Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ham Radio and Emergency Communications

I've recently seen a couple of references to a New Yorker article on the coming "big one" in the Pacific Northwest.  One of the references was in the most recent ARRL Contest Update.  Talking about an upcoming year-long earthquake preparedness exercise called "Cascadia Rising 2016", hams living in the Pacific Northwest who are interested in participating were directed to contact their local ARES EC.  Yet, in an editorial in the most recent ARES E-Letter, the author states that "we as radio amateurs are potentially critical links in the community and neighborhood disaster survival chain" and "the best approach to personal disaster management I've seen is the CERT program, and under its umbrella, the development of your own neighborhood emergency response team".

So, what's a ham to do?  As you might expect, I have my own thoughts.  First, some background.  I spent about 10 years in our local ARES organization, with a number of those serving as the Assistant EC.  During that period of time, I also completed a CERT training and certification program.  Both have their strong points but, for my money, the most useful one is being part of a CERT organization - and here's why.

Jerry Boyd N7WR, in his final "Emcomm and You" column for World Radio Magazine, said it best.  The article is no longer available in the CQ/World Radio archives - unless perhaps you are a subscriber - but was reprinted in a 2008 newsletter of the Minnesota Navy-Marine Corps MARS.  I highly recommend that you read the entire article, but I'll reference pieces of it here.  He said "it seems to me that much of the Emcomm community (thank goodness not all of it) has lost sight of its primary mission of serving the public."  He further states "Remember that Part 97 does not mandate service to public safety. It does include service to the public."

I can't find a reference to another article I recall.  It may have been one of Jerry's World Radio columns or it may have been written by another ham deeply involved with public safety communications.  Paraphrasing, the article stated that, considering the amount of Homeland Security money and equipment that has flowed into every county in the country, any Emergency Manager who was still relying on amateur radio for emergency communication should be fired for incompetence.

In my not-so-humble opinion, a ham should be prepared to assist his or her neighbors and local community with emergency communication needs.  CERT training teaches you that you need to be prepared to survive on your own for several days or longer before any outside assistance is available.  Communication with the outside will be critical.  As N7WR says in his article, "In my county (small in population and very small in terms of active amateurs) if there is an incident major enough to disrupt 'all means of communications between here and Salem', every amateur here will be needed for duty far more important than passing message traffic to the state EOC. They will be needed to assist the public, which will likely have no communications at all."

I don't write to upset anyone who is committed to ARES or other organizations, but I would urge those of you so inclined to join a local CERT team or at least be prepared to provide communications for your neighbors.  And, in keeping with the the QRP theme of this blog, don't forget that our QRP radios will work for long hours on relatively small amounts of battery power.  With a solar panel to recharge batteries, we can easily become self-sufficient communicators - a most important quality in a major emergency.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Field Day Reflections

Field Day is over for another year and, by at least one measure, this was my most successful effort since I started operating solo.  The final tally was 120 QSOs - 114 CW and 6 SSB - on all eligible bands from 80-10 meters.  This was about half again as many as I log in a typical year.  Using only search and pounce, I managed to work 44 different sections in all parts of the country.  I seemed to have a pipeline into Ohio and I had more contacts from there than anywhere else.

A big part of this year's success was my antenna.  At least, I think it was.  I suppose you never really know from just one outing but all signs point to it.  As is my custom, I used yet another antenna this year.  From past experience and reading others' Field Day reports, there seems to be two different schools of thought about antennas.  One group tends to use the same antenna configurations year after year.  I suppose these are the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" hams.  The other group, to which I belong, is always on the lookout for something new.  It seems like every year I'm trying something new and different.  It doesn't always involve a new antenna - sometimes it's just a different location or configuration of an existing antenna.

Most of my antennas are pretty simple homebrew affairs built from wire.  I've used 44 and 88 foot doublets, W3EDP end feds, horizontal loops, vertical loops, off center fed dipoles, inverted-Ls, end fed half waves, and vertical wire ground planes.  I've also purchased a couple of commercial antennas.  One is a Buddipole Deluxe that I really like when configured as a vertical but that I've had limited success with when horizontal.  The other is a Pacific Antenna PAC-12 that I built from a kit.  As a self-supporting ground mounted vertical, it comes in handy when there aren't any suitable trees for supporting a wire antenna.  It's very light and compact enough to carry along on a field outing, sets up easily, and normally works really well.

My antenna this year was a full-size coax-fed fan dipole cut for 80 and 40 meters.  The center was mounted on a painter pole bungee-corded to an elevated deck and was up about 25-30 feet.  The ends were supported by fiberglass crappie poles.  The 80 meter ends were supported by 20 foot poles and the 40 meter ends by 12 foot poles.  This inverted-V configuration provided a nice separation between the wires.  Although it is most efficient on 80, 40 and 15 meters, the internal tuner in my KX3 was able to find a match on all bands 80 through 10.  I probably had considerable feed line loss on 20 and 10 but you wouldn't know it from the results.  Here's how things turned out:

  • 80 meters was disappointing this year, something that I've seen comments about in other posts.  In past years there has been lots of Sunday morning activity but I only managed 5 QSOs.  With a full size antenna for this band, I was hoping for better conditions and results.
  • 40 meters was a good band on Saturday afternoon and evening but not so much on Sunday morning.  I put 28 QSOs in the log on this band.
  • 20 meters turned out to be the money band for me with 45 QSOs.  I had originally planned on setting up a vertical for this band but, surprisingly, the fan dipole turned out to be a winner - feed line losses and all.
  • 15 meters was spotty on Saturday afternoon with only a handful of QSOs.  Sunday was better and I put a total of 29 QSOs in the log.
  • 10 meters didn't open up on Saturday but there was some activity late on Sunday morning.  I put 8 CW QSOs in the log and then decided to switch to phone.  QRP power combined with some deep fading was a challenge but I managed to put 5 more QSOs in the log before the end rolled around.

Unlike in many parts of the country, weather conditions here in southern Wisconsin were just about perfect with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 70's on Saturday.  Mosquitoes drove me inside at dusk but it was otherwise a beautiful day.  Clear skies again greeted me when I returned to operating on Sunday morning.  Clouds moved in mid-morning but the rain held off until about 2:30 local time - long after I had everything packed up and indoors.  That's one of the benefits of operating QRP - the setup and tear down time is minimal.

The KX3 worked flawlessly, and logging on a Palm Pilot using GoLog and a serial CW sender was a pleasure.  The only thing that didn't work as planned was working PSK31.  KX3 Companion software on an Android tablet connecting to the KX3 via a Piglet worked very well but I was unable to get the KX3 configured properly to decode.  It would have helped if I'd worked out the kinks in advance.  After a bit of fiddling I gave up for this year but this will definitely be on my list for next year's event.

Whatever the conditions where you operated, I hope you had an enjoyable Field Day and are looking forward to next year.  And for those who made it into my log, thanks very much.  It was a pleasure working each of you.

72, Jim - K0RGI