The Last Mile

Handling third party written message traffic is a well-established activity in the Amateur Radio Service, and has been around about as long as the hobby itself has. It is one of the reasons we exist. Amateurs are always helping out when commercial communications fail, sometimes we are the only service that can. The rules and conventions for this activity are well spelled out in a number of available publications. Most of the time we handle messages just for practice.

In the doing of that, here are some things to think about.....

 If you check into any of the statewide nets, you might sometime get called upon to handle a third party written message. Do you know how to do it properly?

Message handling work takes a certain amount of commitment on the part of all amateur operators who engage in it. If it is to be done at all it is important that it is done correctly.

For now, we'll talk about message delivery..."The Last Mile".

Consider the following scenario:

You are checked into one of the statewide evening nets, and old Joe down at Two Harbors comes on with a piece of formal traffic for your town. Net control asks you if you can handle it.  Be kind of silly to decline, wouldn't it? So you take it on, and NCS sends you and old Joe off frequency to handle the traffic.

You tune to the assigned frequency, and give old Joe a call. You get to call Joe, because you will be the one receiving the message. Joe comes on, and his signal has gone down a little, but you can still hear him pretty well. You tell him to go ahead with the message.

You copy the message down...the band is not the best tonight, but you think you get everything OK, even though you had to ask for a couple of repeats along the way.

Now think about it (#1).....Are you sure you have the entire message exactly correct? Don't say "Roger" or send the signal "QSL" on CW unless you are ABSOLUTELY SURE you have the message OK ("OLL KORRECT"). If there is ANY doubt about ANY part of it, fix it RIGHT NOW, before you let old Joe get away. Otherwise, there will always be a nagging doubt.

Now that you have this message copied out, what are you going to do with it?

Now think about it (#2)....How are you going to deliver it to the addressee? How you handle this step in the process probably has more impact on the public's perception of the Amateur Radio Service than anything else you can do. More about that in a minute.

Look at the message content.... (Message precedence notwithstanding). Is it of a routine nature, or does it look like it might be something someone would want to know about right away?  Is there a local telephone number on the message? This is a judgment call. If the message is of a routine nature, and the hour is late, say after 830 or 9 PM or so, probably the best thing will be to wait until the following day, and then try to phone it. If the message looks like it might be of an urgent nature, a phone call late in the evening might be OK. You  just don't want to get someone out of bed in the middle of the night and scare hell out of them over nothing. So think about it before you make that call.

Lets suppose you elect to deliver the message by telephone the following day, but the number comes up no good. What to do? You might look in the local directory, and see if there is a newer listing by name, and try that. If still no-go, your only recourse is to attempt delivery by mail.

The message should have a mail address on it. If it does not, could you hand-carry it to the addressee someplace? If there is no way to physically send or give the message to the addressee, all you can do is file it "undelivered" and originate a return message (now you get to send one!) to the originating station, and say so. Give a good reason for non-delivery, what ever it is.  Bad address/no phone/moved- no forwarding address/deceased, etc.

NEVER throw a message away unless the sender cancels the message or otherwise instructs you to do so. Might be a good idea to keep a copy on file for a year or so anyway...just in case.

Think about it (#3)...Lets say you end up having to mail the message (or maybe you delivered it on the phone and the addressee wants a hard copy...always a good idea to offer one). Type it or write it neatly on a radiogram blank or a plain half sheet of  paper in PROPER MESSAGE FORM. Put it in a neatly addressed envelope with your return address on it, and mail it. You buy the stamp. Nothing makes a better impression on a message recipient than a neatly typed radiogram on an official-looking blank.  Especially these days when radiograms or telegrams are a VERY rare event for the average person.  By the same token, a sloppily copied and poorly delivered or non-delivered message will leave a negative impression as well.  People do talk, you know.

Consider this.... If Aunt Minnie sends Nephew John a radiogram from some county fair someplace, she sort of expects it to get there.   If Aunt Minnie and Nephew John have a phone conversation sometime after the fair, Aunt Minnie might ask Nephew John if he ever got the radio message she sent.  If Nephew John remembers getting a neatly typed message in a timely manner, he will probably say "Sure Did", because the event left a good impression on him..."This is kinda neat!".  The esteem of the Amateur Radio Service goes up a few points for both these people, as well as anybody else they tell about it, because the message delivery was handled in a professional manner.

Yeah, I know... "Fair Messages" are considered "junk traffic" but look at the impact this can have.  Suppose Aunt Minnie asks Nephew John if he got her message, and John says "Huh? What Message?"  because he never got anything.  Now the Amateur Radio Service takes a BIG hit in the eyes of these people. Aunt Minnie probably will say.."The heck with ever doing THAT again...They're Amateurs, all right...Phooey!"

You could apply this scenario to any message activity, not necessarily traffic from County Fairs... Might be traffic from a Disaster Shelter someplace, where people are trying to find out the status of relatives and loved ones.  The positive or negative impact on the public would be even greater in this instance.

So think about it (#4). ANY message involving a third party could have considerable positive or negative impact on how the Amateur Radio Service is perceived by those who send and receive that message, depending on how YOU handle it.  It will have even more of an impact on messages of a more important nature, such as welfare inquiries and the like.

So you have to come up with a 37 cent stamp and an envelope to mail a message...So What? That’s pretty cheap "good" PR, is it not?  A short paid toll call to deliver an urgent message would likely be very well received in almost any circumstance.  It buys a lot of good PR with the folks who get the message. They are usually grateful you went to the trouble. And the cost is small. Even if the message preamble bears the handling extra code "HXG", (way too many do these days, by the way), you might want to consider a nice delivery anyway, for the above stated reasons.

What it boils down to, is simply this....

If you are going to engage in handling message traffic, resolve to learn to do it right, and then commit your efforts to always doing it so. Especially when dealing with "The Last Mile". A little practice now and then will help too.  The Amateur Service will be the better for it, and so will you.

 written by Lake “Ed” Trump AL7N   March 3, 2003