As a private security guard with a CT Security License, you’re the first line of defense in case of a crime or an emergency on your facility’s premises. However, there are many situations you won’t be able to resolve on your own and will need to call in backup in the form of police, fire or medical personnel. This will require you to be able to communicate via radio or telephone in a way that is clear and informative; knowing a commonly-used phonetic alphabet is an essential part of this task.
You are probably aware of the phonetic alphabet used by the military, and if you’re ex-military who’s thinking of going into the private security industry, then you’re already fluent in it.
However, the alphabet isn’t just for military use – a standardized phonetic alphabet is essential in any occupation that demands clarity in communication, especially radio and telephone based, where the sound quality may be low and chance for misunderstandings is high.
First, some background: the spelling alphabet most commonly used in the world, and the one we’re most familiar with from movies, is formally called the “NATO phonetic alphabet.” It was originally developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization in the 1950s to unify the different alphabets and radio standards in use at the time; after exhaustive tests, it was adopted by Western military and civilian organizations. Today, it’s used worldwide in situations where voice messages need to be transmitted and understood in adverse conditions, in the presence of static or low bandwidth audio artifacts.
The key to the alphabet’s effectiveness is the fact that each word assigned to the 26 letters of the alphabet has a distinctive vowel structure. As anyone who’s tried to spell something over the phone knows, consonants can get altered and distorted over voice communications – letters with a similar manner of articulation can be virtually indistinguishable, for example, nasal consonants like “m” and “n”; fricative consonants like “f” and “s”; stop consonants like “t” or “d”. Vowels, on the other hand, carry through relatively clearly, and given that almost every word in the phonetic alphabet has a different vowel scheme, it makes transmission of letters and numbers significantly more accurate.
The standard NATO alphabet letter codes are as follows:
A – ALFA; B – BRAVO; C – CHARLIE; D – DELTA; E – ECHO; F – FOXTROT; G – GOLF; H – HOTEL; I – INDIA; J – JULIETT; K – KILO; L – LIMA; M – MIKE; N – NOVEMBER; O – OSCAR; P – PAPA; Q – QUEBEC; R – ROMEO; S – SIERRA; T – TANGO; U – UNIFORM; V – VICTOR; W – WHISKEY; X – XRAY; Y – YANKEE; Z – ZULU
Some numbers have their own special designations, also adapted for maximum clarity: “three” is pronounced like “tree,” and “nine” is said “niner.”
In civilian life, the NATO alphabet is standard for first responders, such as fire crews and EMS personnel. If you find yourself calling in an ambulance or a fire brigade, using the phonetic alphabet is the most professional way to convey information.
Here is an example of how the alphabet may be used: let’s say you witness a hit-and-run and are giving a description of the suspect’s vehicle and license plate. You will say something like this: “Suspect driving late model Chevrolet, red, license plate Kilo-Charlie-Hotel-Five-Five-Niner.”
It’s important to note that for police, there is no single national phonetic alphabet standard, and each state or city force is theoretically able to use their own designations. A number of jurisdictions do, in fact, use their own proprietary alphabets – the best known is the LAPD phonetic alphabet, where the letter names are:
A – Adam; B – Boy; C – Charles; D – David; E – Edward; F – Frank; G – George; H – Henry; I – Ida; J – John; K – King; L – Lincoln; M – Mary; N – Nora; O – Ocean; P – Paul; Q – Queen; R – Robert; S – Sam; T – Tom; U – Union; V – Victor; W – William; X – X-ray; Y – Young; Z – Zebra
A number of municipalities, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco and others, use their own variations of the LAPD phonetic alphabet, with substitutions such as “Baker” instead of “Boy” or “Nancy” instead of “Nora.” Some jurisdictions also make changes due to specific local features that may cause confusion – for example, in Atlanta, which is a major Delta Airlines hub, personnel often substitute words such as “Dixie” for the letter “D”.
You don’t need to worry about this if you’re a security guard in Connecticut – according to the Hamden, CT police department, police forces in this state all use the standard NATO alphabet for communication.
Memorizing the NATO phonetic alphabet is essential to being able to communicate with authorities effectively in an emergency. We recommend using flash cards to remember the letter names, and sharpening your skills on the street with random cars – when someone drives by, try to quickly read and pronounce their license plate number in NATO alphabet. When you reach a point where you can rattle off a number without trying, you will be that much more effective at your job.
There is, of course, much more to radio communications that security personnel need to know in order to be professional and well-prepared for their work. Proper radio technique for a security officer includes expert use of the equipment, ability to navigate emergency radio frequencies, excellent knowledge of terminology and protocol. These, however, are all topics for another article.