What is a signal operator or a signaller in NS, and what does the vocation of a signaller entail?
Are you a private fresh out of BMT wondering what this vocational posting entails? Or are you just curious what army people mean when they use this term?
Regardless, I hope my experience as a former signaller in NS will shed some light on the matter.
What is a signaller?
A signaller or signal operator is involved in maintaining “comms” (communications) between groups in the field.
In the army, field communication systems can take the form of radio communications or field internet servers.
For non-combat fit signallers, their training may revolve more around manning command posts and internet servers. However, as I did not experience this personally, I am unable to comment further.
You can find out more about checking your PES status here.
The life of a signaller
Your vocational training will probably take place at Signal Institute (SI) in Stagmont Camp. Life in Signal Institute is generally quite good for an army training school.
There is quite a bit of bunk time, and lectures and practical sessions are air-conditioned for the most part.
For most platoons, having nights out (spending an evening out of camp) is quite common. However, this is at the discretion of your training Specialists.
At the end of your vocational training stint, you will be posted to a unit to serve your remaining time in NS.
Unit life can be very different for each signaller depending on where you are posted to.
I was posted to a Field Artillery Target Acquisition (FATA) Battalion in charge of using radars to track artillery fire. However, signallers are widely deployable as it is a highly versatile skillset, so you could be posted almost anywhere.
Being part of a radar battalion in the Artillery Formation was quite eye-opening for me as I was on the “support” side of the Army. Unlike most other battalions in the Artillery, we did not fire any (artillery) rounds nor did we operate any (artillery) guns [really different kind of guns from the SAR-21, SAW or GPMG].
We supported other (gun-firing) artillery units during live-firing exercises (the artillery kind) by tracking the path and location of where their rounds fell. (Of course, in wartime our tracking abilities would be used for tracking enemy fire instead).
I would say that the unit plays a larger role in shaping your NS experience than does your vocation, as you would have to work and interact with people of different vocations for common activities.
Our regular day-to-day life was quite laid-back and monotonous as compared to being a trainee. However, we needed to do regular guard and office duties – around 3 duties a month.
For signaller-specific duties, we were required to conduct weekly and monthly maintenance and store checks on various items like radio sets and antennae housed in our stores, as well as those mounted on our battery (the artillery equivalent for a ‘company’) vehicles.
We had twice-weekly 5km morning runs and once-weekly Tabata sessions for Physical Training (PT) which were often quite manageable; and there were no annoying cadence runs for the most part unlike in BMT or SI.
Although things were quite lax compared to what my infantry peers would probably experience, we still had regimental disciplinary standards to adhere to such as:
- Not being able to go back to our bunk in the day.
- Minding certain expectations of appearance and marching (but no cheering required, thankfully).
- Sudden stand-by beds.
Daily routines aside, my favourite experiences after being posted to my unit were being able to support an overseas exercise in Thailand and strangely, being part of my battalion’s local outfield exercises.
My overseas deployment experience
During the overseas “trip” in Thailand, I was a support staff for an OCS training exercise. I helped to set up radio comms each time we reached a new deployment site with the Officer Cadets (OCTs) who were the main participants of the exercise.
I was allowed to hold on to my handphone, and once I had helped out with the deployment, I could enjoy time to myself or chat with the fellow signaller with me (two of us were attached together).
The space and freedom was refreshing, being such a rarity in usual military life.
However I did have to put up with not bathing for 7 days when we went outfield (although I did manage to ‘soap-sponge’ myself once or twice after Routine Orders). Routine Orders, which officially marked the end of the day, could take place quite late at night so I probably didn’t catch my “7 hours of uninterrupted rest” most of the time.
Back in camp (Sai Yok camp in Thailand), I enjoyed a great cookhouse and canteen.
Before we headed to the airport for our flight back home, we also had a short rest-and-recreation trip to Kanchanaburi whereby we visited the Death Railway and some other places to shop and try local food.
My local outfield experience
On the contrary, my experience being part of my battalion’s outfield training was very much different; I was expected to perform this time and the stress was real.
I was running around continuously most of the day carrying a ‘man-pack’ radio set and having to decrypt authentication codes (you’ll learn about this in Signal Institute) over the radio on the go.
It was a hell of a time frankly speaking, and I would never want to go through it again but I appreciate being able to know myself and how to work with others under pressure better through the experience.
Of course, if you aren’t a combat fit signaller, you may not be able to relate much to the outfield experiences, guard duty or PT.
However, your unit life will probably still have many similarities from having to live and work together with others in a close-knit environment.
You can find out more about guard duties during NS here.
Some tips for a signaller
Here are 3 tips that may help you enjoy your time in NS as a signaller better.
- Don’t fret too much about learning in SI (Signal Institute).
- Volunteering for ad-hoc activities in your unit.
- Learning to voice out your needs in your unit.
#1 Don’t fret too much about learning in SI (Signal Institute)
You do not need to be so kan chiong to cram your head with every technical (radio) detail and term during your vocational training.
The instructors are very eager to pass you, and you will likely be allowed to retake your tests again and again
with assistance (*wink) until you pass them.
Besides, your unit will probably have a SOP for you to follow anyway.
Enjoy your training phase as much as you can, ‘cause you’ll only be able to do it once! Welfare in Stagmont is usually quite good and you don’t have to worry much about regimental duties and outfield training.
#2 Volunteering for ad-hoc activities in your unit
This isn’t specific to being a signaller, but be willing to participate or help out with ad-hoc events in your unit.
Be it an inter-unit sporting competition, supporting an overseas exercise or smaller things like helping out your officer as a safety marshaller for a morning run, participating in any of these things that are out of the ordinary can help to make your NS experience more enjoyable and “pass faster”.
#3 Learning to voice out your needs in your unit
Depending on where you go, some units will group those of an identical vocation together, whereas other units may not make that distinction.
A few of my SI platoon mates were posted to a unit whereby signallers formed one platoon on their own with a Signal-trained Specialist (“Spec”) in charge of them.
However, for my battalion, there was no such grouping of platoons by vocation, and each battery was just a mix of different vocations working together.
If signallers are a minority in such an environment without a Signal Specialist (responsible for the completion of signaller-related tasks), you may find coordinating with the rest of the company/battery for completion of your signal-related tasks a bit of a hassle sometimes.
My battery’s signallers were peer-supervised with an IC and 2IC (yours truly) and we had to learn to voice out to our Specs when we needed something in order to complete our outstanding tasks.
There were quite a few times when the rest of the battery had no need to go down to the battery garages for their duties, but we still had to conduct our weekly maintenance and store checks.
Our Specs needed to be with us in the garage by official requirements so we (the IC and 2IC) had to learn to be thick-skinned and ask them to accompany us to open the garages whenever we needed to do down to one of the garage for our tasks.
There is no clear-cut picture of what being a signaller will look like for everyone but I hope my experience gives a flavour of the general experiences a signaller may have in his NS journey.
I wish the best to those who are going to start your vocational training as a signaller; take everything in stride, whether good or bad, and you will enjoy your NS journey much better!
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