The Amateur Amateur: Repeater Roulette
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
We do have an occasional disaster here in the St. Louis area. There
are floods, tornadoes, and sometimes even just looking at the power lines
will cause them to fail. But we hardly ever have anything that requires an
Amateur Radio response. And while our ARES® group (Amateur Radio
Emergency Service) has agreements with many local agencies, some of the
emergency managers don't take Amateur Radio (or even their own jobs) very
seriously. This means that disaster drills are infrequent and few of those
involve Amateur Radio in any significant way.
So, how does our ARES group keep
its volunteers interested and active? Well, we have to create our own
exercises. After all, we know there is a major disaster looming. We even
know what is will be. I won't go into the details, but if you're curious just
look up the New Madrid Seismic Zone.
Oh yeah, gonna be a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.
St. Louis Metro ARES tries to hold
at least four exercises every year. Each one is different, and we try to vary
them from year to year. We also invite the entire Amateur Radio community to
participate, hoping to stimulate more interest in emergency communications.
Naturally we like to make the exercises as realistic as possible, but doing so
led to an unexpected discovery.
A surprising number of Amateur Radio operators are not familiar with their
Okay, let me make it clear that I'm not dissing or belittling anyone.
(Believe me, when I say that I'm the amateur amateur I really mean it.)
People get into Amateur Radio for lots of different reasons. Once their radio
is set up to perform their favorite function, some operators simply leave it
that way and don't tinker with it any further. I have no problem with that.
But here's the rub. Lots of Amateur Radio operators volunteer their services
to help out in disasters. That is truly commendable, and I'm glad that they
do. Emergency situations, however, require a certain amount of flexibility. I
won't go into personal preparations or knowing the organizational structure or
anything like that (at least not in this column), but during an emergency an
operator will need to understand the basics of his or her equipment. For
example, how do you enter a new frequency, a repeater offset, and a tone of
some sort without resorting to reading the manual?
With this in mind, our ARES group designs a series of both complex and
relatively elementary exercises each year. Some press the operators to do a
lot of multitasking, while others just encourage them to become more familiar
with their own radios.
One simple exercise we did for a while was starting a net on a repeater and
then pretending that the repeater had failed. Sometimes we'd announce it in
advance, along with the frequency of the backup repeater, and sometimes we'd
leave out that crucial information. What to do and where to go were published
in our operations plan, and hopefully everyone would remember that.
While discussing what we should do for 2016, we dusted off the old "repeater
switching exercise", and Bob Gale, WA4GDX, who is our Assistant Emergency
Coordinator for exercise planning, added a new twist. Instead of switching
from repeater A to repeater B, we would go from A to B to C and so forth.
There were several appealing aspects to Bob's proposal. It was new
and novel, something we hadn't tried before. A sort of "repeater roulette". It
would certainly give the participants experience in reprogramming their radios.
And if enough trustees agreed to allow us to use their repeaters during the
exercise, it would give us some idea of which areas of St. Louis City and
County had good coverage and which had gaps. (The terrain around here is
For the exercise to work, however,
we would need to access several repeaters. The big question was, how many could
Twelve, as it turned out. We
received fantastic support and cooperation from local clubs and individual
owners, who were just as curious as we were about the coverage of their
So the exercise was on. Bob wrote
up scripts. I put a notice about the exercise on our ARES Web site. Janelle Haible, N0MTI, our
Public Information Officer, hit the social media. Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, our
Emergency Coordinator, started recruiting net control operators.
Ah yes. Not only were there going
to be multiple repeaters, there was going to be a separate net on each one.
When the net concluded on one repeater, its net controller would advise the
participants where the next net would be held. At the beginning of the exercise
all participants were informed to return to the initial frequency if they got
lost or couldn't reach one of the other machines. A net control station would
remain there to let them know which repeater in the sequence was currently
being used and/or take reports of failed attempts to make contact.
You see, we knew that a few of the
repeaters would be hard to reach (most notably St. Louis Metro ARES's own
donated, not-quite-up-to-par VHF and UHF antiques). We scheduled those to be
last in the sequence.
Exercise day rolled around and we
were ready. At 9:00 AM precisely the primary net controller made his
announcements, took check-ins, and asked for information such as the
participant's location, antenna, power level and so forth.
We never know what kind of turn-out
we're going to get. Sometimes it's high, sometimes, it's low, and it's never
clear why it's either. (Phases of the moon? An important ball game? Coupon day
at Pizza King?) In this case we were gratified that the turn-out was fairly
At least, we were initially.
The problem with the high number of
participants was that it took about 25 minutes to get everyone checked-in and
take down their information. Every net controller on every repeater was going
to ask the same thing.
And we had only scheduled two hours
for the entire exercise.
But even worse, it was obvious that
the participants were going to quickly become bored with answering the same
series of questions.
Several of us figured this out
about halfway through the second net. The exercise was going to take forever,
and many people were probably going to drop out early. The managers got
together on the main frequency and held a quick conference. Modify the
exercise? Yes. Absolutely. Shorten all subsequent nets so that the net
controller only asked for the readability of the repeater. Bob took the lead
and informed all of the net controllers.
It worked. Interest remained high
and the exercise actually ended on time (more or less).
So was the "repeater roulette"
exercise a success? I would say yes. The participants learned (or re-learned)
some key programming aspects of their radios. They got experience with
emergency net operations and switching between nets. The repeater trustees
received valuable information about the coverage of their machines. And we in
the ARES leadership were reminded that things will never go as planned,
and we should always be ready to innovate.
I would like to thank the St.
Louis and Suburban Radio Club, the Monsanto Amateur Radio Association, the
Boeing Employees Amateur Radio Society, the Northwest Amateur Radio &
Electronics Association, KA9HNT, and the Carondolet Amateur Radio Society for
their generous support of this exercise.