orga­ni­za­tions such as the ARES (Ama­teur Radio Emer­gency Ser­vice) and RACES (The Radio Ama­teur Civ­il Emer­gency Ser­vice), under the coor­di­na­tion of groups like ARRL (Ama­teur Radio Relay League) and agen­cies such as FEMA as well as oth­ers, have orga­nized the NTS.

Cur­rent­ly the NTS using ARES is com­posed of over 80,000 licensed ama­teur radio oper­a­tors. The coun­try is divid­ed into areas from the nation­al lev­el down to the local area. Each year local ARES, RACE and oth­er ama­teur radio groups per­form sim­u­lat­ed dis­as­ter drills that test (among oth­er things) the use of NTS. These drills are almost always pub­lic events and are a great way to learn more about ama­teur radio as well as learn about the dis­as­ter plan­ning of your com­mu­ni­ty.

Even with­out dis­as­ters the NTS oper­ates 7 days a week, 365 days a year. “Nets” are sched­uled dai­ly or week­ly in each area to exchange mes­sages (incom­ing and out­go­ing). With the more recent advent of dig­i­tal mes­sag­ing via ham NTS mes­sages can be sent to some areas 24/7. In nor­mal sit­u­a­tions NTS car­ries “rou­tine” mes­sages from peo­ple such as gen­er­al greet­ings, well wish­es, non-emer­gency notices etc. But when a dis­as­ter comes the NTS can be the only way to get a mes­sage into or out of the effect­ed zone.

The NTS is free to use. Your local ham club is almost cer­tain­ly a mem­ber or at least can direct you to an ama­teur oper­a­tor who is part of ARES or RACES. NTS mes­sages are typ­i­cal­ly short (try to keep it under 25 words – no nov­els) and direct to the point. Keep in mind these are all pub­lic mes­sages so don’t put in any­thing per­son­al or vital (if you can help it). The mes­sage will like­ly make sev­er­al “hops” between ama­teur oper­a­tors before get­ting to the des­ti­na­tion, though the ama­teur radio ser­vice prides itself on accu­rate and reli­able mes­sage deliv­ery. Final deliv­ery at the receiv­ing end is either by postal mail, tele­phone, or in extreme sit­u­a­tions can be by hand.

If you are a licensed ama­teur radio oper­a­tor you can in  iti­ate a NTS mes­sage by sign­ing on to your local Net. The mes­sage has to con­tain cer­tain infor­ma­tion and be in a stan­dard for­mat. Look up NTS pro­to­cols on the ARRL web­site or oth­er sources. When Net Con­trol asks for new mes­sages you make con­tact and send your mes­sage. (You may also be asked to han­dle an incom­ing mes­sage for your area — using NTS is a two-way street.)

If you are not a licensed ama­teur you can still use NTS. A non-ama­teur send­ing a mes­sage is known is 3rd par­ty traf­fic. With a few restric­tions any­one can send a NTS mes­sage. If you know a licensed ama­teur oper­a­tor you can give your mes­sage to them. Or con­tact your local ham club.

As a prep­per I think it’s impor­tant to know of this sys­tem as an option to com­mu­ni­cate with fam­i­ly and friends in a dis­as­ter loca­tion, or, to let your friends and fam­i­ly know you’re OK after a dis­as­ter.

Con­tact your local ham club for the details and try send­ing a NTS to get the feel for how it works. it’s a good idea to prac­tice send­ing (and receiv­ing) mes­sages now before an emer­gency hap­pens.


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