The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alphabet and military time (also known as the 24-hour clock) were created to avoid confusion and ambiguity for people like police, firefighters, airport workers, and hospital employees. But there are some pretty compelling reasons why all of us—yes, even civilians—should use the NATO alphabet and the 24-hour clock: It’s professional, uniform, internationally standardized, and could save lives.
There’s nothing like being on a phone interview for a job you’ve been waiting for when they ask you to spell your last name: Holladay. You’ve had this name your entire life and find it easy to understand and spell, but they’ve most likely written down Holiday (or, if they’re baseball fans, perhaps Holliday),
The easiest thing would be to spell it Hotel-Oscar-Lima-Lima, and so on. Or you could try to explain it’s not the usual way you spell it, it’s different. But then you still have to give examples: H as in honor, O as in Orange, L as in Llama. It could take 10 minutes to get through the whole thing.
Plus, there are all sorts of room for confusion: Honor sounds like it starts with an aw or ah sound. Depending on your accent, you might pronounce orange as arnge. And having someone picture a llama during a phone interview could make him, or her see you as childish or unprepared.
A lot of effort went into creating the NATO alphabet; it’s not a random set of words. The list of words was tested on over 30 countries to pick the ones that had the highest chance of being understood. The first letter are the same everywhere, but sometimes the rest of the word is spelled differently (in many places, Alpha is spelled Alfa because too many languages don’t recognize ph as an f sound.
The NATO alphabet is used internationally, but there are other versions. The LAPD and NYPD both use slightly modified versions.
Imagine never having to worry about confusing an 8:00 am and 8:00 pm flight, or setting the alarm for your afternoon nap, only to wake up two hours later to find that you’d set your alarm for 6:00 a.m.
Like anything, learning how to use military time takes practice, but it’s fairly simple. It’s based on the fact that there are 24 hours in a day, so each hour is listed, from 00 (midnight) to 23 (11p.m.). The minutes remain the same for military time. For example, 1:30 a.m. would be 0130 (pronounced zero-one-thirty) using the 24-hour clock.
For pm times, the easiest way to make the conversion is to add 12 to whatever time it currently is. For example, if you were trying to figure out what time 5 pm is on a 24-hour clock, you’d add 12 to 5, which would be 1700 (seventeen hundred). Sometimes the word “hours” is added to the end of the number to clarify that 1700 is a time and not 1,700.
The only tricky part about using a 24-hour clock is how to determine midnight. Technically, midnight is 0000, which signifies a new day, but some people use 2400.
The most common reason for using 2400 instead of 0000 is in conversation. If you’re giving a command to meet at midnight, it’s much easier to say, “twenty-four hundred hours,” instead of “zero-zero-zero-zero hours.”
It Saves Lives
Both systems can potentially save lives. Doctors and nurses live and die by their charts. If someone writes in a patient’s chart that he’s supposed to receive medication at 4, is that 4 pm or 4 am? If you see 1600, you know exactly what the story is.
There may be a slight adjustment period while you learn how to convert the 12-hour clock to the 24-hour clock and use the NATO alphabet, but the standardization, professionalism and lack of confusion will be worth it. Watches and most technology, such as computers, phones, and tablets are easy to change between the two clocks.
Updated by Armin Brott, June 2016