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The Phonetic Alphabet Habit

FCC Rule Part 97.119(b)(2) says, for station identification using a phone emission, "Use of a standard phonetic alphabet as an aid for correct station identification is encouraged". However, today a large number of amateur radio operators use self-invented phonetic alphabets that range from the fanciful to the obscure, and many of them are confusing.

Phonetic alphabets were used in radio communications as early as World War I (1916), as aid to clarity of verbal communications. Police organizations soon followed with variants, a few of which are still in use today. Shortly after World War II, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)i, in consideration of the recognition of words in different languages, designed a phonetic alphabet that would be easy to understand by non-native English speakers, and adopted it for use in all aviation voice communications by all signatory countries. It was adopted in quick succession by the US military, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and finally the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) in 1956.

The ITU phonetic alphabet is the international standard in use today, by the US military, civilian aeronautical and maritime, search & rescue groups, and other public safety organizations. The only possible competing "standard" in the USA is the old police alphabet, which is only used by some police departments (which is ironic considering that most of their personnel come from a military background). Virtually all of these organizations require the use of their adopted phonetic alphabet, because all of these organizations are involved in operations where confusion in communications can compromise safety. For example, FAA controllers have been known to discipline civilian pilots on the air for using non-standard phonetics.

FCC Rule Part 97.1 says, "Basis and purpose. The rules and regulations in this Part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles: (a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications. … (c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communications and technical phases of the art. … (e) Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill."

So, what do we amateur radio operators do? We are the only radio communications service that purports to have an emergency communications purpose, where many operators feel free to use any fanciful phonetic alphabet they chose (or, in many cases, different phonetic words for the same letter in the same transmission). This is not only poor communications practice; it bodes ill for our ability to assist in times of emergencies. To think that we can use any old phonetic that comes to mind in daily communications, and then switch to using standard phonetics in a time of crisis, is a fantasy. Fortunately, many amateur nets (social, traffic, and emergency preparedness) are coming to realize this, and are requiring the use of ITU phonetics.

So, why should amateur radio operators always use the ITU phonetic alphabet when phonetics are desired?



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