EMCOMM / Technical Articles

EMCOMM: What is the Simulated Emergency Test (SET)?

The annual Simulated Emergency Test (SET) is a training exercise involving the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the National Traffic System (NTS), a message-handling service of amateur radio. The American Radio Relay League is a main supporter of this event, which is organized a bit like a contest. Its primary purposes are to evaluate strengths and weaknesses in emergency communications and preparedness, and to demonstrate ham radio to the public.

During the first full weekend of October each year in the United States, a nationwide radio communications network is set up that links every major city and most of the country. This technological infrastructure is set up from scratch within a few hours at locations that vary throughout served agencies, from state and local government Emergency Operations Centers to rural and isolated areas without any utilities. Every mode of radio communications is used including analog, digital, voice, data, simplex, duplex, satellites, and even automated relay stations launched by aircraft and weather balloons. For no more than 48 continuous hours, this nationwide radio communications network tests the emergency system’s readiness and capabilities. As quickly as it was set up, the system is dismantled and stored in preparation for when it may be needed. The system has shown its value during earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires, terrorist attacks, and other disasters. This service is provided by capable volunteers who use exercises such as these to hone their technical skills and acquire, build, and maintain their own equipment. These radio operators and their equipment are an important resource for emergency communications.

The SET encourages maximum participation by all radio amateurs, partner organizations and national, state, and local officials who typically engage in emergency or disaster response. In addition to ARES volunteers, those active in the National Traffic System, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), National Weather Service (NWS) SKYWARN, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and a variety of other allied groups and public service-oriented radio amateurs are needed to fulfill important roles in this nationwide exercise.

According to ARES (see chapter 2 of document), the flow of the SET is as follows:

SET Format

The scoring format reflects broad objectives and encourages recruitment of new hams and the use of digital modes for handling high-volume traffic and point-to-point Welfare reports from the affected simulated-disaster area. Participants will find SET an opportunity to strengthen the VHF-HF link at the local level, thereby ensuring that ARES and NTS are working together. The SET will give all levels of NTS the chance to handle exercise-related traffic. The guidelines also recognize tactical traffic on behalf of served agencies.

ARES units and other groups are free to conduct their SETs anytime between September 1 and November 30 if an alternative date to the designated weekend is preferred. The activity period should not exceed 48 hours. The deadline for ARRL HQ receipt of all reports is the following January 31. A complete array of reporting forms are automatically mailed to affected ARRL Field Organization appointees, and can be furnished to other groups upon request.

Preparing for SET

Emergency Coordinators sign up all available amateurs in their area and work them into the SET plans. They make special efforts to attract new hams as potential ARES members.

A meeting of all ARES members and prospective members is called to briefly outline SET activities and give general instructions. ECs contact served agencies and explain the intent and overall purpose of the SET, offer to send test messages to other branches of their agencies, and invite officials to ARES meetings and SET operating sites. Publicity is arranged in consultation with an ARRL Public Information Officer with local newspapers and radio/TV stations.

During the SET

The “emergency” situation is announced and the emergency net is activated. Stations are dispatched to served agencies. Designated stations originate messages on behalf of served agencies. Test messages may be sent simulating requests for supplies. Simulated emergency messages (just like real emergency messages) should be signed by an authorized official. However, it is vitally important that all test messages be preceded and ended with a statement to the effect that it is a “drill,” “practice,” or “simulated” message. Otherwise, members of the public or news agencies with scanners might mistake the messages for the real thing. Tactical communications for served agencies is emphasized.

At least one session (or substantial segment of a session) of a normal local net should be conducted to directly simulate emergency communications. For instance, if a repeater is on emergency power, only emergency-powered stations should be allowed to operate through the repeater for a certain time period.

After the SET

An important post-SET activity is a critique session to discuss the test results. All ARES (and RACES) members should be invited to the meeting to review strengths and weaknesses made apparent in the drill.


The main function of NTS in an emergency situation is to tie together all of the various local activities and to provide a means by which all traffic destined outside of a local area, section or region can be systematically relayed to the addressee.

The interface between NTS and ARES lies in the liaison function between local nets and other NTS nets, particularly at the section level. Responsibility for representation of the local network on the section net lies with the local net manager who may or may not be the EC.

At least one net session or substantial segment of a session should be conducted on emergency power. A surprise session or two should be conducted.

Preparation is Important: Steps for the Emergency Coordinator

  1. Sign up all available amateurs in the area under your jurisdiction and work them into your SET plans.
  2. Call a meeting of all ARES members and prospective members to briefly outline (no details!) SET activities and give general instructions. Do not divulge the exact time or nature of the test to them at this time. This should come as a surprise. Take this opportunity to register new ARES members and get up-to-date information on others. Hold an on-the-air meeting if it’s not possible to meet in person.
  3. Contact served agencies and explain the intent and overall purpose of the SET. Offer to send test messages to other branches of their agencies and invite officials to your ARES meetings and SET operating sites.
  4. Contact officials of any adjacent communities having no active amateurs and offer to provide representation in amateur networks for them as well.
  5. Arrange publicity in consultation with an ARRL Public Information Officer in local newspapers and radio/TV stations by preparing an announcement and/or inviting the press to observe your group’s SET operation.
  6. Set up liaison with one or more NTS local/section nets (if you don’t already have liaison) so you will have an outlet for all messages out of the local area.
  7. Formulate your plans around a simulated disaster. Possible “plots” include a flood, a serious fire, an ice storm, a missing person, a serious accident (automobile, bus, aircraft, for example), a broken gas line, and so forth. Elaborate on the situation by developing a scenario, but please be realistic.

The SET offers volunteers an opportunity to test equipment, modes, and skills under simulated emergency conditions and scenarios. Individuals can use the time to update a “go-kit” for use during deployments and to ensure their home station’s operational capability in an emergency or disaster. To get involved, contact your local ARRL Emergency Coordinator or Net Manager.

Questions? Share them in the comments below or email me at KE8FMJ@arrl.net.

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