Wanna Flag? Part 6 - Communications - "The 'C' of F&C"
Let’s face it: almost everything we do as flaggers can be defined as communications. We communicate with the drivers using flags. We communicate with each other and with drivers using hand signals. A whistle is often used as a means of communication to get the attention of an outpost worker or the driver of a disabled car. We communicate with Race Control by radio (either FM or land lines). It is all about information and communication and the quality of both is important for success. In this article we are going to discuss the basics of communication between the flag stations and Race Control.
Each station has a two-way radio with which it can communicate with Race Control or another station. The station communicator is the one with the radio and headset. The communicator must locate himself with a view of the entire sector for which his station is responsible. The communicator never leaves the phones unless relieved by another marshal.
All stations with a radio are listening in on all the traffic on the "net". In our region, we use FM radios exclusively, but some regions use land lines depending on the track at which the event is taking place. A land line is a hard wired communication system, like a telephone, with advantages and disadvantages compared to FM radios. Usually, the quality of the audio transmission on a land line is superior to FM radio, and more than one person can talk at the same time (like a party line). This is advantageous when you have an emergency to report and another speaker is talking about something routine on the "net. The caller with the emergency can simply interrupt to get the more important information to Race Control, whereas with the FM radio, the caller with the emergency has to wait for the other caller to end his transmission before he can speak. On the FM radio, if someone jumps in before him, he must then wait for that person to finish before he can make his emergency call. We will talk more about this when we discuss "phone etiquette".
One disadvantage of the land line is that you are tethered to the junction box by the phone cord, which can severely limit your range. However, in most cases, even when using FM radios, the communicator remains on station regardless of what is happening. Another disadvantage of a land line is that during an electrical storm it can become a shock hazard and may have to be shut down. The entire system could also be damaged by a direct lightning strike. FM radio gives the communicator complete freedom of movement, without any wires in which to become entangled. However, radio reception may not be as clear as on the land line and is subject to interference from other radio sources or atmospheric conditions. It is important that the communicator keeps the radio and headset dry in inclement weather. The strength of transmission can be influenced by battery condition and local topography, such as adjacent metal structures (e.g. guard rails and chain link fencing). Also it is necessary to key the microphone and wait for the radio frequency carrier to come up before making a call. If you forget to wait this second, you will cut off the first word of your transmission. We often put in a "throw-away word", such as saying control twice ("Control, Control"), at the beginning of a transmission, so that if it does get cut off, no important information will be lost. With practice, pausing briefly between keying the mic and speaking becomes automatic. In systems where a repeater is used, a longer pause will be required for the repeater carrier to come up.
Race Control usually operates from a "base station". This is a stationary radio unit, powered by AC line current, and putting out a lot more watts of power transmission than the battery powered, hand-held units on each station. Race Control is usually located in the operations tower and the base station may use an external antenna which can also improve transmission. For obvious reasons, it is important for Control to have a strong radio signal that can get out to every station and be clearly heard.
In the Control tower, the F&C control operator uses the base station to communicate with all of the other stations. Sitting next to the control operator is the operating steward, who is in charge of all the decision-making for what happens on track for a given event. In addition, there is another member of the F&C team, the recorder (or logger), who writes down all of the radio transmission on the net in a log for future reference. The log includes the time of the call, the station calling, the station’s flag condition, the car number, car color, class and a brief description of what happened. This is referred to as "control log format". Accurate record keeping is important because the information logged may be requested by the operating steward in a few minutes or, in the event of a protest, by another steward, later in the day. We like to get new flaggers up to Control to log calls early in their training to teach them the importance of making a brief, accurate and concise call. There is no better way to learn this than to have to write out all the long-winded calls that one’s fellow flaggers are making!
After turning on the base station, the first thing that the control operator does each day is a "course check". On a course check, the communicator at each station calls in, in numerical order, that his station is "clear, manned and ready." This tells the control operator, and the operating steward, that each station has a clear track and is ready to accept race traffic. The Starter, Emergency and Fire/Rescue personnel as well as wreckers and ambulances are also part of each course check. Course checks are carried out, during the course of the day, before each race group goes out on track.
On each corner, it is the responsibility of the station communicator to accurately convey to Race Control information about what just happened in that station’s sector. He is also responsible for relaying instructions from Control to the station captain and co-workers. Under ideal circumstances, the communicator uses a headset with attached microphone that allows him to hear clearly what is being said on the net over the noise created by the passing race cars. NER radios also have the advantage of "noise-canceling" microphones to minimize the noise of passing cars and allow the voice of the communicator to be clearly heard by Control. But how well Race Control understands the call from a given station depends not only on the sophistication of the radio equipment, but also on how well the call is made. A call to Control always begins with the station number and flag condition. This allows Control to prioritize which call it will answer first, depending on the severity of the flag condition. A station with a "waving yellow" call will be asked to continue its call before a station with a "no flag" call.
Since the information is recorded in the control log in a defined sequence, the calls made by each station should give the information in the same sequence, which is: station calling, flag condition, car number, car color, car class and what happened. By convention, car numbers are given as single digits (car 44 = car four-four) but stations are given as numbers (Station 11 = Station Eleven). The station communicator should write down the information for his call on the corner log sheet prior to making the call. This helps to formulate his thoughts and it prevents forgetting details if Race Control asks him to hold his call for a call of higher priority. Other than for an emergency, there is no reason why a call cannot be delayed, especially when it means that it will be a more accurate and concise call. It is better to wait until the incident is completed and cleared before making the call, than to give a long winded, play-by-play account and needlessly tie up the net.
The operating steward is interested in incidents on the track which affect driver/worker/spectator safety or interfere with the running of the day’s busy race schedule. Therefore, incidents such as a car spinning off the racing surface and continuing back on track without hitting anything do not require a detailed description of how exhilarating it was to watch the driver deal with his spinning car. No action or decision will be made by the steward regarding that spin if the car regains the track and continues. It is important to have that incident recorded in the control log as part of the official record, but any details are superfluous. It is enough to say, "Control, control, this is Station 11, no flag. To which Control responds, "Go ahead 11". The station 11 communicator then replies, "Car four-four, red, SM, spun driver’s left, at the apex, and continued". Giving the flag condition first is important because it immediately tells control the severity of what is happening. In the above case saying "no flag" tells everyone the incident is over and a yellow flag, either stationary or waving, is no longer required and that the course is clear. If the spinning car had brought dirt or gravel back onto the track during re-entry, the communicator might have described the flag condition as "surface" or "debris". In that case the control operator might ask for more information, such as the nature of the debris and for how many laps the station intended to hold a debris flag. It also helps to say to which side of the track a car spun. Is the car before, at, or after the apex of the turn, or alternatively at the entrance or exit of a corner? As a convention, we always refer to the side of the track from the driver’s perspective when going race direction on course (driver’s right or driver’s left). Since theoretically, those in the control tower cannot see the track, it is important to give the operating steward enough information for him to make a mental image of what just happened at your corner, but not so much information as to tie up the net, preventing a more important call from being made.
Let’s look at a different scenario with the same car when this time the car spins off the track, impacts the guard rail and sustains damage to the right front wheel that will prevent him from continuing. This time the call comes in, "Control, control, this is Station 11, stationary (or standing) yellow". Right away, everyone in control, as well as other communicators on the net, is alerted by the yellow flag condition. We now all know that something has happened at Station 11, and although it may have begun on the track it is now off the racing surface. Control acknowledges the call by saying "Go ahead 11". This time Station 11 replies, "Car four-four, red, SM, spun driver’s left and impacted the guard rail. He had damage to the right front wheel and will need a wrecker". Now control has been given a lot of important information that will require decisions to be made by the operating steward. We know that this car is not going to drive away and re-enter the course. There has been sufficient impact to damage the car, enough to require a wrecker for removal. In order to get more information to assist the operating steward in decision making, the control operator asks, "Station 11, is the car in a safe location. What is the condition of your driver?"
The operating steward is now weighing all the possibilities. A wrecker will be needed to move the car. Is the car in a safe or dangerous location? Can it be left in that location until the end of the session? Will medical need to be dispatched to evaluate the driver? The communicator then says: "The driver indicates that he is OK. The car is in an unsafe location. I need a wrecker now! Please send medical to evaluate the driver anyway. He made a pretty hard impact into the guard rail, and I think that he should be checked". To which the control operator replies, "Thank you 11", indicating that the information has been received and thanking the communicator for a concise call.
Now the operating steward has the information necessary to make good decisions. He must decide whether to remove the damaged car and potentially injured driver under a local yellow condition or to go "full course yellow", put out the safety car, get control of all race traffic behind the safety car and then, under controlled conditions, dispatch the wrecker and medical personnel to deal with the incident. The ability to make the appropriate decision depends on the quality of the information transmitted by the station communicator.
After receiving instructions from the operating steward, the control operator may say, "Control to all stations, double yellow, double yellow all stations". The command from Control to all stations is repeated to be sure that all stations have heard it. During this time other stations should hold their calls until the incident is resolved. This prevents interruption of commands from Race Control during management of the incident. Control may request additional detailed information from Station 11 regarding the incident, such as whether or not there was contact with another car prior to the spin off.
Let us now increase the severity of the incident at Station 11 and see how the communication is handled. This time car 44 makes contact with another car, goes off the road at high speed, impacts the guardrail with great force and flips over, coming to rest on its roof, blocking half the width of the track. Now the call from Station 11 is, "Emergency at 11, emergency at 11. Station 10 go back up yellow". The call is repeated to make sure that control and all other stations on the net, including emergency services and medical have heard it. Once an "emergency’, "alert" or "priority" call has been made several things happen. Firstly, you certainly have the undivided attention of everyone in the control tower. Radio silence is established, except for information related to the emergency. Stations with other calls will know to hold their calls until the emergency has been downgraded and Control asks for held calls. Stations that forget this important rule will be asked by Control to hold all calls unless another emergency. Emergency services and medical will "stand up" and be ready to dispatch on command from the operating steward via the control operator. Station 10, up-track from the scene of the incident, will display a "back up" yellow flag to warn on-coming traffic well in advance of the incident.
Control replies, "Go ahead 11". To which Station 11 reports, "Control this is Station 11, waving yellow. I have 50% track blockage. Car 44, red, SM, spun to driver’s left, after contact with car 35 white. Car 44 made hard impact into the guard rail and is upside down, on the left side of the track. Worker responding. Will advise." Now we really have a lot of important information, none of which is superfluous. The station communicator immediately informed the operating steward that the track is 50% blocked, increasing the likelihood that the steward will call for a full course yellow, and put out the safety car to get the rest of the competitors under control. Then, Emergency Services and Rescue will have to be dispatched to deal with this incident. Given the nature of the impact and subsequent roll-over, everyone is concerned about the condition of the driver. The fact that a worker is responding means that additional information about the driver will be forthcoming. At this point, the least important bit of information is the contact with car 35 white. However, other stations will be looking to see if car 35 white continued and if there is any significant damage to that car. Other flaggers will make notes about what they saw of the incident for when more details are requested by Control.
The control operator, at the request of the operating steward, says, "Control to all stations, full course yellow, double yellow at all stations. Safety car is entering the course. EVs entering the course; cover with the appropriate flag(s)". Emergency vehicles (EVs) moving on track are "covered" by a stationary white flag at the station in whose sector the EVs are moving as well as by the preceding station. In order for the preceding station to know that they need to display a white flag, the station in whose sector the EVs are moving says very briefly on the net, "Station One is white for EVs". This lets Start know to display a white flag, and lets Station 2 know that they will soon have to do the same. When the EVs get to Station 2, the station communicator will say, "Two is white". Start will know that they can now drop their white flag. Station 3 will be getting ready to display their white flag, and so it will continue around the course until the EVs get to the site of the incident at Station 11. Calling EVs around with white flags is an acceptable interruption of the radio silence imposed by the original emergency call. Each call is very brief and lets Control know that the EVs are progressing to the site of the incident. Sometimes, because of higher priority emergency communications, the stations will not be able to make their white flag calls. This is of secondary importance.
Now the communicator at Station 11 says, "Control, this is 11, waving yellow, update". Control says, "Go ahead 11" To which Station 11 reports, "My outpost worker signals that the driver is OK. She is requesting help to remove the driver from the overturned car. I have information about the metal-to-metal contact when you want it". It is important to know that the driver is apparently OK. It is good that the worker on the scene is requesting help to remove the driver. The emergency team and extrication personnel are expert in doing this and can prevent additional injury to a driver trying to get out of an over-turned car. Now that the emergency personnel are on the scene, they will take charge of removing the driver from the car. Depending on the severity or complicated nature of the situation, the emergency team may elect to change their radio communication to a different channel (radio frequency). Not only does this provide them with a private channel to conduct their work, but also it frees up the regular F&C net for more mundane matters. Once emergency personnel are on the scene and have the incident under control, the "emergency status" can be down-graded.
Initiated by the station, or from a prompt by Race Control, the station communicator says, "Down-grade emergency". But, if there is serious injury to a driver, then it is up to the Emergency Services personnel to decide when to down-grade the emergency status. Once down-graded, the net is freed up for regular F&C radio traffic. Control makes it official by asking for "any held calls". This is the opportunity for stations that have been holding calls about passing under yellow or metal to metal contact to call in. Details about the contact between the cars involved in the incident may be requested by control from Station 11. Progress on the clean up of the incident at Station 11 can now be made. Instructions from Control about the resumption of the race can also be made.
Additional situations that require radio silence, except to report an emergency, are black flag and mechanical black flag operations. Once Control has requested that a black flag be displayed to a particular car, all stations, except those designated as "point", are to maintain radio silence until that car has entered the pits. The black flag is shown only at the designated black flag station (Station 5 at NHIS and Station 10 at LRP) or at Start/Finish. "Point" stations, before the designated black flag station, "call by" or point out the car to be black flagged to the black flag station before the car is about to reach them. The car number and color, as well as the relation to other cars nearby on the track, makes it easier to pick up and display the black flag and number board to the correct driver. Using the case of an open black flag displayed from Start/Finish to a driver at NHIS as an example, the radio transmissions might sound like this.
Control: "Start; please display an open back flag to car six-six, blue. Stations 10 and 11; you are point".
Start: "Start copies; six-six, blue".
Station 10: "10 copies."
Station 11: "11 copies."
Station 10: "Car six-six, blue, by 10."
Station 11: "Car six-six, blue, by 11, last of three cars."
Start: "Six-six, blue, acknowledged black flag."
Station 11: "Car six-six, blue, entering the pits"
Control: "Thank you, Start. Thank you 10 and 11. Are there any held calls?"
This brings up other phone etiquette pointers. When instructed by Control to display a black or mechanical black flag, the communicator on station should confirm the command and the car number and color. Confirming also repeats the information for the point stations. Asking for any held calls opens the net back up to routine F&C traffic.
Another situation that requires radio silence is at the start and finish of a race. We ask for silence during the pace lap and the first green flag lap except for matters that will affect the start of the race or constitute an emergency. The exception to this is pack reports, if requested by the starter, from the stations immediately preceding Start/Finish. Radio silence is also required during the last lap of the race so the leader can be called around by each station for Start.
This brings us to another form of communication for the F&C worker – the written incident report. Requests for formal, written reports regarding metal-to-metal contact and passing under yellow may be requested by Race Control. If you see something that you think might need to be put in a written report, jot down a few notes for your own reference. Written reports will be requested by Control at the direction of the operating steward. The most common written report is that for a "Pass Under Yellow", a specialized incident report form with most of the required information preformatted. The standard incident report or "Witness Statement" is also primarily a fill-in form, but, by specifying the incident/action/protest to which it relates, can be used universally. It is important when filling out these statements to write legibly. Describe what you saw as the witness, and only what you saw. Do not assess blame; that is the job for the stewards committee, based on the facts that you provide. On the back of the form is a place for a diagram to further clarify what you witnessed. Be definitive in what you describe. Avoid wishy-washy preambles and assumptions like "I think I saw…" or "the driver of car XX probably…" You either saw it or you didn’t. Keep your description brief and to the point. Remember, writing a good witness statement is another form of clear communication.
In conclusion, let us review several points about proper phone etiquette. Always state your Station number and flag condition and wait to be acknowledged by Control before proceeding. Put in a "throw-away word’ at the beginning of your transmission. Repeat emergency or alert calls to make sure that you have been heard. Observe radio silence when an emergency or alert has been called, or any other time when what you hear on the net seems more important than the call you are about to make. Always give your call in the control log format. Give car numbers as single digits (car 44 would be four-four) and station and other numbers normally (Station eleven, not one-one). Keep your calls BRIEF! Do not tie up the net with long winded oratory. If you have a bona fide lengthy call to make, break it into smaller transmissions by saying "break" at the end of each two or three second phrase. This lets the control operator know that you have more to say, but gives an opportunity for another station with an emergency to break in. If no one breaks in, then continue your call. Observe radio silence during black flag procedures as well as during the first and last laps of a race. Avoid giving sensitive information about the condition of a driver over the net. Make timely, succinct, factual, non-judgmental incident reports when asked to do so by Control.
What we don’t want here is a failure to communicate!
Thanks to Leigh McBride for her contributions to this article.