The Amateur Amateur: Eeeeeeemergency

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
May 2015

amateur radio room at EOC

The amateur radio room at the St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center

I gritted my teeth and clasped my hands to my head to shut out the ear-shattering noise. Steve reached over me and mashed the button that would shut off the siren. It took a few seconds, but the screeching finally stopped. It was still echoing in my head, though, and the reports coming over the radio sounded oddly toneless and far away.

Let's not do that again, I thought. I shook my head to clear it, but that just gave me a headache.

I looked over at Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, our ARES Emergency Coordinator. He was scribbling down the most recent weather spotter report. I hadn't heard it, but then, my ears were still ringing from the siren. I looked through the window of our radio room and into the "war room" of the St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center. People were manning phones, typing on computers, and gazing up at huge monitors.

Giving my head another shake, cautiously this time, I returned to my task of trying to get the blasted computer to work properly.

There was a dull drumming sound, and for a moment I thought my hearing had gone wonky again. But no, it was hail pounding down onto the roof of the EOC.

And onto my car, which was sitting unprotected in the parking lot.


There was nothing I could do about it, so I tried to focus on the job at hand. Why was the APRS station sending out packets, but not receiving any?

Whoa Gary, you're thinking. It sounds like you're in the middle of an emergency situation. Why are you messing around with an APRS station (Automatic Packet Reporting System)?

APRS computer

Old, slow computer trying to whistle, chew gum, and rub its tummy at the same time.

Ah. Yes. Steve and I were, indeed, at the Emergency Operations Center. And we are responsible for ARES, RACES, and SKYWARN operations in St. Louis and St. Louis County. (Steve is actually the "responsible" part, I'm the nerdy second banana.) And sure enough, there was severe weather in the area.

But that wasn't why we were there. We just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.


"Ahh!" I cried, grabbing my ears again.

Steve turned off the weather alert radio's siren. It was a huge, ancient box with a siren that was probably meant to alert stadium crowds. It was definitely overkill in the EOC's small amateur radio room.

There had been some warning, some vague possibility that we could have thunderstorms, but we weren't expecting anything like what was happening. Steve had assigned George, KD0PMW, to stand by in case a SKYWARN net controller was needed. George was operating from his home.

Steve and I were at the EOC for other reasons.

The St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center is a brand new building. The amateur radio room is an integral part of it and has some neat features, such as a large monitor and a weather station. The amateur radio equipment, however, isn't particularly new. The room's two computers are also not new. (They were, however, free. Budgets being what they are, we'll take whatever we can get.)

We had several challenges. One was to move our functionality into the 21st Century. That meant digital operations. We had old computers with old operating systems, connected to old TNCs (Terminal Node Controllers), wired up to old radios. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, basically, everything.

Another challenge was to keep our hosts happy. The weather station in the amateur radio room wasn't just for our benefit, it was meant to be useful to everyone in the EOC. To accomplish that, it had to send its data to a computer, which in turn would shuttle it to Davis Instruments' WeatherLink Web site, at which point it could be viewed on monitors located all around the building.

Only, it didn't work.

weather alert radio

The weather alert radio: A siren loud enough to wake the dead

That, and the APRS system, had been my ongoing aggravations for many weeks. I had nightmares about them. I would quite literally come up with potential solutions in my sleep, write them down the next morning, and try them during my next visit to the EOC.

Or, at least, I'd try to try.

One constant with respect to the equipment in the amateur radio room was that it would do something unfathomable every time Steve or I attempted even the most simple task. Sometimes the Internet would slow down to a glacial crawl. Sometime the cursor would jump all over the computer screen, clicking things at random, even though no one was touching the mouse. And very often we'd fix something, verify that it was working perfectly, and then within 24 hours it would inexplicably flounder and go belly-up.

It was absolutely maddening.

But perseverance (okay, stubborness) pays off and we managed to whittle away at the problems a tiny bit at a time. We had actually succeeded in getting the weather station to properly communicate with the computer, the WeatherLink program to work, and the data happily chugging its way through the Internet to the Davis Web site. Today was supposed to be the coup de grace, getting APRS to whistle, chew gum, and rub its tummy (transmit, receive, digipeat, and collect weather data) all at the same time. We were close, very close, to finally solving that problem.


I smashed my fist down on the weather alert box's Alarm Off button.

The lights in the building went out.

I blinked in surprise, staring at my fist and at the box.

The siren was still shrieking. Thankfully it stopped before my brain could formulate the thought that somehow I had hit the wrong button. But no, what had happened was the power had failed.

HP Deskjet 5150 printer

The recalcitrant printer

It was a very curious situation. The lights had gone out, but all of the monitors, the radios, the computers and the accursed siren still functioned. The EOC had an emergency power generator, so I wondered why the lights had gone off and nothing else.

They came back on before I could give it much thought, so I returned to the last vexing problem with the APRS system. It was doing everything it was supposed to do except send packets from the TNC to the computer.

It took me a few more hours to figure it out. (Let me be honest with you, I don't "figure things out" so much as I come up with crazy ideas, implement them, and see what happens. This works more often than you might imagine.) In this case I just turned down the volume on the radio.

Packets started pouring into the computer.

Ah, I love simple solutions.

The rain stopped and the severe weather moved out of the area.

Great! I could stop worrying about when the siren would make another attack on my nervous system. It looked like it was going to be a good day after all.

I heard Steve muttering unhappily.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"I can't get the printer to work!" he replied, exasperated.

"Let me take a look," I sighed, rolling my chair over to his computer station.

Some crises just never seem to end.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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